The silent piece, from stopwatch to inner clock


When I started the series of posts on John Cage’s silent piece(s), I thought that there were four of them: “Silent prayer” (1948, never realized), 4′ 33″(1952), 0 00 (1961), and One3 (1989). It was only while writing the series that a fifth Cage silent piece came to my attention: the version of 4′ 33″ created for the Scottish musical group The Whistlebinkies in 1990. They worked with Cage to create Scottish Circus, and the new (untitled) silent piece was an offshoot of that collaboration. I found out about it through no effort of my own. My Glaswegian friend Wendy Kirkup went to an event where Whistlebinkie Edward McGuire talked about his work with Cage. Wendy included a link to an essay McGuire wrote that included the story of the new silent piece. Happy to find out about this before I finished the series, I shoehorned it into the essay about One3. It was a bit of an afterthought, and I still stated that there were only four silent pieces.

More recently, I was contacted by Stuart Eydmann of The Whistlebinkies. Mode Records will be releasing a DVD of Scottish Circus, and with it two performances of what I have been calling the “Whistlebinkies 4′ 33″.” Stuart had read my series on the silent pieces and wondered if they could use part of that for the Mode DVD booklet, or perhaps I would write something more about this last silent piece. I agreed to take what I had written before and fill it out a little bit.

Again, through absolutely no effort on my part, the actual manuscript of this piece wound up in my email inbox. Stuart, who had completely forgotten that it existed, stumbled across it and sent me photographs of it. It made the piece much more real to me and I got very interested in it again. I started having new ideas about it, and, with score in hand, more confidently thought of it as the fifth silent piece.

I wrote a completely new essay for the Mode booklet. When I started drafting it, I blew way past my word limit after telling just the very first part of the story. I scaled back my ambitions and wrote something more modestly sized, with less detail and fewer diversions and back stories. Not having any word limits here in cyberspace, what follows is an expanded version of that note. Think of it as an appendix to the series John Cage’s silent piece(s).

John Cage: 4′ 33″ for The Whistlebinkies (1990)

1952: The stopwatch

Because so much attention has been paid to John Cage’s 4′ 33″ for its daring use of silence—it contains no intentional sounds at all—we tend to overlook its equally daring conception of musical time. Prior to 1952, Cage’s use of time was tied to the traditional Western musical structures of measures, meter, and beats. 4′ 33″ was a piece whose very title asserted the primacy of clock time as measured by the stopwatch. Pianist David Tudor premiered it at his famous concert in Woodstock, New York in August of 1952. It was one of two brand-new Cage compositions on that program (the other was Water music), both of which were notated in clock time. This was a watershed in Cage’s treatment of time. He never again thought in terms of musical meter, except in very isolated cases.

This change reflected Cage’s new view of composition in the early 1950s. He saw his mission as opening up his work to the entire field of sound, in all of its dimensions: “a total sound-space, the limits of which are ear-determined only.” He would not be content until his music moved freely throughout every point of that vast acoustic space. But he recognized that “advantage can be taken of these possibilities only if one is willing to change one’s musical habits radically.”

In his massive opus for piano Music of changes, Cage tried to use a wider range of time even while still adhering to typical metrical rhythmic notation. He smashed up the beat-based rhythms of traditional notations into individual fractions of beats and strung them together in random sequences that he layered on top of each other. Beyond this, the tempo of the music was constantly changing, creating a constant shifting, faster and slower, of the metrical grid onto which his complex chains of rhythms were draped.

The result was something close to traditional musical rhythmic notation, but which was frighteningly complex to read and perform. David Tudor, being the brilliant interpreter that he was, solved this problem by converting the notation to clock time. His copy of the score included a notation of the elapsed duration in minutes and seconds at every measure of the piece, and he used a stopwatch to measure his performance. He premiered Music of changes on New Year’s Day, 1952. Cage wrote Water music notated directly in clock time that spring. 4′ 33″ was written at about the same time.

