My cinema for ears: Beyond John Cage’s asceticism

The Quiet Room

4’33” (known as “Four minutes and thirty-three seconds”), the three-movement composition by John Cage, may be the most controversial musical composition in the Western world.

[For those of you who are not acquainted with this piece, you can see a performance of it here: If you are familiar with 4’33” and are incredulous that anyone could defend it as music, you can view Professor Julian Dodd’s TEDx talk at the University of Manchester:]

The central concept of the piece is that normal, ambient, background noise can be considered music.

It is important to note that “normal, ambient, background noise” is not “silence”. Silence is the absence of sound. For any animal with healthy ears, the experience of silence is impossible. How is that possible, that silence is impossible? How can we not experience silence?

John Cage was once invited to enter a completely sound-proof room*. He spent several minutes in the room. When he came out, he told the engineer that he was perplexed, because he distinctly heard two sounds: a low-pitched sound and a high-pitched tone. The engineer explained that the low-pitched sound was the sound of the blood rushing through his veins and that the high-pitched tone was the sound of his nervous system.

So for anyone with healthy hearing, the experience of silence is impossible. One can not escape the background noise of the body. Background, ambient noise becomes the canvas upon which all music is displayed, at least that’s how John Cage conceived it. And, like his conceptual cousins in the visual arts, a blank canvas is still nevertheless a canvas and can be considered art.

But many people would argue that John Cage exaggerates when he suggests that background noise can have musical qualities. Even my first reaction to 4’33” was that it was complete, utter, pretentious rubbish. Maybe it’s Cage’s extreme asceticism in 4’33” that compels such a violent reaction. But there are musical composers who move beyond Cage’s ascetic approach and meld environmental sound into recognizable musical structures.

For those of you willing to take that leap, you can watch a 60 film entitled My cinema for ears. It is available in the VAST:Academic Video Online database.

My cinema for ears features two composers, Francis Dhomont and Paul Lansky, whose music either includes or is influenced by ambient sounds. The film features interviews with the composers as well as their music.

My favorite scene shows Francis Dhomont, with a boom microphone and a large headset, strolling through a beautiful green meadow accompanied by sheep and a dog. After a few seconds, you can hear a bee coming closer to Dhomont. Dhomont begins to flap his hands to ward off the bee, but eventually has to run away to escape the bee. It’s a cute scene, and it lets the viewer know that the music as well as the movie are meant to be fun. There’s a genuine sense of fun and play.

For those people who are into serious fun, this movie is for you.

To find this film in the McNairy Library…
Go to the McNairy Library website:
Go to our database list:>
Click on the link for VAST:Academic Video Online>
Click on the “Advanced” search link in the upper right hand corner>
Enter My cinema for ears in the “Title and Series” field.

[Nathan Pease is an adjunct Research Librarian at the McNairy Library and Learning Forum on the campus of Millersville University. In his spare time, Mr. Pease digitizes out-of-print vinyl records and plays “European board games” such as Targi, Pandemic, Dominion, among others. He also volunteers and works part-time at LancasterHistory.Org, also known as the Lancaster County Historical Society.]

*From what I understand, Lancaster County has such a room. Armstrong World Industries, at one time the largest floor and ceiling tile maker in the world and headquartered here in Lancaster County, built a sound-proof room in order to test the sound qualities of their floor tile.

Image citation:
Steamship Brasil, Moore McCormack Line. Quiet room. c1958. Photograph. Lib. of Cong., Washington D.C. Lib. of Cong. Web. 25 Sep. 2015. <>.