Carlos Basualdo is the Keith L. and Katherine Sachs Curator of Contemporary Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The Indo-European root of the word score is sker, which means “to cut.” The term is thus linked to the notions of creating a notch and keeping a tally, which is exactly what the Old Norse root of the word means. There is, from the beginning, a double purpose inscribed in making a “score,” that of performing a certain action and that of producing a physical record of an abstract quality or quantity. The cut of the score, while splitting open the surface on which it is inscribed, fuses action with abstraction, making them indistinguishable. It inscribes a temporal dimension on that surface; the very act of inscription alchemically turns space into the physical expression of a certain duration.
In the language of musicology, a score designates either the physical or electronic manifestation of a written musical composition. A score can also be the work itself when it provides music for a spectacle, be it a theater play or a movie. In a score, a musical notation is employed as a means to fracture the homogeneity of time in order to organize it according to the composer’s intentions. The score maps time, each phrase compressing it and expanding it, folding it in on itself. A finished musical score is a provisional architecture of time made with abstract signs that stand in for sounds. The muted violence of the mark as “cut” implies a burning desire to break open the fabric of time in order to unravel it and redesign its pattern. With this is mind, consider 4'33", the composition that John Cage wrote in 1952 with the intention to organize silence—or rather to demonstrate its impossibility. It is hard to imagine any work that is closer to the archaic intentions hidden in the concept of score.
The score (or scores, as there are several that correspond to different forms of notation) of 4'33" may be one of the most pristine examples of what any score actually is or does. The written notation of that work is a sort of metascore that reflects on and reveals the kernel of intention that any score contains: to bring duration to consciousness, to create imaginary dams in order to contain and regulate the relentless, numbing passing of time. The score of 4'33" consists of three successive movements with vertical lines to stand for pauses. They separate neighboring territories, precisely contained but inevitably vast surfaces of possibility, during which the listeners in the auditorium can become aware of the sound of their own breathing and coughs, the rain on the rooftop, cars outside. The conductor directs the performers to refrain from playing their instruments. They all simply wait for time to pass.
By necessity, a score implies a performance and thus constitutes a kind of promise. A cut, a sign, and a promise all coexist in a score, inscribed in the same gesture. Paradoxically the violence of the cut is also a sign of hospitality; it is in its openness that the possibility of a future performance exists. A written score is most effective in a performance context, when it is about to be played. When a score is included in an exhibition, its participative promise is subdued by its status as a mere repository of information. The score then becomes a document, most likely subordinated to the display of the artworks, from which it is often excluded. The introduction of a score as a document in an exhibition context establishes a hierarchy in the exhibition space; with the artworks on one side and the supporting documentation on the other, the latter is often intended to be seen and considered in a different light—both literally and metaphorically. That hierarchy actively organizes the space; it limits the viewer’s possible interactions. The hierarchy of art and score presupposes a certain notion of what art is, and of the kinds of behavior that might be expected from the viewer in its presence.
4'33" contradicts that expectation. Its score, codified in a visual vocabulary accessible to the nonspecialist, reads as an open invitation to be performed by anyone who reads it, at any time. Its very presence in the space transforms the exhibition into a potential concert hall, provoking the visitor’s awareness of time in the otherwise assumed timelessness of the space for display. Indeed, the score of 4'33" resists being characterized as a score at all, on two accounts: it visually demonstrates what every score potentially represents, while introducing an irrepressible tension toward performance, precluding its consideration as a mere document in an exhibition context. It is a score that is unsettled and unsettling.
John Cage, 4'33", 1952.