John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Friday, August 31, 2012

Pipe down 

Wednesday was the sixtieth anniversary of the premiere of John Cage's 4'33", a work in which the performer is instructed not to play the instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

I thought of it last night while driving home from the paragraph factory, listening to the final movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet on the radio. When it ended, I switched the radio off rather than allow some other sound to contaminate it.

When I was a graduate student at Syracuse, the chamber music series brought in some remarkable performers, and I remember an evening when a quartet (embarrassed to admit that I no longer remember that it was the Guarneri or the Juilliard) was playing the Schubert. In the middle of the slow movement, the cellist broke a string.

The cellist nodded apologetically, walked off stage, replaced the string, returned, and tuned very briefly. The quartet took up where it had left off. Through the entire interval, the audience did not make a sound. Not a cough, not a murmur. The auditorium at Crouse College was entirely still.

I wonder how an audience would react to Cage's 4'33" today, when people appear to be constitutionally unable to stop talking.

They carry on highly audible cellphone conversations in all manner of public and private places, intruding on your personal audiosphere. Telephone conversations used to be private. You went into a booth, as into a confessional.  You would feel humiliated to know that everyone around could hear your personal affairs.

My experience at a number of Episcopal churches in recent years has been that, though the nave is not quite as noisy just before the service as a hotel lobby when Shriners are in town, there is very little reverent or reflective silence. The loud talking continues even through the prelude, as if it were lounge music. (Perhaps the organist should put a tip jar on the console.) 

Going to movies might be getting a little better, as the young abandon speech for texting.

Mind you, I would not prefer to work as the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster do, in Trappist silence. I've grown used to the newsroom, with the sports department following at least one game on the television and a reporter three desks away conducting a telephone interview in a voice that must be audible in Pittsburgh.

But perhaps you, like I, wish sometimes that people would just shut up. Let me bring this to a close, to set an example.


  1. Just watched a recording of the concert performance of The Yeomen of the Guard at this year's Proms. Of course Sullivan isn't Schubert (and Cage isn't Sullivan, for that matter) but it's full of lovely music, and being the Proms there was a good band under Jane Glover and some starry soloists who were able to give the piece the operatic treatment it deserves rather than the usual thin D'Oyly Carte-type sound.

    Which is all by the way except to say how impressive the silence of the Promenaders is, standing in still quiet for hours. (Although performers say they can still be off putting – their physical closeness and the felt intensity of their listening.)

  2. Just be thankful you don't work and attend class on a college campus. At least the library is usually—but not always—quiet and cell-phone free.

  3. The usual interpretation of 4'33" is that its soundscape consists precisely of audience noises and other ambient sound. See the Wikipedia article. Cage might have been quite happy with a performance consisting not only of the usual coughs, but also of crinkly noises from unwrapping hard candy, beeps from texting, conversation in the audience, and other things we normally reject as "not musical". Cage said he was inspired by the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, whose appearance depends on the lights (or lack thereof) shining on them.

    The whole convention of silence and darkness in the audience during performance is a 20th-century one, anyway. Before that, it was normal for people to talk and even eat not only during musical performances, but during theatrical ones as well, going in and out of the theater as they pleased. I suspect that it was the movies, which for technical reasons had to have darkness, that made it conventional for all other performances as well — personally I find it maddening, as sitting in the dark tends to put me to sleep, and I always listen to music or watch TV with the lights on.