06.03.2011

… and we’re back! After 353 days of an unofficial hiatus, I’ve decided to start posting here on The Listening Blog again. I’ve had several ideas of things I wanted to post about recently, and I had an experience today that I wanted to write about, so I’m back. I still have little free time to myself, and what free time I do have is generally focused on making music rather than writing about it, so I won’t promise that I’ll write with any regularity; but I’m back for this post, at least, and I hope to post at least intervallically from now on, as I continue to try to encourage myself to listen to, think and write about music.

The impetus for this post is the book I’ve been reading over the past week, Kyle Gann‘s No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”, published by Yale University Press last year. I’d read William Duckworth’s book Conversations With John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, And 5 Generations Of American Experimental Composers a while back, and been surprised to discover just how influential Cage had been in the latter half of the twentieth century. I don’t think there was a single composer interviewed in the book who didn’t mention Cage at least a few times. So when I saw Gann’s book at the library, I thought I’d pick it up. And it’s proved to be, as the same William Duckworth claims in his laudatory quote on the back cover, “an outstanding book.”

4’33”, for any of my readers who don’t know, is probably the most famous (or perhaps infamous) piece of American music composed in the twentieth century. It consists of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, either of music manuscript paper without any notes or just the word “tacet,” depending on which score you look at. It’s been maligned and mocked by scores of critics both inside and outside musical circles, and branded as a joke, a hoax, a prank, the typical trash that passes for “music” in the modern world and worse. But I highly recommend Gann’s book, which is excellently written as well as being insightful. He thoroughly traces all of the influences in Cage’s thinking and music, from Erik Satie to Zen, to show that 4’33” was not a whimsical gesture by a crackpot or a provocateur but a carefully thought-through and even inevitable outworking of Cage’s musical (and general) philosophy.

In broad strokes, as Gann puts it, the piece is an invitation to (or, if you’re not aware of what’s coming, an imposition of) zazen, the Zen practice of meditation, and is among other things a philosophical statement that there is no such thing as silence. By framing the piece in the context of a concert music performance, Cage focuses the attention of the listener, not on sounds that he’s composed, but on the environmental and ambient sounds of the space in which the performance takes place, opening the listener’s awareness to sounds he or she would otherwise ignore. It’s a particular practice similar to Pauline Oliveros‘ “deep listening,” or what I’ve called elsewhere on this blog “comprehensive listening.” But for a more in-depth explanation, you’ll have to read the book.

In any case, on my way home from work this evening, I didn’t feel like listening to the audiobook I’m currently “reading,” nor could I think of any music I particularly wanted to listen to. So, several minutes into the drive, I decided to “perform” 4’33” for myself until I got home. And it was that experience that prompted me to write this post.

I’ve done comprehensive listening exercises before, but usually sitting down and with my eyes closed, so driving was a different experience. It certainly opened my ears to a number of sounds I normally wouldn’t hear, or hear every day but don’t listen to; but my experience of the sounds was different as well. One of the Zen ideas of the piece, as I understand it, is that the listener should be passive and receptive to the sounds one hears, without trying to impose any of one’s own thoughts or structures onto them. (Cage spoke of the purpose of music, quoting an Indian writer, being “to sober and quiet the mind and thus render it susceptible to divine influence.”) This was a struggle for me at first, as I tried to quell my thoughts, quiet the music playing in my head, and avoid thinking things like “That sounds like it could be played by a contrabassoon!” Early in the drive, in a moment where I feel like I succeeded at those things, I felt suddenly vulnerable–opening myself up to any and all of the sounds around me, putting up no defenses or filters. That was a strange and interesting feeling. But it also changed my perception of the sounds I heard. I was sitting at a stoplight as a truck turned in front of me, and the bed of the truck and the chains holding whatever was in the back squeaked loudly, a sound that normally might annoy me. But as I focused on it and really listened to it, instead of just hearing it, I realized it was actually a really cool sound that was pleasing to my ear and unique and interesting in its own right.

At another point, when I was on the freeway, listening to the whush of the air flowing past my car, the whirring of the engine, and the percussive punctuation of the bumpy road beneath me, a particular sequence of those sounds and others reminded me of the type of modern music where musical events seem to happen completely at random. That type of music is hard for me to listen to most of the time. But listening to the sounds around me, I wondered if that type of music is not so much random as just an attempt to imitate the sound environment that surrounds the composer.

I felt that by “performing” the piece myself, I did achieve a “higher consciousness” of a sort–not in a spiritual or mystical way, but simply a more heightened physical and mental awareness of what was around me. I’m not sure that I could draw any direct parallels from experiences like this one to being a better musician or composer; but certainly being a more active listener can’t do me any harm. Reading about Cage’s philosophy and the influences that led to 4’33” has led me to appreciate much more fully the thought processes behind the piece (though I still cheerfully and wholeheartedly disagree with his philosophy, and his assertion that all sounds are music). I’ll have to perform this piece more often.

(Thanks for reading this return post! I hope you’ll come back to read more–and I promise, they won’t all be this long…)

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Comments

  1. Gravatar

    Mark Harbison on 06.03.2011

    Is there any significance to the length of the piece? I take it that it’s called 4’33” because there’s nothing else to define the piece, but is that length significant at all?

    Also, have you heard Switchfoot’s song 4:12? I’m not sure if there’s any direct correlation in the minds of Switchfoot, but I feel like there could be, if I interpret that song correctly.

  2. Gravatar

    Roberta on 06.04.2011

    I appreciate knowing the background of the piece and can certainly understand if not agree with his philosophy, but I still don’t get why I should pay money to buy his music. You have just demonstrated you can play the piece for free.

  3. Gravatar

    ajharbison on 06.05.2011

    Mark: Before 4’33” was written in 1952, Cage had been experimenting with chance processes to write his music–flipping coins to determine musical events, so that the elements of pitch, dynamics and duration were decided by chance. He would build up a whole piece with a succession of chance-decided events. So when it came to 4’33”, he did the same thing; but of course since he was working with silence instead of sound, he only needed to determine the durations. The piece was built up of randomly chosen durations of silence, that in the end added up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

    I listened to a live recording of Switchfoot’s “4:12,” but I’m afraid I’ll need your further experience to draw a connection for me….

    Roberta: If it provides any context, 4’33” wasn’t written for money–it was performed for the first time on a benefit concert program, so neither Cage nor the performer (David Tudor) made any money off of it. (Though much later the original score was sold for a large amount of money, as a document of historical interest.) But you might feel differently about some of his other works. The String Quartet in Four Parts (1950), for example, is dissonant, but very tranquil and actually quite pretty. You might be surprised.

  4. Gravatar

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