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Sounds Of Silence

By Ashleylister @ashleylister
On August 29, 1952, at a hall tucked on a wooded dirt road in Woodstock (yes, that one) the piano virtuoso David Tudor prepared to perform. He sat at the piano, propped up six pages of blank sheet music, and closed the keyboard lid. He then clicked a stopwatch and rested his hands on his lap. After 30 seconds of stillness, Tudor opened the lid, paused and closed it again. He turned one of the blank pages. After two minutes and 23 seconds, Tudor again opened and closed the lid. After another minute and 40 seconds, Tudor opened the piano lid one last time, stood up, and bowed. What was left of the audience politely applauded. The piece was called 4'33"—for the three silent movements totalling four minutes and 33 seconds—and it was composed by John Cage. It seemed like a joke. It wasn’t.

Cage was an experimenter. In his 60-year career, he composed nearly 300 pieces for everything imaginable, from conventional piano and orchestra to bathtubs, amplified cacti. Where other composers heard noise, he heard potential. Pots. Drum brakes. Rubber ducks. It wasn’t provocation; it was necessity.

Sounds Of Silence

John Cage playing piano

The world was brimming with sounds musicians had never used before—it was as if all the world’s painters had agreed to restrict themselves to only a few colours. Cage heard every squeak and honk as a possible ingredient for music.This wasn’t a new concept. Sitting around Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau outlined the same thought, writing: “The commonest and cheapest sounds, as the barking of a dog, produce the same effect on fresh and healthy ears as the rarest music does. It depends on your appetite for sound.”After the cancellation of a concert at the Museum of Modern Art, Cage was in tears, a career-making opportunity had slipped away. But at that moment, a stranger puffing a cigar walked up and asked whether he was all right. The stranger was Marcel Duchamp. The encounter was life-altering. Duchamp derided traditional paintings as superficial eye candy and opted to make art that pleased—and befuddled—the mind. His 1917 sculpture “Fountain,” an overturned porcelain urinal, was scandalous, but it made a point: Art is subjective. The two became friends, and Duchamp’s philosophy would plant the first seeds of 4'33".

Sounds Of Silence

Marcel Duchamp playing with our preconceptions

Cage was convinced that European music had lost its way and had become a celebration of the composers’ ego and emotion. He thought music wasn’t about the composer but it was about the sounds. So he removed himself from his work. Just as Jackson Pollock embraced the uncertainty of splattered paint, Cage started to flip coins and let heads or tails dictate which notes or rhythms came next. His “chance music” gave performers more liberty to play whatever they liked.The emerging technology of portable recorders permitted the cataloguing and manipulation of environmental sounds by musicians.Composer Steve Reich explored the rhythms of the human voice and of trains. The sound of the ocean, it is said, was as central to The Who's Quadrophenia as Pete Townshend's thrashing guitar. Brian Eno, who credits Cage with inspiring him to become a composer, recorded a series of so-called "ambient" albums, music of a quietude, designed to compliment rather than compete with the sounds of life. Today hip-hop producers use street noise in their musical fabric and DJs use vinyl LP surface noise to communicate nostalgia and authenticity.I was tempted to leave this article as a blank page.Sounds Of Silence

Three Women
I’m in Dorset
on a train in Bradford
turning a page
as they reach my table
and fill up the seats
I turn to the window
and hope they’re commuters
or out for a day in Leeds
resigning myself to Yorkshire
and the latest on grandchildren
or even worse
as without a word
three hands reach
into three bags
for three mobile phones
and come out
with three novels
that are silently opened
silently read
and Lyme Regis is the next stop.

(First published in Equinox, April 2011)

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