Saturday, March 06, 2004

The Lost Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds

I’ve been working part-time for GO since mid-January. This has made me very happy for reasons too numerous to mention. Today’s show was about silence, and due to space, we had to scissor the following sketch that I wrote. Enjoy, the silence.

Host: Hello I’m John Stein, the host of Listen Carefully, a CBC show devoted to exploring the border between the avant-guard and the terribly annoying. Brent Bambury has asked me to arrange for the CBC Orchestra to perform Cage’s most infamous, but least well known, and least heard work 4’ 33" -- which is four minutes and 33 seconds of silence, or, rather, four minutes and 33 seconds of the ambient noise produced when a group of musicians sit still for that length of time.

To help guide us through today’s performance, I’m joined by eminent musicology and scholar Mr. Nigel Fortnight. Good morning Nigel.

Nigel: Oh, thank you, thank you very much John. This is of course very unusual, commenting on a piece of music as it’s being performed live, somewhat akin to watching a DVD with the commentary track running. But of course, this being a radio broadcast, not only can you not see the orchestra, but well, in this particular case, you can’t hear them either.

Host: Right, now, what can the GO audience expect here today?

Nigel: Oh, well, that’s an excellent question, I’m glad you asked John. As it happens, I was privileged enough to witness the 55-piece CBC symphony orchestra perform a sound check just about an hour ago, and let me tell you, they are superb. I have not seen a grouping of talent, and enthusiasm like this in quite some time. No one is going to do absolutely nothing at all better than this bunch.

Host: Speaking of which, it looks as though the orchestra is ready to begin. Are you ready Nigel?

Nigel: Shhhh.

Host: Of course.

[Two or three seconds of silence. A muted throat clearing.]

Nigel: [In golf announcer whisper.] Oh, my, I did not expect this at all. Wielding the conductor’s baton today is Bruce Redlan, and he is waving it furiously, but of course, very, very quietly, at the brass instruments. To be so bold at such an early stage of the performance, to go directly to the horns is very surprising indeed. Traditionally, with a piece of this nature, you would perhaps begin with the woodwinds, maybe, maybe a viola, but starting so loud, as it were, so to speak, so forthright is very gutsy indeed. I’m interested, fascinated to see where he takes it from here.

[Some more silence, a bit of ambient noise.]

Nigel: Ahhh yes, one of my favourite parts of this work, it’s the ten seconds of silence – you really have to listen for this – it’s the ten seconds of silence that begins just at the one minute mark. Actually 59 seconds to be precise, ushering in the second movement of the piece, as it were. Now here it comes. Listen. Listen. Listen. Oh there it is. There it is. Marvelous. Absolutely marvelous.

Host: Now I see a rather young fellow sitting behind the piano. What can you tell us about him?

Nigel: Oh, that’s Robert Hersam, a virtuoso, very gifted. Former child prodigy, studied at Juliard and let’s just say it here now, let’s be honest, his job is not an easy one. He’s got 88 keys arrayed before him, 88, and any one of them, were he to touch any one of them, performance ruined. That restraint he’s showing, that patience, it is phenomenal. And I have to say I don’t envy his task here today. Not one bit.

Host: What do you say to people who have trouble appreciating this kind of musical subtly?

Nigel: Well, I do acknowledge that it is quite difficult for many people to find a way into this kind of performance. Myself, I have always been a firm believer in less is more, and never moreso than right now. Still, I would hate for people to think of this work as simply four and a half minutes of silence, but rather, imagine it instead as a song you just can’t hear.

Host: Hmmm. That’s interesting. Now I see a young woman with an orchestra triangle. What do we know about her?

Nigel: Oh, that’s Melissa Prenot. I’ve seen her play many times before.

Host: Don’t you mean heard her play?

Nigel: Well, yes. I mean, normally I would say heard, but in this particular case, I think we can both agree that "observing" is the right term. Oh. Wait. Listen. Did you hear that? Did you? Of course you did. How could you not? Gorgeous.

Host: How often is 4’ 33" performed?

Nigel: Well, as you might imagine, not that often. Cage first performed the song in 1952, on a piano, and the lid was raised and lowered to signify movements, as it were. After that, well, there wasn’t much silence for a long time. The late Frank Zappa covered the song in 1993 for Cage tribute album entitled A Chance Operation. And recently, well, this is a strange story, but in the fall of 2002, a British producer named Mike Batt inserted one minute of silence into the debut album of a classical group called The Planets. The idea was to separate the 12 tracks of the album from the four remixes also included on the CD. He called the divider song "A One Minute Silence." He listed the songwriting credit for the 60 seconds of silence as Batt and Cage, and a few months later he received a letter claiming copyright infringement, and, thus a request for royalties. In revenge, Mike Batt released "A One Minute Silence" as a single in September of 2002, and registered a number of copyrights on silent songs, including four minutes 32 and four minutes 34. Very cheeky.

Host: And we’re winding down here, a few seconds left, I think we’re almost done. Some parting thoughts Nigel?

Nigel: [FX: clapping] Bravo. Absolutely amazing. A note-perfect performance here today. Wow is all I can say. That chair creaking around the two minute mark, that was , well, it was what it was, the ventilation system turning on at three minutes and 51 seconds, I mean, let’s be honest, we were all sitting here, hoping for something like that but you just never can tell what might happen with a work like this. And an orchestra, a group of individuals, with a skill level such as this, they took whatever was thrown at them, quite frankly today and they just went with it. They integrated it and that’s what makes good great quite honestly. If silence is golden, then we have just witnessed a 24 carat affair here on GO.

Host: Thank you Nigel. Brent, back to you.