Cage fully adopted this model of working with time; almost all of his music from 1952 forwards references some kind of clock time, and the stopwatch was the tool to navigate it. Often he would use the term “chronometer” instead of “stopwatch.” This is part of a scientific aesthetic that you pick up in Cage’s writings from the 1950s, and which connects him with composers such as Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Iannis Xenakis. Technology was a factor here: measuring time in seconds and representing that graphically as linear distances on the page were techniques suggested by the emerging field of electronic music. Cage and his contemporaries were all working with music on magnetic tape and then trying to find that same wide-open sense of rhythm that tape provided. Cage imagined an unbounded universe of rhythms arising from “durations of any length coexisting in any states of succession and synchronicity.”

In his music of the 1950s, Cage took this measurement of time to extremes. The pieces collectively known as The ten thousand things are perhaps the best-known examples of this, with titles that give their durations down to four decimal places: 26 1.1499 for a string player, 31 57.9864 for a pianist, etc. But where Babbitt and others would have been doing this for the purposes of greater control over finer and finer distinctions, Cage was following a path of liberation, aiming for complete freedom to explore the entire domain of time. For Cage, intuition was not a reliable way to pursue freedom because it was conditioned by centuries of Western musical practice. Traditional Western metrical notation couldn’t express time as a fluid continuum because of its inherent structures of beats, meters, and bar lines. Similarly, the internalization of those structures over centuries of practice prevented performers from acting on their own freely throughout all of musical time: they needed some kind of tool to move past habit and into the direct experience of time. The stopwatch was that tool, that technology of freedom.

1988: “Remember that there is an inner clock”

In 1988, Cage was seventy-six years old, it was thirty-six years since he had written 4′ 33″, and performers were still using stopwatches to perform his music. At this time, some of his music was using a technique where he floated musical fragments within variable blocks of time. There would be a range of time within which the music could start, and another range of time within which it had to end. Because the starting and ending points of each block of music are given as ranges of time, their durations vary from performance to performance, depending on when the performer decides to enter and exit. The sounds are fixed, but their timing shifts within the boundaries that Cage describes. These “time brackets” are all notated as clock time durations, and so the performers use stopwatches to keep track of them. 

One of these time bracket pieces, the open-ended chamber work Music For  , was included on the program of the Third International Music Festival, held in Leningrad in 1988. It was here that Cage met the composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Gubaidulina—perhaps after hearing Music for    —told Cage that she liked his music, but she didn’t like the watches. “You should remember that there is an inner clock,” she advised him.

“There is an inner clock”—this remark stuck with him and suggested an alternative to his model of liberating time through the use of its very precise measurement. Cage had always resisted reliance on musical intuition, which he viewed as corrupted by the habits of conventional musical practice. But somehow Gubaidulina’s inner clock got past this prejudice and offered the possibility for a more natural, innate human experience of time. Perhaps it was a personal connection with Gubaidulina, or perhaps it was a case of the right advice given at just the right time. For whatever reason, it left Cage open to the idea of trusting an inner sense of time, at least in some circumstances. This inner clock subsequently appeared in two compositions, both of them made of silence. The pairing of silence and the inner clock makes perfect sense when you realize that the silence of 4′ 33″ (and the other silent pieces) is an inner silence, not merely an acoustic one: inner silence, inner clock.

The first of these inner clock pieces was One3—or, to give its full title, One3 = 4′ 33″ (0 00) + 𝄞— a piece I have written more extensively in my series John Cage’s silent piece(s). Cage composed One3 in 1989 for himself to perform at an awards ceremony in Tokyo. The organizers wanted him to perform 4′ 33″, the original silent piece, but Cage wanted to do something different. The piece consists of highly amplified silence. As he instructed the organizers: “You should arrange the sound system so that the whole hall is just on the edge of feedback … not actually feeding back, but feeling like it might.” In the performance, Cage came up from the audience on stage and the amplification was brought up as directed. He went back to the audience, sat down for a time, then returned to the stage, signaling that the amplification was to be turned down.

