How to Record the Sound of Silence

A new app lets you recreate one of the 20th century's most famous—and silent—works of music.
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The launch screen of the new app, featuring an image of Cage (Edition Peters / The Cage Trust)

You’re probably familiar with 4'33''. Divided into three movements, it lasts four minutes and 33 seconds. It is entirely silent.

4'33'' is the most famous work of American composer John Cage, and probably up there with Duchamp’s Fountain as one of the most famous avant-garde works of the 20th century. And now, thanks to Cage’s publisher, you can perform it yourself, from the comfort of your own iPhone.

As Gene Caprioglio put it: “With Cage, I always think, wow, what would he have done with the Internet?" 

Caprioglio is vice president of new music at CF Peters, one of the publishers that controls most of Cage’s work. An employee of the firm for decades, he worked with Cage many times before the composer’s death in 1992.

“I know it would never be anything I would think of,” he said of Cage’s post-Internet work—but he can try imagining it.

His trying has produced 4'33,'' the app. Released last month by CF Peters and the Cage Trust, 4'33'' lets users not only experience the slow elapse of the work’s movements, but also record their own version of it and hear other users’ performances from around the world.

A 2004 performance of 4'33''

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

That’s the opening of “Future of Music: A Credo,” a 1937 speech by Cage. It continues, listing sounds we find at first annoying, then beautiful: “The sound of a truck at 50 m.p.h. Static between the stations. Rain.”

Cage’s work is full of ideas of this size. He half-explored, half-trolled the difference between music and noise all his life—writing for prepared pianos and radios—but he realizes it most deviously in 4'33.'' 

It’s fitting that technology should help perform 4'33.'' A kind of technology first made the piece possible. When Cage visited Harvard’s new sound-proof anechoic chamber in the late 1940s, he expected to hear silence. Instead, as he wrote later:

[I] heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.

This reply (of dubious accuracy) struck Cage: The sound-proof technology revealed that silence could never exist, that the world was full of sounds worth paying attention to. He wrote 4'33'' in part to honor those sounds. 

“That’s the best part of Cage’s piece. It can make you aware of the songs going on all the time,” Phil Stone, who developed the app along with Larry Larson, told me.

The cover of 4'33'' sheet music (CF Peters)

4'33,'' the app, foregrounds these other sounds. The user can navigate a map full of points, each of which represents four minutes and 33 seconds of sound, a complete performance of 4'33.'' Many of them seem to have been recorded in an office, representing either a misunderstanding of Cage’s imperative or a clever call to pay attention even to the sounds of staplers.

“The outdoor ones are the wonderful ones. When you hear such geographical detail, it really brings you to that place,” Stone said.

Caprioglio agrees. At its best, the app’s library of other recordings of 4'33'' lets you listen, blind, to the gorgeous noise of the unknown.

“It’s kind of like a travelogue of sound,” said Caprioglio.

Stone was at first reluctant to code an iOS app. He liked the 4'33'' concept because it avoided the addictive tendencies of many other apps.

“It’s an anti-app—instead of trying to find a way to amuse yourself, it’s a way to focus people’s attention on the environment,” he said. (It’s fitting that, as an undergraduate at Wesleyan, Stone studied with composer Alvin Lucier, whose I Am Sitting In A Room explores the relationship between sonic recordings and the environment in its own way.) 

When I used 4'33'', I recorded a trip through the DC Metro. And given that I was performing, I paid more attention: to the rumble of the tunnels, to the alert tones that precede a door closing, to the crackle of the on-train speaker. To the way the rolling got louder or quieter as the train moved faster or slower.

I noticed parts of the piece, too. 4'33''’s second movement lasts much longer than its first—the first only really prepares you for the second. I appreciated how the second extended nearly a whole ride between stations, from the moment the doors closed to when they reopened.

I felt, too, a little less anxious than usual. I did not need to worry if I was converting that moment on the subway into something productive. After all, I was in the middle of a performance. 

More than two years ago, the musical group Bluebrain released two “app-albums,” Central Park and the National Mall. The apps, relying on the iPhone’s built-in global-positioning system, played pre-programmed sounds and melodies as the listener wandered through the eponymous public spaces. Specific places had specific sounds, some of which—muted horns in hocket—seemed just to be pretty; others—horses neighing near a carousel—more straightforward. Bluebrain called the two apps “location-aware albums,” but in use they worked something like a personal film score. The sound loosely responded to the listener’s actions, and granted an intense version of the fantasy that accompanies the the private sonic world of earphones, that our music is our soundtrack, that we are the hero of our own film.

I liked the Bluebrain albums, and they were fun experiments, but I like more how 4'33'' reverses the listener’s focus. Pay attention, it suggests. Transform the disturbing into the fascinating, for beyond the phone is something beautiful.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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