4’33” on Ukulele

A sonic postcard from New Orleans

It’s World Listening Day tomorrow, July 18, coincident with the birthday of the important composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, who will turn 87 years of age. It was Schafer who helped us understand the world of sound around us as a consensual composition. Like John Cage, who was two decades his senior, Schafer helped us strive to hear through our cultural experience so we could gain perspective on it. It is to him we own the modern sense of the word “soundscape.” In this video, uploaded this evening, the night before World Listening Day, Todd Elliott performs John Cage’s 4’33”, and true to the original, he notes the change in the movements: he fingers new chords, but the music remains silent. Or does it? A point of Cage’s 4’33” (I hesitate to say “the” point, as doing so would be helplessly reductive) is to both recognize the contours of the performance, the cultural signifiers, and to hear through them, to hear the world framed by them (in his writings, Cage brings up the wire scupltures of Richard Lippold as a useful comparison). The beauty of this video is that the quietness tempts you to just leave it as is, and imagine it to be silent. But it isn’t silent, not in the sense of a digital void. Turn up the volume and hear the fan, a sliver of which is in view, haloing Elliott’s head. Gain a sense of the room tone. Note variations, like the uptick in the room’s hum that happens around the 2:30 mark. Part of the composition-ness of Cage’s 4’33” is the extent to which it is truly perform-able. There are rules to it, and the thoughtful performance considers them. It isn’t merely sitting still for the prescribed length of time. Elliott’s rendition is solid, including the brief bit of heard uke and the broad smile at the end.

Video originally posted at youtube.com. Todd is a friend who recently relocated to New Orleans, where this was shot. It serves as a parallel listening experience to the recent home-office field recording of another NOLA-based friend, Rob Walker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *