John Cage’s 4’33”, the iPhone App

PIC: John Cage Trust (C)

PIC: John Cage Trust (C)

Grayson Currin writes at Pitchfork:

For the past several days, I’ve been listening to covers of nothing. And everything.

Thanks to 4’33”, a new iPhone-and-iPod-app inspired by John Cage’s infamously indeterminate piece of the same name, I’ve heard babies crying in Tokyo, food slurped outside of Paris and afternoon tea being prepared in North Sydney. Each of these recordings lasts for four minutes and 33 seconds, split into three unequal movements that are separated by two 10-second breaks—the form for David Tudor’s premiere of the work in 1952. They mirror Cage’s composition only structurally; sonically, they don’t necessarily share anything with the way the composer’s original audiences might have heard 4’33″. And that was the point of the piece anyway, right?

“When nothing is securely possessed, one is free to accept any of the somethings,” John Cage wrote for his 1951 “Lecture on Something”. “How many are there? They roll up at your feet. There is no end to the number of somethings and all of them (without exception) are acceptable.” This new app, the second Cage-based smart phone program released by the John Cage Trust, is an attempt to crowdsource as many “somethings” as possible. By simply pressing the record button, anyone willing to spend 99 cents is able to make his or her own 4’33” and upload it to There, it becomes part of a global grid of performances (viewable both on the app and website), able to be perused and played through a phone.

Despite the wide-open idea, most of the several hundred sounds currently found through 4’33” are the pedestrian documents you’d expect: people letting digital tape roll as they peck at their computer keyboards, subway cars roaring through tunnels while passengers chat idly, a creek burbling as animals move through the microphone’s field. The composer Karlheinz Essl submitted three beautiful clips from separate towns on the island of Malta, with birds scattering their melodies across recordings of cars and official announcements and a mewling cat. In Fairbanks, Alaska, a user named “Gogocamel” positions us outside of a Greek restaurant named Bobby’s, where music plays and customers pass. I like to close my eyes and imagine what both Bobby’s and “Gogocamel” looked like at 5:11 p.m. on February 25, when the recording was made, or what people thought about the person standing there with a cell phone. I like to wonder, too, what he or she might have said if someone had asked exactly what was happening: “Oh, I’m just playing this piece of music by John Cage”?

Read more here.