Article / Copyright / John Cage

A Better Silence – John Cage and copyright

Everybody knows that John Cage, the avant-garde composer, invented silence in 1952, with his famous piece 4’33”, which was premiered on 29 August of that year.

4’33” consists of a musician (or musicians), not playing their instruments for four minutes and 33 seconds, and was intended as an ambient experience rather than four minutes and 33 seconds of silence – the music is the shuffling and coughing of the musician(s) and the audience and the background hum of the performance venue – the instructions are about the conducting of silence and the demeanor of the musician(s). “This is a deeply personal music,” says Peter Gutmann, “which each witness creates to his/her own reactions to life. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4’33” the same way. It’s the ultimate sing-along: the audience (and the world) becomes the performer.”

But there is a copyright on the score – or rather, the several versions of the score that Cage produced over the years – because, of course, silence is never absolute nor complete, and every period of silence has different qualities of background noise. Like music, a song or instrumental piece, each silence is played differently at each performance and these variations are hard to quantify. Like software, the sound of silence is better when subjected to version control, and John Cage, or rather his music publishers, Peters Edition, now own the copyright to silence – or, at least, four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.



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