June 15, 2007

It's interpretational

Just in case you haven't already seen it, here's Senator Mike Gravel's new campaign ad, which is certainly the most original piece of political semiotics on display so far in the 2008 presidential season:

According to Eric Kleefeld at tpmcafe, Gravel's press secretary, Alex Colvin, explained the ad as "an expression of Mike Gravel":

Where he's coming from is that, it's less about him coming across with a heavy political message in this video, as much as it is the message of the impression the viewer will have, looking at him.

What will that impression be? Well, according to Colvin, "it's interpretational". I'm going to remember that answer -- it could be useful in a wide variety of circumstances.

I believe that Gravel's ad is a first in political rhetoric -- but in music, it's been done, in John Cage's 1952 work 4'33". Here's the score:

If you're not familiar with the work, there's a virtuoso performance by Frank Zappa available on a 1993 recording. (In fact, you can listen to samples of five different performances on the amazon.com website.) A video version of a different performance, with Japanese subtitles, is available here.

A few years ago, there was an infamous copyright dispute involving Mike Batt and the John Cage Trust, in which (according to "Silent music dispute resolved", BBC News, 9/23/2002):

Batt, who had a number of hits in the 70s with UK children's characters The Wombles, was accused of plagiarism by the publishers of the late US composer John Cage, after placing a silent track on his latest album, Classical Graffiti which was credited to himself and Cage.

I suspect that this was a publicity stunt, though I have no inside knowledge one way or the other. Gravel is already getting plenty of play for his silent-ad stunt, but perhaps to keep the discussion going for another 15 minutes, his campaign could arrange for the John Cage Trust to threaten him with a lawsuit for unauthorized use of a substantial portion of 4'33" as background music in the ad.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 15, 2007 06:44 PM