The impossibility of silence

In Noise, distraction and caffeine? I mentioned the avant-garde composer John Cage’s assertion that silence is unattainable. The following quote comes from an article of his about “experimental music”.

In this new music nothing takes place but sounds: those that are notated and those that are not. Those that are not notated appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that hapen to be in the environment . . . There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of a special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. when I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.

John Cage, “Experimental Music” in Silence, Marion Boyars, 1978, pp. 7-8 (originally delivered as part of a lecture in 1937)

Tangentially, just in case you’re bothered about the last sentence, here’s another quote from later in the book:

If one feels protective about the word “music”, protect it and find another word for all the rest that enters through the ears. It’s a waste of time to trouble oneself with words, noises. What it is is theatre and we are in it and like it, making it.

John Cage, “45′ for a Speaker” in Silence, p. 190

Some time I’ll try to write a review of the whole book. For now, enjoy those two quotes. John Cage was interested in Zen Buddhism, and I think that for him so-called silence served the same kind of purpose as it does in contemplative prayer traditions: silence is a space in which you give attention. Right now, I’d like more silence in this library, in which to give attention to what I’m writing . . . And I’m not sure how he would have defined music, but I suspect that “sound to which one gives attention for its own sake” might have covered it. And he introduced impossible “silence” into his music for the purpose of focusing on the sound that is always around us.

One response to “The impossibility of silence

  1. Pingback: “What is Music?” Research diary | Fayth Violetta

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