BBC announcer Tommy Pearson declared the event to be “one of the most extraordinary performances I’ve ever experienced here in the Barbican hall.” The occasion was a rare full orchestral rendition of John Cage’s experimental work, 3’44” (pronounced “three minutes 44 seconds”) at London’s Barbican Centre in 2004. Pearson’s enthusiasm might seem a bit puzzling at first, given that members of the BBC orchestra remained perfectly still throughout the performance, and not a single note was played. The score for each of the piece’s three movements was the same: a single word, tacet -- musical notation instructing the musicians to remain silent. And so they did, with the audience completely engrossed throughout. The applause was boisterous at the end, and conductor Lawrence Foster returned twice to the podium to take his bows. Commentator Tom Service described the atmosphere in the concert hall as “electrifying.” He went on, “Every cough, every tiny noise, was absolutely magnified to a massive musical event.” He also noted the “distinct high hum” of Barbican Centre’s electrical system. He neglected to mention the warm laughter that rippled through the hall between the first and second movements when the conductor pulled out a handkerchief and mopped his brow.
The audience was much less appreciative at the work’s premiere performance in Woodstock, NY more than 50 years earlier. John Cage was not then a world famous avant-garde composer, and no one knew what to expect when a concert pianist first strode onstage, opened up the keyboard and sat motionless at the piano through three movements without playing a note. The audience quickly grew restive, and many stormed out. To them, the performance seemed like a bad joke. “They missed the point,” Cage later commented. “There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
The year before his now-iconic piece had its premiere, Cage visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University whose walls, floor and ceiling were lined with sound-absorbing materials. He expected to experience total silence inside the room but instead heard a high-pitched sound and a lower one. An acoustic engineer explained to him that he was hearing his own nervous system and his blood circulating. As long as he was alive, Cage realized, there could be no such thing as absolute silence.
When the Barbican Centre concert was broadcast on BBC Radio 3, the network’s emergency backup system had to be disabled so it wouldn’t automatically begin playing music when it detected what broadcast engineers refer to as “dead air time.” Just as nature abhors a vacuum, civilization abhors silence – or at least what passes for silence in a high-tech society. When Cage was studying with the modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg in the 1930s, he was told that he would never be able to write music because he had no feeling for harmony. Schoenberg said, “You'll come to a wall you won't be able to get through.” Cage eventually realized the way forward was to tear down the wall of processed sound that insulates us from the natural world and even from the ambient noises that surround us in a concert hall or on a busy city street. To Cage, this wasn’t noise; it was its own kind of music.
Cage could not be regarded as a composer in the usual sense, since he went to elaborate lengths to remove any trace of personal expression from his works. He would use a Chinese book of divination called the I-Ching, or Book of Changes, to make decisions about what direction his compositions should take. He wanted his audiences to listen -- but not to him. In a concert setting, the audience comes expecting to listen attentively. When the musicians remain silent, the audience is introduced to the sounds that are always present but that are normally drowned out or tuned out: the hum of the air conditioning, the wind stirring outside, a stray cough, their own breathing. Cage’s 1986 composition entitled Etcetera 2/4 Orchestras includes a 30-minute audiotape of traffic recorded at his Sixth Avenue apartment in New York City. “The sound experience which I prefer to all others, is the experience of silence,” Cage explained. “And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different."
Cage’s motto, which he attributed to Ananda Coomaraswamy but is actually traceable to St. Thomas Aquinas, was this: "Art is the imitation of nature in her manner of operation." A student of Zen Buddhism and Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, Cage never practiced meditation himself, but there was a certain meditative quality to his work. His was not the music of the spheres but the music of the sphere, the one we are living on. He relished the sounds of everyday life that often go unheard because our attention is diverted elsewhere – not the least because we are preoccupied with our own thoughts. Listening for him meant listening without preconceptions, hearing the sounds as just sounds, without imposing meaning or judgments on them. As Cage put it, “The most beautiful sound is the sound of what happens.”
I sit by an open window in my study early in a late summer’s morning, hunched over my laptop. A cold front has moved through during the night, blowing away all the stagnant air that had settled over our region the previous week. The wind picks up, rustling the leaves in the canopy of trees that surround my study on three sides. Two birds call to each other, and behind them I can make out the humming of cicadas. Intermittent voices and hammering can be heard from next door as workmen repair a garage roof that has been damaged in a storm. There is a creaking of floorboards overhead as my wife gets ready for work. Soon after a mail truck can be heard working its way up my street. As I listen, I no longer have the sense that these sounds are coming from outside myself; indeed, there is no longer a sense of my self at all. There is only the wind, the birds, the workmen, these fingers tapping on the keyboard of my laptop. And if I close my eyes, they are like sounds arising in a vast empty concert hall. I am left to ponder once again the odd paradox that when I am most present to my own experience I am also the most absent.
John Cage, Silence