Why Soundcloud Took Down a ‘Remix’ of John Cage’s Famous Silent ‘4’33”’

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John Cage in Frankfurt
Musician John Cage in Frankfurt, 1987.Photo: Regis Bossu/Sygma/Corbis

Last week, the music collective known as DJ Detweiler posted a copyright takedown notice it had received from Soundcloud, explaining that its remix of John Cage’s famous “4’33”” — a modernist composition of 273 seconds of musicians not playing their instruments — had been removed from the service.

This premise is, of course, clearly ridiculous: You can’t copyright silence, even in specific increments of time. (Though the Cage estate has sued over musicians who use Cage’s name on their own silent recordings.)

Whether or not “4’33’’” is actually silent is a contentious matter. “4’33”” was written to be performed in a theater; the idea is that each performance is composed of whatever sounds occur during the interval. The John Cage Trust even offers a “4’33”” app that allows people to record their own versions of the work, “which teaches us that there’s no such thing as ‘silence’ (and that there’s joy to be found in paying close attention to the sounds around).”

According to a statement provided to Engadget by Soundcloud, “The upload referenced in the screenshot was not a track of silence and was taken down because it included Justin Bieber’s What Do You Mean without the rightsholder’s permission.” Because the original track was unavailable, some reports took the name “4’33”” at its word and reported that Soundcloud had pulled a completely silent track.

But, as is often the case online, what had initially turned into a protest against the United States’ archaic copyright system has since morphed into media criticism.

Talking to Engadget by phone, the members of DJ Detweiler laid out the full scope of the effort:

This is a performance,” one member said. “We are making a remix of the original performance of John Cage. The only different thing is that we are making it on the internet in 2015, instead of doing it in a space like a theater, like John Cage did.”

Another member chimed in, “The whole environment around what we’re doing is the performance because everybody’s reacting.”

The first member continued, “You can not buy ‘4’33“’ by John Cage on CD or vinyl because it doesn’t exist. ’4’33”’ is actually something that has a place in a theater. So, this is our remix.”

A third voice added, “All the content that comes out from this is part of our remix.”

4’33”” laid out the argument that “silence” doesn’t exist in the way we think it does — that even in a supposedly silent theater we’re surrounded by noise. Like, say, someone playing Justin Bieber. The Detweilers are just trying to prove this point on the internet. Pulling a track from a digital service is as close as you can get to true silence, but online, it’s just generated more noise, this post included.