Cage and Silence

I’m wondering where I find my silence.

I cheerfully admit to being totally addicted to it, and I go to some trouble to search it out. Probably because I don’t see too well, silence fascinates me.

It is an elusive quarry. I’m not even sure it exists, except in the case of the old puzzle, Does an unobserved tree falling in a wood make a sound?

The answer to this must be No, because sound does not have any existence outside of our brains. Sound is merely waves of air, and everywhere is full of them, and they only become what we call sounds when these air disturbances enter our ears and make all those little bones and drum skins wobble. Even then, it is not sound, until the brain observes these wobbles in the air and decodes it as sound.

Everything I hear is in my skull.

If I clap my hands in a forest, and there is no ear or brain to decode it as sound, it seems obvious that the only place in the cosmos that hears the sound is my brain, and take me out of the equation (deafness? Death? Being somewhere else?) there can be no noise. Only disturbances of the air.

So I listen carefully, aware that, by doing so, I am not only making life easier for me, but that I am creating sounds in my head. I am magically summoning into existence from the air. nI am a dealer in magic.

The experimental composer, John Cage, put his attitude to music like this:

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.”

Even in a totally soundproof chamber, there will be sound if you are there. Cage, himself, reported that in total silence he could hear two sounds. One was the deep sound of his heart and his blood, and the other, higher sound was his nervous system.

The non-existence of silence is what he was trying to demonstrate in his controversial piano piece, called 4’33’’.r43s5 013

He described his music as “purposeless play”, but also said, “this play is an affirmation of life – not an attempt to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we are living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out the way and lets it act of its own accord.”

4 mins 33seconds was composed in 1952, and is still controversial. Many people think that it throws into question the very meaning of the word music.

Imagine the concert, given by the pianist David Tudor, in 1952: A concert hall with audience. An empty stage with piano. The pianist comes on, sits at the piano, and opens the lid. The audience waits. The pianist consults a stopwatch, and after thirty seconds he closes the piano lid. There is a short pause – for this is the gap between the first and second movements – he opens the lid again, and the audience waits. The second movement is longer, and lasts two minutes and twenty-three seconds, at the end of which the pianist closes the lid again. Another short pause. He opens the lid, and waits for one minute forty seconds. He closes the lid, stands, bows, and leaves the stage.

This sounds ridiculous, I know, when it is written down like this, and I’m sure many in that audience in 1952 would have been equally puzzled. The name of the composer, John Milton Cage, was not completely new, however, so people would have expected the piece to be strange – which probably explains why there wasn’t a riot.

He realized that complete silence did not exist – even in the most attentive concert hall there would be noises, in the audience members, in the hall, in the environment.

If the audience paid attention to this silence, they would, in fact, hear Found Music – music that would be relative, in the sense that it would be different for each member of the audience – and music that would be different at each performance.

Although many people considered 4’33” to be incredibly self-indulgent, what Cage was trying to do was to actually remove the organizing filter of the composer from musical performance and experience. In 4’33”, the emphasis is not on the composer, nor on the performer – it is on the audience itself, and each member of that audience will have a uniquely personal experience. What is happening, is that Cage is saying that each person’s silence/music is equally important and equally valid.

I find that it is in the search for true silence that I hear the most beautiful sounds. If I search for silence in the woods, I hear the robin singing; if I bury my head in the duvet, I hear the tiny rustlings of feathers; if I go to the top of a hill, I hear the wind moaning.

It seems that the more I search for the non-existent, the more unexpected delights life shows me.


About stevehobsonauthor

I am blind, and I hate it. It stinks. But life is still sweet. I have multiple sclerosis, and that stinks too, but life is still sweet. These are my musings.
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One Response to Cage and Silence

  1. mark Ingram says:

    wow I never knew 4’33 was in two movements. The ambient music of Brian Eno is worth checking out. You might like my poems Kindest regards, Mark.


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