Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Silent texts

The History of Text Technologies includes the history of music, from the earliest recorded works, which are predominantly monodic chants written into liturgical works through neumes, to complex multi-track recordings, to digital music, much of which can be composed and published without the use of a 'real' instrument. How the language of music is produced, transmitted and received is the business of the text technologist, and interesting parallels can be made between music and all other forms of text.

In the case of avant-garde musical text, there can be nothing more illuminating than John Cage's 4'33" (, voted by Peter Gutmann as the most significant piece of classical music of the twentieth century: Cage's work, composed in about 1948, illustrates most effectively how text functions, and how significant our expectations of a text technology are. In its printed form (a page of which is shown below) the word on the page, there in place of a musical stave, is 'tacet', 'it is silent'.

4'33", or the Youtube of it posted above, was played in its entirety to 185 students in two separate sessions: the first was to about 160 students in a large, wood-panelled, 1930s lecture hall where some light came through the large windows. The second was to fifteen students in a small seminar room with the lights out. Neither performance of 4'33" was remotely alike. In the first, the anticipation of music was palpable; the room was still--at least, it was still until the end of the first movement, when the coughing at the Barbican video was emulated by coughing in the lecture hall, and where one or two, previously silent, students began to whisper, changing the experience of the performance for their surrounding colleagues. Elsewhere in the lecture hall, there was continuing silence, bar the external noise from a busy campus. In the small seminar room, the awkwardness was much more evident; one student laughed out loud when he cottoned on to what was happening (or not happening, as is the case). Others' perplexed responses were emitted through movement or quiet sighs.

By the end of the performance, a small number of students was fidgety, though most were transfixed. The sound quality, the ambience and the level of attention were all absolutely different from one performance context to the other. Some students thought the whole thing was brilliant; others thought it bizarre. Joery Francois recognised that we had just created our own performance of 4'33"--that we were the instruments in the piece as it was played at 10.25am on November 15th 2011. This wonderful observation demonstrates perhaps more vividly than usual that each text depends on its audience, not just in the interpretation of the text, but also in its very creation. And the depth of the musical silence, its multilayered rendition in those classrooms can most eloquently be labelled (as John Nance labelled it) the consequence of an 'invisible thickness', a new way of describing how many of us access digital and recorded texts, whether these are televisual, auditory, or verbally textual.


  1. Would it be worth experimenting with seeing how far the reactions of students differ when they are presented with a different interpretation of 4'33", such as Frank Zappa's:

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