Music » Music Etc.


The estate of avant-garde composer John Cage (1912-1992) is claiming copyright on silence. Cage's famous silent composition, "4'33" has been the subject of much derision and admiration since it was first heard — or not heard — in 1952. Mike Batt, a British producer, now finds himself on the end of a lawsuit for a piece called "One Minute's Silence" that he added at the end of an album. Was Cage's silence the same as Batt's silence? Not at all.

In Cage's silence of 1952, the audience heard its own heartbeat, the soundtracks of several movies in their minds, John Wayne, the whistle of pipes in the wall, a passing airplane, and the Cold War. Not to speak of private sounds no one could recall a minute later, sounds mitigated perhaps by laughter. Cage's silence was filled with the sounds of 1952, which were the music he intended his audience to hear, a music that any musical performance would have obscured and banished.

The ironic silence on Batt's CD is, as Batt acknowledges, "an hommage." The silence of 2002 is not the silence of 1952: If you listen closely enough you can hear the Cuban missile crisis, Elvis, rock 'n' roll, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, and 1,000 professors lecturing on Cage's silence. If anything, the world is louder now, and Batt's silence was harder to come by.

Silence is never the same medium from one minute to the next. Not one person's silence is the same as another's. Look at the two silent diners staring at each other at the next table. Different musics pass through each silence. What did you say? Nothing. Well, I thought I heard something. You did: everything that I didn't say.

Silent monks try to imitate the silence of the universe before the Creation, the only true silence. After the Creation, there was no more silence. Is the uncreated universe suing the monks for copyright infringement? Not at all. The universe accepts the monks as one more hommage to its best-remembered silence. If anybody sues anybody, it should be all of us suing God for giving voice to everything. And then let's thank him for allowing each of us to freely hold it back now and then. Once the creatures started chattering, silence became a dream.

Neither Cage nor Batt have any claim to silence. They have the right to keep quiet, though, and anything you say can and will be used against you.

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