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11 Artists on Covering John Cage's '4'33"'

Mute Records is celebrating its 40th birthday with 58 covers of Cage's trailblazing piece of silent music from artists like Lee Ranaldo and Maps.

by Keagon Voyce
Oct 25 2019, 3:45pm

Image by ITENJI

"Everything we do is music." So goes the famous John Cage quote that arose from his trailblazing 1952 concept piece, 4'33". The three-movement composition, which calls for any instrument or combination of instruments, instructs the player(s) to spend the entire piece not playing. With it, he prompted his audience to grapple with a question that 20th century composers had already been wrestling with for years, this time in strikingly direct terms: What is music? Cage's conviction, embodied in the accidental sounds—raindrops on the roof, people shuffling about, chairs creaking—that accompany live performances of 4'33", is that it's everything we do.

The late composer's influence can be felt far and wide. Sonic Youth covered his pieces, and Brian Eno's Obscure Records released his works; Stereolab named a song after him, and Thom Yorke once called Cage one of his "all-time art heroes." For many musicians, Cage's legacy is that of a permission giver. He's the guy who played amplified cacti, wrote music with bathtubs, and prepared pianos with screws and tacks to diversify its timbral palette. His work is a testament to the power of abstraction, and generations of artists have been thinking upside-down and invoking his carte blanche creative license ever since.

Daniel Miller, music producer and founder of London's Mute Records, first learned of Cage while making experimental films in college in the early 70s, discovering that his own pairing of plain black film and noise matched the composer's experimental aesthetic. Mute, which he started in 1978, has long been a bastion of the Cagian spirit, bringing a roster of rule-breaking artists—including Depeche Mode, Liars, Goldfrapp, Lee Ranaldo, New Order, Erasure, Moby, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—from the fringe to the fore.

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Photo of Daniel Miller by Diane Zillmer

After a conversation with Mute artist Simon Fisher Turner, Miller decided to honor his label's 40th year by honoring Cage's seminal piece. "[Daniel] didn't seem keen on a celebratory event," Fisher Turner told VICE. "What better way to celebrate than with a little silence? (If you can find it.)"

For a new box set called STUMM433, the digital version of which is out today, Miller put out an open call to the label's artists asking them to submit their own cover of 4'33". More than 50 did. At a time when life can feel like a constant stream of digital stimuli, the concept feels like both a reprieve and rebellion: With 50 million pieces of music at their fingertips, listeners claim silence instead, an act that proves these moments are still theirs for the taking. "I think the context is even more pertinent today than it was back then because there's so much more noise in the world," Miller said. "I'm not saying that's always a negative thing, but with all the accessibility to everything, there's even less time to explore. People hear things, but they don't really listen to what's going on."

With STUMM433, the label's artists offer listeners a glimpse into their own everyday "silence." Not surprisingly, Fisher Turner warns, it's "probably the noisiest collection of silence and imagination ever compiled." Indeed, from the ambient hum of A Certain Ratio's recording studio, to the gurgling water buoying Liars' Angus Andrew's boat, STUMM433 is rife with noise. But noise is the sound of life.

To celebrate the box set, Mute hosted a release party at The Roof at PUBLIC in New York. I spent my first half-hour there out on the roof, observing the dense fog that hung motionless after hours of rain, draping skyscrapers in a silent white coat. Inside, Miller was playing under his solo industrial alias, The Normal. Between "T.V.O.D." and "Warm Leatherette"—the two tracks that formed the seven-inch for which Mute was created—he delivered his take on 4'33", which he recorded at 16 Decoy Avenue, the North London site that served as Mute's original headquarters. Traffic sounds and conversations from passersby bubble up from the silence, not unlike what you hear when you're standing on a roof and listening to a city breathe after the rain.

We asked 11 of the artists that contributed to the compilation what 4'33" means to them—and how they put together their covers. Their answers remind us that silence is music's partner, rather than its opposite.

Lee Ranaldo

John Cage's 4'33" is about LISTENING. The performer is asked to define the three sections of the piece and then do nothing else. At the initial performance, it was sounds drifting in through the windows, people coughing, chairs squeaking, papers rustling, etc. that defined the piece. John's objective was to get the audience really LISTENING—and the aleatory conditions of the environment (chance/random events), framed by the sectional time-notations, made up the musical material. He was opening up his audience's ears, or trying to, and in the process, he was altering the course and definition of "music" in the 20th century. For my version of 4'33", I defined the performance during three walking sections in Midtown Manhattan, with trucks idling, cars passing, stray bits of conversation, and rain falling.

Angus Andrew (Liars)

Conceptual art is my preference because the idea matters more than the result. 4'33" is like the Mona Lisa of conceptual art. You don't need to listen to it to respect it. The interesting thing about doing a version of 4'33" is its relationship to the environment and time.

I chose to record in my boat, halfway across the bay that I cross to reach civilization. I raised and lowered the engine to delineate the movements of the piece. Somehow, in re-creating the idea, I felt weirdly connected to all the people who've ever done a version of 4'33"—much more than I would with any other "cover" of a song.

