It's oh so quiet


SOUND: BRIAN DILLONreviews No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”By Kyle Gann Yale University Press, 255pp, £16.99 In Pursuit of Silence By George Prochnik Doubleday, 352pp, $25

ON AUGUST 29th, 1952, a benefit for the Artists Welfare Fund was held at the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock in upstate New York. The programme included a sonata by Pierre Boulez, two pieces by the extremely quiet American composer Morton Feldman, John Cage’s noisy, absurdist Water Music(complete with duck calls and the sound of shuffled cards) and a second piece by Cage that would live in infamy alongside Finnegans Wakeand Marcel Duchamp’s Fountainas one of the great aesthetic provocations of the century. As raindrops sounded on the roof of the semi-outdoor venue, the pianist David Tudor approached his instrument. He opened and closed the keyboard lid three times during the performance, turned the pages of an empty score and, finally, rose for applause after four minutes and 33 seconds of playing nothing. When he was done, an artist in the audience exclaimed: “Good people of Woodstock, let’s run these people out of town.”

As the former Village Voicecritic Kyle Gann notes in his eloquent and briskly informative book, Cage’s 4’33” is “controversial, inspiring, surprising, infamous, perplexing, and influential”. It’s also still routinely misunderstood and disparaged.

Apoplectic listeners (if that’s the word) to a performance on BBC radio in 2004 rehearsed a few of the stock whinges: “Absolutely ridiculous . . . clearly a gimmick . . . patronising and disturbing . . . is this how our licence fee money is being used?” As Gann points out, these poor saps – they could have switched the silence off – were not at odds with reputable critics, including admirers of the work, who insist that it’s essentially “conceptual”: all gesture and intention, devoid of content. But 4’33” is actually rich with sonic experience and emotional meaning; more than anything, it’s a work that makes audiences listen, and alters forever their understanding of silence.

It’s easy, and not in fact entirely wrong, to put Cage’s “silent prayer”, as he briefly considered calling it, alongside the great vacant works of art of the last century: the blank paintings of Kasimir Malevich and Robert Rauschenberg, Yves Klein’s empty exhibition Le Vide, Andy Warhol’s laconic persona and desire to disappear. “So far as he is serious,” wrote Susan Sontag in 1967, “the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience.” But Cage was not really one for existential voids, nor for obnoxious avant-gardism; though he was well aware of the experimental precursors to 4’33” (and close to Rauschenberg, for example), the most striking aspect of Gann’s account of its genesis is just how rigorous and reflective was Cage’s approach to the piece. He claimed to have built its three (indistinguishable) movements up “note by note”, and the piece demands to be listened to in the same way, with Zen-inspired patience.

Among the oddities Gann uncovers about 4’33”is the fact that Cage at one point hoped he might sell the idea of a silent composition to the Muzak corporation, as a meditative interlude in the hyperactive soundscape of the modern city.

The history of Muzak is one of several points where Gann’s study resonates with George Prochnik’s In Pursuit of Silence: a vagrant history of modern silence and an engaging account of the author’s quest for peace and quiet. In the 1930s, music was piped into American workplaces for the first time; by the early 1950s, just as Cage was proposing his silent version – 4’33”is a few seconds over the typical length of a Muzak ditty – it had become a shorthand for the sonic inferno of urban life; commuters in Washington DC finally rebelled in 1952 when the city tried to pump Muzak into trains and buses.

PROCHNIK IS COMPELLING on the apparently dry subject of noise-abatement campaigns and legislation, moving effortlessly from Thomas Carlyle’s pointless fury at the sound of London’s street musicians – “it is amazing how little I care,” wrote his wife, Jane, when he wasn’t around to make a thing of it – to the bureaucratic feebleness of the European Noise Directive. He makes a persuasive case that in recent decades we have ruinously (for our hearing and neurological development) overlain the daily cacophony with a “new noise” we hope will drown out the old.

But Prochnik doesn’t merely bemoan the advent of bass-heavy automobiles, high-street shops that sound like nightclubs and a generation immured between headphones – as if pre-iPod public space was really any more pleasant. Paradoxically, he argues, such modern methods of building your own sonic space may just be the obverse of the traditional quest for silence, which he undertakes himself among Trappists and Quakers, in the company of a US army sniper (who sounds a little like John Cage: “The more we hear nothing, the more we hear”) and on a tour of New York’s lesser-known parks.

Prochnik is an enthusiast of silence but knows it can be just as tyrannical as imposed noise. He recounts an architect friend’s wry anecdote regarding a wealthy client who wanted his vast Long Island home to be as quiet as modern sound-baffling technology could make it, but was consequently tormented by the slightest sound that echoed through this acoustically armoured tomb. Silence, it transpires, is never as empty as we hope. Cage already knew this in the 1950s, having spent time in an anechoic chamber at Harvard, where he claimed to have heard nothing but the sound of his own nervous system. Kyle Gann points out that he probably just had tinnitus, but the point these two fascinating books make still holds. As Cage put it: “There will never be silence until death comes which never comes.”

Brian Dillons Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Livesis published in paperback by Penguin. He is author of In the Dark Room(Penguin, 2005) and UK editor of Cabinet, a quarterly of art and culture