Natural Born Essentialists

I have never bought anything from iTunes. It’s not that I have any sort of prejudice against iTunes… it’s simply that I have never gotten around to it.  Today though, exhausted, with my mind grinding through blank after blank, I stumbled across a song for sale on iTunes, 99 cents, that I think I would like to buy.

Have I ever heard this song before? Well, I’ve heard it very many times, though not by the same artist. I have made this same piece of music myself, as a matter of fact. My version of the song is so similar to the famous artist’s version that I can guarantee that nobody, no matter how trained and delicate their ear, could tell the two versions apart.

I am writing about the famous modernist composer John Cage. The work I’m looking at on iTunes is his most famous work, composed in 1952. Cage stated that it was, in his opinion, his most important work.

I am writing about 4’33” – which really is available on iTunes for  99 cents. The piece consists of three movements – the first is thirty seconds long, the second two minutes and twenty-three seconds, and the third one minute and forty seconds. The score instructs the performer to take out his instrument (it can be played on any single or combination of instruments… I suppose there even could be a version for voice) and to simply not play anything for four minutes and thirty three seconds.

It isn’t really four thirty three of silence. There is never really any silence. Believe me, I know. If I could buy four minutes plus of absolute silence whenever I wanted it… that would be something I would pay dearly for.

So why don’t I switch over to Windows and get out my credit card and burn out my ninety nine cents? It’s because I understand there is a remix out there somewhere. Like all proper remixes it’s the same music extended with more subtle exploration of the theme from a different point of view. And you see, I understand that the remix is four minutes thirty eight seconds long. That’s five more seconds for the same ninety nine cents.

You know I’m a cheapskate. That’s a better bargain and I’m going to hold out for it.

And I’m worried too. Peggy Isaacs writes about the awful tradition of cheesy remakes of classic entertainment. What if somebody remakes 4’33”? What if there is a rap version? What if they do it on Glee? It wouldn’t be right – it would ruin the whole thing for me and I would have wasted my hard earned 99 cents.

These difficult decisions. I think I’ll go to bed.

I learned about this piece and many other interesting things from this TED lecture. Spend the time to listen, it’s especially entertaining. It’s the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Paul Bloom talks about the amazing and confounding pleasures of everyday life.