The silent piece, rebooted: 0′ 00″

A sketch for 0′ 00″ width=
A sketch for 0′ 00″ (New York Public Library)

4′ 33″ may have been inspired by John Cage’s realization of a kind of selfless compositional silence, but the material nature of the composition itself led people into distraction. Cage’s very real and powerful experience in the anechoic chamber—that there is no such thing as silence—could not be simply presented on a concert program for others to experience as well. 4′ 33″ was, in many essential ways, a traditional musical composition: it had a title; it had a composer; it had fixed boundaries; it was measured out in time with a clear beginning, middle, and ending; it was presented on concert programs, with a performer on stage as the center of attention. But Cage’s experience of silence was a profound inner turning from intention to emptiness, something that could not be packaged and put on stage for an audience’s consumption.

In order to effectively present his understanding of silence to audiences, Cage had to write a piece quite different from 4′ 33″. In 1962, Cage wrote this new silent piece and called it 0′ 00″ (4′ 33″ No. 2). In Tokyo, he sat down at a table and copied out the one-sentence instruction that is the score:

In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.

The writing of this sentence itself was amplified, so that Cage’s action on this occasion was both the creation of the score and its first performance. The amplification was a dramatic way of making the nature of silence clear through technology: the “silent” act of writing out the score was in fact full of unintended sounds.

As I describe at length in my book on Cage’s music0′ 00″ is unlike anything that comes before it in his work. Unlike the original 4′ 33″, it is not an object, a thing made of silence. It is not about measurement or sonic dimensions in any sense; it is not about systems activated by chance operations; it does not use methods or notations to open the mind to the full range of sonic possibilities. The piece does not directly acknowledge any objective world of sound at all. There is only the personal action of the performer and the transformational power of the amplification.

This separation from the objective world of sound is revealed in the title of the piece: its zeroes indicate that there is no measurement of time at all. This is a radical departure for Cage. All of his music of the 1950s was based on the methods of selection and measurement—at the very least the measurement of time lengths within which a piece would take place. One way to look at 4′ 33″ is that it consists solely of measurements of time, even the more radical text score that leaves the values of those measurements unspecified by the composer. 0′ 00″ instead takes place in “zero time”, an idea that Cage took from Christian Wolff’s music. Wolff’s notations often used numbers to indicate lengths of time within which events should happen, and he would use zero to indicate that the duration of an event was open, unnamed.

By giving the piece the subtitle 4′ 33″ No. 2, Cage indicates that this is a new silent piece. I would argue that it is a celebration of silence in all the ways that were most meaningful to Cage and which had been missed in the concert performances of 4′ 33″. It is the piece that is truly rooted in the knowledge that there is no such thing as silence, only unintended sound. Whereas the experience in the anechoic chamber had been the trigger for 4′ 33″, the  fundamental character of that piece came from the nuts and bolts of Cage’s chance methods of the time, his experience assembling musical scores from fragments of sounds and silences arranged into charts. 0′ 00″, the new silent piece, has the lesson of the anechoic chamber at its core. It is a clear and direct demonstration that there is no such thing as silence. 4′ 33″, despite its apparent radical provocations, was fundamentally just another musical score. It was the result of an act of creation that broke tradition only in its mechanics of chance and its unusual choice of materials. 0′ 00″ is nothing but a turning towards the universe of unintended sounds that shadows our every action. As Cage explained it in an interview in 1965: “What the piece tries to say is that everything we do is music, or can become music through the use of microphones.”

One of the problems with 4′ 33″ was that, although at its spiritual heart was an ideal of compositional silence, its form as a defined composition performed on a concert program did nothing but draw increased attention to the composer and his intentions. 0′ 00″ avoids this problem by shifting the focus more fully to the specific act of the performer. The piece is all action and no architecture or form. And while the piece is purely subjective, Cage meant for it also to be completely selfless. To this end, the day after its first performance he added four more instructions to the score:

  • With any interruptions.
  • Fulfilling in whole or part an obligation to others.
  • No two performances to be of the same action, nor may that action be the performance of a “musical” composition.
  • No attention to be given the situation (electronic, musical, theatrical).

