4’33” or -273°C

John Cage & Marcel Duchamp performed “Reunion” at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto on Tuesday March 5th, 1968. The composition/concept was developed by Lowell Cross with pre-modulated photo-receptors that served as gating mechanisms to receive messages of movements and to transmit sound and light. Depending on the moves of the chess pieces, the sound was cut off or rerouted to generate a kind of random music by means of the pre-configured chance operation of the players.

A remarkable letter to the editor appeared in this month’s BBC Music Magazine (December 2012: Volume 21, Number 2; pg 8) relating John Cage’s infamous 4’33” to absolute zero.  Rather than comment about it, I’ll just quote it below:


I’m not sure that Rainer Hersch is right bout the real message of 4’33” (column, October).  When I first heard the piece, I wondered why Cage (above) had chosen that particular time interval, and as a physicist/musician, I soon had the answer.  4’33” is 273 seconds, and if you listen to the piece, this is really -273, since the ‘composer’ has subtracted 273 seconds from your life.  So the title is really a pun on -273°C, which is very close to the absolute zero of temperature.  Cage gives us something close to the absolute zero of sound, but there is still a little noise in the room, just as at -273°C there is still a little noise among the atomic particles.  In case you should wonder whether I’m being serious about this, I should tell you that, according to local gossip, a musicologist from New York City has discovered a previously unknown work by Cage: Concerto for Unprepared Pianist, found in a disused aviary in Aleatoria, New York.

Keith Francis, Massachusetts

Just for fun, here is a pencil sketch portrait I did of John Cage in 1996:

“John Cage” by Jon Silpayamanant
5 x 8

3 thoughts on “4’33” or -273°C

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