I first read about John Cage’s 4’33” when I was fifteen, checking out a few performances on Youtube – including but not limited to the obvious move of a blank video – and it struck me as something so patently obvious and helpful that I still don’t get how other people don’t see it. The first thing I learned about John Cage – for the longest time, the only thing I knew about him – was that he was a music teacher, and the lesson here was clear: the precise context of a performance will affect the way it’s interpreted. Pure silence in a music hall is very different from pure silence in a Youtube video, or on the radio, or on the street. It isn’t just the underlying sounds (static, the street, an echo, coughing) and it isn’t even the texture of the sound, it’s the expectations you bring – the things you assume will break the silence. The example I eventually came up with to explain my understanding is that the Game Of Thrones theme would sound very different if you first heard it in the context of a Justin Bieber single.
This has always affected the way I interpret art, especially my particular tastes. I’ve always liked things that fit perfectly into their containers – TV shows that really dedicate themselves to the medium of television, books that dedicate themselves to being books, webcomics that take full advantage of the medium. I’m thinking here of Terry Pratchett filling his books with footnotes, Watchmen filling itself with fictional documents, or this famous strip of Order of The Stick. In fact, my pre-Solute criticisms of works often attacked them for either not diving into the specifics of their medium or, in some cases, fighting against what a medium is capable of doing. My work here at The Solute is a maturing of that attitude; rather than looking at what a work could be doing, looking at what it is doing and how the medium, plot, and style all interact to create their own affect.
Part of that maturing comes from recognising the positive qualities of artworks that try and force a medium to do something it wasn’t intended to do at all. My favourite classical composers are consistently the ones that commit so strongly to a concept that they don’t just risk abrasiveness, they embrace it – Elliot Carter and his arguing instruments, Conlon Nancarrow and his explosions of sound. This has led me to notice other works that break their respective mediums; Bob Dylan destroying his songs, The Cornelius Quartet breaking books, No More Heroes breaking video games.
I’ve also developed a taste for works that ‘break’ conventions by leaning down so hard on them that they simply burst. The Shield is the one that really opened my eyes to this – leaning down on both dramatic structure and the conventions of a cop show so hard that the genre itself seems to shatter before our eyes. It’s as if, left to their own devices, these conventions will break themselves anyway, and it’s where I find those really great, mystical feelings I get from good art. I love the creation of things that never existed before, and I especially love the creation of things that were hiding just underneath our perception. I believe 4’33” points us to where they are.