While Cage may have described the piece as a demonstration of the wide-open belief that “everything we do is music,” each of these instructions restricts the possibilities rather than multiplying them. Specifically, these are restrictions put on the performer so as to prevent the performance from becoming fixed or self-conscious in any way. The performer must allow their planned action to be altered by interruptions. The performer must make an action that is in some way directed towards others, not something purely of personal importance. The performer cannot find a particularly dramatic or significant action to perform and then make it their signature realization of the piece. And with the last instruction Cage makes it explicit that the performance should not be anything special: one should not even be aware that it is a performance. With these extra rules, the piece asks the performer to become invisible, to be silent in the larger sense, even as the amplification points out the unintended sounds the performer makes while acting. As Cage described this result:

0′ 00″… is nothing but the continuation of one’s daily work, whatever it is, providing it’s not selfish, but is the fulfillment of an obligation to other people, done with contact microphones, without any notion of concert or theater or the public, but simply continuing one’s daily work, now coming out through loudspeakers.

In interviews with Cage and in most critical writing, 4′ 33″ is treated interchangeably with Cage’s attitude towards silence. But the more I look at it, the more I see that 0′ 00″—not 4′ 33″—is the piece that is most fully in alignment with everything Cage associated with silence. This is the piece that clearly demonstrates that there is no such thing as silence, only unintended sound, and this is the piece that turns towards that world of sounds not intended, that notices the sounds that are already there. This is the piece that goes to great lengths to explicitly shut off the possibility of self-expressive action. This is a celebration of accepting rather than making, a discovery of the accidental music that emerges from our everyday world without any effort required.

This is a piece that was engineered with that new vision of silence in mind; also in mind were the disappointments of 4′ 33″. The restrictions that Cage put in the score for his 4′ 33″ No. 2 are the corrections that he discovered were necessary to avoid the problems of 4′ 33″ No. 1. Taken together with the purely action-oriented nature of the base instruction, the extra injunctions undermine the idea of silence as a thing to be put on stage and presented by a self-conscious performer as a piece of concert music.

Considering 0′ 00″ as a kind of “new-and-improved” version of 4′ 33″ perhaps explains why this was the work that Cage performed often, rather than his more famous earlier silent piece. It has proven less popular with other performers than 4′ 33″, however. William Fetterman notes that “Cage himself is the performer best known for various interpretations of 0’00””, while “there are only a few rare documentable performances by persons other than Cage.” For a piece that wants to be nothing special, that wants the performer to be a nobody, perhaps the lack of interest in 0′ 00″ is not surprising: it’s a much more difficult piece, requiring a real change of mind.

Next in this series: Silence changed: One3

Home page for the entire series: John Cage’s silent piece(s)

Notes & asides

I used 0′ 00″ as the doorway into Cage’s music of the 1960s in my book, The music of John Cage (Cambridge University Press, 1993). William Fetterman’s John Cage’s theater pieces: Notations and performances (Routledge, 1996) includes a chapter on 0′ 00″. The quotations from Cage about the meaning of 0′ 00″ come from a 1965 interview with Lars Gunnar Bodin and Bengt Emil Johnson, as cited in Richard Kostelanetz’s Conversing with Cage.

Interestingly, C. F. Peters now publishes 0′ 00″ with an incorrect title. They put the subtitle first: 4′ 33″ (No. 2) (0′ 00″). My guess is that this has been done for marketing purposes.

3 thoughts on “The silent piece, rebooted: 0′ 00″”

  1. Pingback: John Cage's silent piece(s): Did John Cage regret writing 4' 33"? - James Pritchett

  2. The original performances from 1962 in Japan are now available in an insanely expensive set by EM Records. There are three Volumes called “John Cage Shock” and 0’00” can be heard on Vol. 3

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