For our current discussion, the key point about One3 is the time that Cage sat and let the silence continue. He described it later as sitting “for an indeterminate length of time … not measuring it.” The Tokyo performance lasted over twelve minutes. If he did not measure the time, how did he decide when to conclude? Notes made at the time make it clear that he used the inner clock. When telling the organizers the title of the piece, he included the annotation: “𝄞 = Sofia Gubaidulina (There Is An Inner Clock).” This identifies One3 as Cage’s first experiment with the inner clock. The G clef of the title, he later said, stood for “Gubaidulina” (it was also the symbol used in the marketing for the Third International Music Festival where they met). But we also might wonder if it represented a connection to a more intuitive musical sense of time rather than the more physical, scientific sense of rigorously measured time he had embraced in the 1950s.

It makes sense that he would have first used this in a solo piece that he wrote for himself to perform. Over the years, Cage had many painful experiences with bad performances; plenty of encounters with self-indulgent musicians who did not understand and respect his work. And beyond this, he may have been intrigued by the experience that Gubaidulina was pointing to: what did that inner clock feel like? How did it work in an actual performance? To bring it into his compositional world, he would need to experience it first-hand. One3 was an experiment for Cage—an experiment he was conducting on himself, in a way.

It must have been a success, because Cage used the inner clock again the following year. Once again it was part of a silent piece, but this time it was for other performers. In 1990, Cage’s Scottish circus, a collaboration with the Scottish folk group The Whistlebinkies, premiered at the Musica Nova festival in Glasgow. A spur-of-the-moment addition to the program was a new version of 4′ 33″. It exists in manuscript only, with no title. Here is the full text of the score:

Each musician makes three silences by entering the performing area carrying his instrument, going to any point in it, placing his instrument in playing position, and after a short time (33 seconds to 2 minutes & forty seconds) removing it from that position. After the third silence, he leaves the performing area. The last to leave completes the performance. Don’t use watches. Use, so to speak, your inner clock. Don’t signal or react to one another. Simply make three silences. Enter not as a group but each one at his own time.

Cage said that 4′ 33″ could be for any ensemble, and there have been various group performances over the years, but this is the only direct instructions we have from Cage about how to present an ensemble performance. It follows the time bracket model: it is a collection of solos, performed independently, but following a common composed framework. “I wanted to show that a group is not one thing,” Cage explained later. “I asked them to do it as seven individuals.” 

The entrance and exit timings are given as ranges, if only very generally (“33 seconds to 2 minutes & forty seconds”). This is exactly the model used in Music for     and in the “number pieces” that followed in the 1990s. One can imagine this being fully composed out using explicit time brackets. But instead, Cage asked them to rely on their inner clocks. The use of the phrase “your inner clock” leaves no doubt that he was thinking of Gubaidulina’s suggestion to drop the stopwatches here.

After this, there are no more uses of the inner clock. So, what can we take away from this little turn towards intuition at the end of Cage’s composing? Gubaidulina pointed the way for him, he performed a couple of silent experiments, and then . . . a dead end? Or perhaps there just wasn’t enough time for him to live with this, find the right uses for it, and pursue it further. Personally, I love the fantasy that he would have married the inner clock with the single-minded, single-toned otherworldliness of the later number pieces. It would create something just this side of meditation, of ritual.

What is constant throughout this entire story of Cage’s musical time is inner freedom. The stopwatches of the 1950s were just one way to get there. It was a practice that changed his mind and opened his music up to the whole expanse of time. By 1990, he was fully capable of just sitting there and freely inhabiting that whole expanse right from his own seat in the audience. One3 is the work of an older composer; no forty-year-old could have done it. I think that Cage knew that the inner clock was another way to freedom; he recognized the truth of it as soon as Gubaidulina pointed it out to him. But I don’t think he was ready to trust performers with it, and so all we have are these bits of silence that suggest another path to freedom.

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