Every summer we squint into the half-dark evening, waiting for lightning bugs. “Was that one?” we ask. “Did you see it?” And finally, one night, we do, and soon the meadows are pulsing with green-yellow sparks, streaks of light that we chase in vain, only to find its spark, gently climbing our own bare legs. One evening they’re gone, and we’re not sure how long they’ve been gone or when they left. We forgot to pay attention, and it’s autumn again.
The locusts still sing night and day, together with frogs, crickets, the intermittent thrum of hummingbird wings. Those accustomed to city life expected to find it quiet here, and are surprised to find it noisy. They have trouble sleeping. Even the rain is louder here.
As a composer, John Cage was fascinated by sound and silence as separate, opposite entities until his visit, in 1951, to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in a story that feels almost apocryphal now. “I literally expected to hear nothing,” he said of the visit, but instead there were two sounds: one high-pitched and one low. The higher pitch was the sound of his own nervous system, the lower that of his circulation. “Try as we may to make a silence, we cannot,” he wrote. Where there’s life, there’s sound. And, for Cage, all sound was music. The distinction between music as it had been written traditionally, and the music that Cage would explore, was intention.
“The essential meaning of silence,” he wrote, “is the giving up of intention.” What he’d previously known as silence was simply the absence of intended sounds. With intention comes judgment, the composer’s will asserted, his or her preferences made explicit through selection. A composer attempts to shape the experience of the listener, to convey his or her own inner experience; culturally, a composition is a method of self-expression. Cage wanted to explore a different kind of relationship, a new kind of listening; a composition without judgment or assertion.
“I saw art not as something that consisted of a communication from the artist to an audience but rather as an activity of sounds in which the artist found a way to let the sounds be themselves. And, in being themselves, to open the minds of people who made them or listened to them to other possibilities than they had previously considered,” he said. His first definitive foray into this new compositional approach was 4’33” (the name itself conveying only the amount of time necessary for performance, four minutes, thirty-three seconds), which was premiered by the pianist David Tudor on August 29, 1952, following a summer spent at Black Mountain College.
4’33” is divided into three movements, each consisting of a predetermined length of time in which the performer plays…nothing. The performer may note the separation of movements by a gesture or the turning of a card to indicate the movement change, but otherwise should simply maintain quiet composure. There is an essential democracy of environmental sounds, of rustling legs, crows calling, perhaps, in the distance, a siren’s cry. Somewhere a dog barks, then stops, then starts again. A phone rings, and is quickly muted. Water fills invisible pipes at irregular intervals.
A quiet mind, Cage determined, was one free of dislikes; but, since dislikes require likes, the mind must be free of both likes and dislikes. “You can become narrow minded, literally, by only liking certain things and disliking others, but you can become open-minded, literally, by giving up your likes and dislikes and becoming interested in things.” The fact of the frame created by the performance allows us to hear the sounds that are always there, to listen to them for their own unique tones and timbres, to explore the rhythms in which we’re surrounded.
It’s not easy listening. As a performer, it’s much easier to select a familiar melody to channel the nervous energy of people expecting to be told what to hear. Harmonies do what they’re intended to do: they’re familiar channels that shape and contain emotional understanding. Rhythm moves along in generally predictable patterns, the ticking of a train across the rails or feet moving across smooth ground. Without rhythm, there’s no sense of progress; time sputters, stalls. This piece, we think, will go on forever. A thought that brings little consolation.
“In India they say that music is continuous; it only stops when we turn away and stop paying attention,” Cage said. This morning, the crickets still sing from their ditches. Soon enough, winter will come, and they will be gone.
Reference: “The Sounds of Silence”, Larry J. Solomon, 1998, 2002. http://solomonsmusic.net/4min33se.htm