K Á R Y Y N

I was 16 when I saw this piece for the first time. I was leaving the studio after working on an assignment at the [Tape Music] Center at Mills College. I knew there was a concert in the main hall, so I went to check it out. I walked in to see a student playing feverishly at the piano, but not actually hitting any of the keys. I didn't know what I was watching, but I was immersed. The only music we heard was the ambiance of the room, people clearing their throats, breathing, someone shifting in their seat. It was weird and awesome and about the coolest thing I'd ever seen. It was John Cage's 4'33".

I'm always hyper-aware of the sounds I'm surrounded by. In my interpretation, I wanted to record the "silence" of my morning ritual at home making tea, before anyone has spoken. The kitchen is so loud, full of buzzes and hums. I sat kneeling in front of my Juno-60, not playing it, waiting for the water to boil. A meditation.

Maps

It was an honor to be asked to play my part in the creation of Stumm433. John Cage's composition has always intrigued me; I have always been interested in the idea of the "spaces between the notes" when making music. I plugged in my Telecaster and sat down in front of a microphone in my home studio for the recording. As I sat there and recorded the piece, I realized I was hearing tiny sounds in my studio that I had probably never heard before, and they are all captured in the recording. It also made me realize how nice it is to just sit quietly sometimes, and it did make me feel more grounded and connected to the present moment.

Chris Liebing

To be honest, I wasn't too familiar with John Cage's 4'33 " work before this project. But as soon as I learned more about it, I was intrigued by the idea of actually making an effort to produce four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. It is my view that, besides eating and sleeping, the most important thing that us humans can do is to meditate. This is also what my album Burn Slow, on Mute Records, is all about. Through meditation, we find inner peace, and through this inner peace, we can enter nothingness, which essentially includes everything. Basically John Cage's piece is forcing us to dive into nothingness, which in return might help us to understand everything. I know… it also confuses the hell out of me!

To create my version of the piece, I sat down in the studio with Ralf Hildenbeutel, my co-producer for the Burn Slow album, and knocked on a spring reverb. We hit the record button and didn't do anything for four minutes and 33 seconds. We even tried not to think at all, which ultimately means meditating. It's pretty fascinating to see all these pieces coming together for this Mute compilation, knowing that everyone went through a certain process whilst interpreting John Cage's original.

Vince Clarke (Erasure / Depeche Mode)

1. Both John and I have surnames that begin with "C."
2. Our rendition was recorded backstage at the Chicago Theatre.
So Clarke, Cage and Chicago—all "C"s. Must be carma :)

A Certain Ratio

The fact that John Cage came up with this idea in 1952 is amazing. No matter how good or bad you think the idea is, you can't get away from the fact that if John Cage hadn't thought of it, no one else would have. Music has always been about what you don't play, and this is a perfect example of that theory.

Our recording was not 4'33" of silence, but the sound of Oxygene's live room, the studio where we have been recording a new album. All rooms have their own sound, and there is also the sound of us holding our instruments and shuffling about, trying not to play them. You can also hear Christophe, the engineer, taking photos. There is even a sly fart at 2'26", which is a new section we added and called Movement No. 4.

Carter Tutti Void (Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Nik Void)

All three of us in Carter Tutti Void are familiar with John Cage's 4'33", so when we were invited to be part of the STUMM433 project, it made complete sense to take part in a particularly adventurous version of Cage's work. Stating the obvious, really, but we also saw the irony in releasing a recording of silence on a label called Mute. The Mute versions of Cage's 4'33" turn out to be far from devoid of sound—as was Cage's point behind the piece.

When we work in the studio or perform live, the ambience is a part of—or feeds subliminally into—what we are creating, whether we intend it to or not. It is part of the music. In this instance, and true to the spirit of Cage's work, we switched all our equipment on, ready to play, but stood completely still, recording only the ambient sound around us. The only noticeable sounds were of birds outside the studio window and the idiosyncrasies of our bodies and the equipment.

Mark Stewart (The Pop Group)

John Cage's work in the period in which he made 4'33" was similar to the best abstract art in that, for me at least, it had the effect of awakening intuition. My methodology in my own contribution to STUMM433 can be summarized by this idea: "The obstacle is the way."

Ladan Hussein (Cold Specks)

I don't have a personal connection to John Cage's 4'33". I have heard about it a great deal, but never really dug into it. I just love Mute, and when they asked me to be a part of it, I dove right in. I refer to my piece as "deafening silence of my mind." It is what it is.

Polly Scattergood

The first time I was introduced to John Cage's 4'33", I realized none of the rules really mattered. It wasn't all about notes and harmony. It was about soundscapes, space, silence, giving the listener space to hear their own breath and let their imagination whirl around.

I've always worked by ear, and I enjoy making sounds from things that aren't necessarily originally intended to be musical instruments. So when I recorded my interpretation for STUMM433, I wanted to do it in my home studio—keep it real and delicate with the humming of the synths, the creaking of the house, and the sound of the odd seagull piercing through the peace.

STUMM433 is part of the MUTE 4.0 (1978 > TOMORROW) series. You can order the record here. Net profits from the release will be shared between the British Tinnitus Association and Music Minds Matter.

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