January 6, 2007

Tacet-Mobile

by Nick Montfort · , 2:56 am

Since the beginning of time, pure silence has been available only in the vacuum of space. Now conceptual artist Jonathon Keats has digitally generated a span of silence, four minutes and thirty-three seconds in length, portable enough to be carried on a cellphone. His silent ringtone, freely distributed through special arrangement with Start Mobile, is expected to bring quiet to the lives of millions of cellphone users, as well as those close to them.

“When major artists such as 50 Cent and Chamillionaire started making ringtones, I realized that anything was possible in this new medium,” says Mr. Keats, whose previous art projects include attempting to genetically engineer God. “I also knew that another artist, John Cage, had formerly tried, and failed, to create a silent interlude.”

Mr. Cage once famously composed four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence, which was performed on a piano, in front of a live audience, back in 1952. By all accounts, though, his silence was imperfect, owing to the limitations of the technology available at the time. “John Cage can’t be blamed,” says Mr. Keats. “He lived in an analog age.”

“My Cage (Silence for Cellphone)” dispenses with performer and piano and auditorium, instead utilizing a continuous stream of silence produced on a computer, and compressed to standard ringtone format. This silence can be heard whenever a call comes through, whether out on the street, at a noisy concert, or in the quiet of home. A remastering of Mr. Cage’s classic, “My Cage” is also a remix, according to Mr. Keats. “It introduces serendipity into the equation, delivering performances unpredictably, whenever calls come unexpectedly. You never know.”

The silence may take place without the listener being aware of it. Or the listener may hear a call – phantom silence – when there’s no one on the line. “‘My Cage’ is all-encompassing,” Mr. Keats explains. “Even those who don’t use it as a ringtone have the potential to experience it, in the silence of an unanswered call.”

While noting that Mr. Keats doesn’t have a cellphone of his own, and may be less-than-qualified to make global pronouncements about them, Start Mobile CEO John Doffing believes that “My Cage” may be a platinum hit. “People want a respite,” he says, “and not everybody has the time or money to go to a spa. The virtues of silence are unsung.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Keats is careful not to take credit for silence in general, and hopes that people will bootleg his creation, just as he was inspired by John Cage. Mr. Cage, who died in 1992, could not be reached for comment.

“My Cage (Silence for Cellphone)” can be downloaded now at http://www.startmobile.net/433

4 Responses to “Tacet-Mobile”


  1. Raph’s Website » It had to happen Says:

    [...]

    It had to happen

    John Cage’s 4′33″ as a ringtone. (Yes, it’s a little tongue in c [...]

  2. Scott Kim Says:

    Having performed the piece several times, 4’33” is a silly idea that is often quite interesting in practice — you start listening to the environment that you had been trying to tune out, and realize that there is no such thing as complete silence. Cage to me was all about the act of listening. And when it comes to cellphones an interesting thing is happening — every sound is now potentially a ringtone, so our ears are being trained to listen for anything and everything as if it were calling us. As a friend once put it, the world is our phonebooth.

  3. CmdrSlack.com » John Cage — 4′ 33″ The Ringtone. Says:

    [...]

    Thanks to Raph, I’ve been re-exposed to Grand Text Auto.  The post?  A downloadable ringtone that is John Cage’s 4′ 33″ — it’ll [...]

  4. Lucas Says:

    in 2002, in Melbourne, a special performance of 4’33” was staged to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the work. audience members were encouraged to leave their mobile phones switched on.

    i would like to know if that is a standard for the performance of the work nowdays – it doesn’t seem like it happened here:
    http://www.last.fm/music/John+Cage/+videos/+1-hUJagb7hL0E

    but it seems to me that the use of the mobile phone is very much caught up in the problematics of the experience of time and the present moment which cage was so engaged with. I think he would have disliked the mobile phone (somewhere he wrote of his disgust for the sony walkman when it first came out)…

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