The genius of nothingness |

The genius of nothingness

Barry Smith

In 1952, avant-garde composer John Cage debuted what is probably his most famous work, called “4:33,” or “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds.” It works like this: The performer sits in front of the piano, starts a stopwatch and does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING for the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds. No playing. No talking. No moving about (though some performers choose to turn music pages occasionally, as 4:33 is actually written in three movements). Nothing. Four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. Rock! And yes, I’m serious. This is a famous and influential composition and has been performed on stage and released on record. It has been arranged for and performed by full orchestras. Frank Zappa recorded a version for a John Cage tribute album.You’ll probably be tempted to play this one at home, as you obviously don’t need very advanced piano skills. Or, for that matter, a piano. I’ve personally made some real headway on a pretty kick-ass harmonica rendition. But should you practice it enough to the point where you think your performance is good enough to record, beware …In 2002, British composer Mike Batt released a CD called Classical Graffiti. Included on this CD is a song called “1:00.” A minute of total silence. The idea was that Batt wanted to separate the first half of his recording, which was acoustic-y, from the second, which was a bit more rock-y. He did so via this very clever in-joke, even listing the songwriting credits for “1:00” as “Batt/Cage.” Pretty funny. Unless, apparently, you are the folks in charge of the late John Cage’s estate. They contacted Batt claiming that royalties were owed. Seriously.I remember hearing about this back in ’02 when it was first reported. I heard Batt interviewed on NPR, and he obviously had a good sense of humor about it all, stating that not only was his silence superior to Cage’s – his silence was digital, Cage’s was analog – but that he was able to say in one minute what it took Cage four and a half to say. I assumed the claim would be dismissed and that Batt would milk the well-deserved publicity from it for a while, and I heard nothing else about it. Until last week, when an Internet search revealed that a settlement had long ago been reached in the matter, one which had Batt paying the John Cage estate an undisclosed, six-figure sum!Whoa!The guy who put a minute of silence on his CD had to pay off the dead guy who apparently holds the rights to not making any noise!It’s more complex than that, of course, but let’s not get bogged down in legalities. Instead, let’s focus on how this can benefit me.Ahem …May I present an original and legally viable work of original literature: A Paragraph Of Nothing, by Barry Smith.Copyright 2006 by Barry Smith, all rights reserved, etc…I think that history will show that “Paragraph” is my most accomplished bit of writing to date. Financially, at least. For as of today I’m ready to pounce. Spaces between chapters in the next Harry Potter book? My people will be in touch. Gaps of wordless white in The Da Vinci Code follow-up? Look, Mr. Brown, I’d like to avoid another lengthy court battle as much as you would, so why not just give me your Visa card number?As John Cage himself once said, “I have nothing to say, I am saying it, and that is poetry.”I couldn’t have said it better myself. Nor, for obvious legal reasons, will I attempt to do so.Barry Smith’s column runs in The Aspen Times on Mondays. His e-mail address is, and his very own Web page is at