At the 2013 performance of John Cage’s 4’33’’ at the Barbican, Lawrence Foster, conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra live, opened the score, prepared his baton, and proceeded to do nothing for the next four minutes and thirty three seconds. I was quite amused, as I did not know that the piece, originally for piano, had been rewritten for a symphonic orchestra. I guess that in this current era of social distancing and lockdown, it could also be rewritten for no instrument at all.
Four minutes and 33 seconds of silence in an empty room.
Big deal, you would think, and in fact, this is exactly what my friend Patrick told me the other day when I showed him the video of the performance on YouTube. “Big deal. I can compose a similar, if not better, piece at any given moment. In fact–”, he reached for a sheet of paper, “I will do this now.”
On top he wrote: “Ten Seconds from Now”. Below that, “Tacet”. He gave me the page. “Here you are”.
“What’s that?” I asked. “What does this mean? What will happen ten seconds from now?”
“With ‘now’ indicating the moment it starts, ten seconds later the piece will come to an end”, Patrick said.
“‘Tacet’ is Latin for ‘in silence’.”
“Quite witty”, I said, “but it won’t earn you a place in the Pantheon of Music. You are a copycat here. John Cage has done it before. The idea of putting aside as silence a specific amount of time has happened before. It is not original any more. Your ‘Ten Seconds from Now’ comes second, if you pardon the pun.”
“Not to worry”, Patrick said, “I am already thinking of turning it into a film. A silent film showing a black frame over a length of ten seconds.”
Guy Debord’s first movie, “Hurlements en faveur de Sade” (1952) employs the same idea. There is no image. Just a solid black frame, which becomes solid white when there is sound. The whole film is 80 mins long. The last 24 of them are completely silent (and black). I imagine that the idea wouldn’t work on a mobile device or a laptop. Not that it worked exceptionally well when it was first projected. According to reports, the audience became unruly and the screening was interrupted after just twenty minutes. Today, a film like that would have to come with a disclaimer, something like “This motion picture has been left intentionally black” – or something to that effect.
An intentionally black frame. Is it really intentional? How can one be certain? It’s difficult to know. Back in the year 2000, film lovers were perplexed by the first three minutes of Lars von Trier’s “Dancer in the Dark”. There was no picture. Just a solid black frame, while an orchestral piece evolved in the soundtrack, inviting, so to speak, the audience to dance with their minds in the dark – a reference to the deteriorating vision of the main character, played masterfully by Björk.
It didn’t work. Confused spectators began shouting to attract the attention of the screening room engineer to the technical “error”. When the film appeared in DVD a couple of years later, the three minutes of solid black had been replaced with some kind of colourful abstract artwork.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what one’s intention is, both in life, and in art. I am not talking about the meaning of a work of art. Thousands and thousands of art criticism pages have been written trying to establish the one and true meaning of this or that piece, or the true intentions of this or that artist.
It’s all in vain. You’ll never get to the true meaning of art, if not for any other reason, because no one can have it. Not even the artists themselves. You might only be able to glean some meaning for yourself. But this won’t be the definite one. For starters, not everybody will agree. Even if they did agree, the artist themselves might be in disagreement. And all the professional critics, they would also disagree, one by one.
The most important aspect of art is not the meaning that it has, but rather the possibility of a meaning. Art is the opening up of a perspective onto a world. The work of art is the clearing from where a world may be visible, as Heidegger would have it.
In his short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (1939), Jorge Louis Borges speaks at length about a fictitious twentieth century French writer’s effort to re-write Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” in Spanish. The catch: Pierre Menard did not speak Spanish at all. Added catch, he had not even read Cervantes’ original. As Borges explained admiringly, Menard did not intend to copy Cervantes. That would be easy. He wanted to re-create the whole work, mot-à-mot, in seventeenth century Spanish. Still, it would be his Quixote. Not Cervantes’.
Pierre Menard died before he was able to complete his work.
On second thoughts, Patrick’s “Ten Seconds from Now” might not be such a bad movie after all.
This piece was originally published in the April edition of Splinters.