Despite All The Cage

A screenshot of Columbia linguist John McWhorter’s latest NYT newsletter was posted to social media by Bo Austin:

Last Thursday [18 Apr 2024], in the music humanities class I teach at Columbia University, two students were giving an in-class presentation on the composer John Cage. His most famous piece is “4’33”,” which directs us to listen in silence to the surrounding noise for exactly that period of time.
I had to tell the students we could not listen to that piece that afternoon, because the surrounding noise would have been not birds or people walking by in the hallway, but infuriated chanting from protestors outside the building…

The protestors are from the Gaza Solidarity Encampment, and they are calling for Columbia to divest and disassociate from Israel and to stop the genocidal attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. The protest began alongside university president Minouche Shafik’s testimony at the US House of Representatives last week. It has intensified and spread to other colleges after Shafik called NYPD into campus to arrest student protestors for the first time since 1968.

The idea that Cage meant 4’33” to be an ersatz reflection on bird calls and room tone is misguided at best. In 1999 art historian Jonathan D. Katz wrote of 4’33” that it, “inaugurated a process of reading that moved the listener, potentially, from unselfconscious complicity with dominant forms of expression…toward a degree of self-consciousness about one’s role as a listener or a maker of meaning.”

Which would be a helluva thing for these kids to learn in their humanities class anyway, including right now. If experiencing performances of 4’33” in the midst of protest, or resistance, or military attack could make a difference of even a day in this horror, then I’d say everyone download the John Cage Trust’s 4’33” app, and start recording.

But McWhorter’s entire newsletter turns out to be a sonic justification of police violence against the protestors. He repeatedly cites the sounds of the student encampment and of sympathizers on the street with destroying the peace, the kind of peace that requires no response. No ruckus, no police.