To Whom It May Concern: An Invitation to Silence and Composition

John Cage dedicated his lectures and writing collected in Silence “To Whom It May Concern.” As it turns out, it concerns everyone, though most of us do our utmost to ignore it. Yet Silence is still in print, and the amorphous, variable audience Cage invoked in his dedication continues to grow. But if we can’t ask anything specific about Cage’s intended audience, can we at least ask, what is it that may concern us? When asked what Cage’s Silence is about, I usually say it’s about composition, the way we arrange things.

A recent neighborhood atlas project by students in the CAGE Lab (no relationship to John) contains a noise map of San Francisco neighborhoods. The atlas is a form of composition, an arrangement of nouns and verbs and objects, labeled to “tell different stories.” A map is a composition. Noise is usually heard symmetrically, but some in the audience may hear asymmetrically; concentric noise, proceeding in wave-circles, gets confused, as sound bounces and ricochets (gives and takes), pouring into one ear, squeezing into another. Composition is dynamic; silence is static. Sound is not linear (line-ear).

jOhN cAGE was born in 1912, and there’s much ado about his 100th birthday year at the John Cage site.

Related Post: On the Noise of Argument, where John Cage meets Seneca; or, There is No Silence – Bound to Sound

Mapping a Reading of Thoreau’s Walden

We might be tempted, reading Walden, and wanting, for some reason, something more, answers, perhaps, though we might not yet know the questions, to split the difference (and the infinitive) and to quickly Google “Thoreau.” (I just did, and got 22 million results in about half a second.) Eventually, we might stumble across Walter Harding’s The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography, a good find, and one that carries the imprimatur of scholarly law. Harding’s book contains a map of Thoreau’s Concord. And, if we want to map the many obscure references in Walden, we might be interested in Harding’s Walden: An Annotated Edition, though there are so many annotations we are reminded of a crowded day in the South Bay, when one could not see the waves between the Manhattan and Hermosa Piers, there were so many surfers in the water. Sauntering further along the streams of academic searches, we might discover John Roman’s excellent “Mapping Thoreau’s World: An Artist’s Journal on Making an Illustrated Map of Historic Concord” (The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies, N.S. Vol. 15 [2007]: 123-184).

All good stuff, except for one problem: as we set sail on The Google Titanic, we seem to have put the actual Walden aside, the original text, and haven’t read, or reread, a single page. Besides, wouldn’t Thoreau be the first to say that if it’s maps we want, we would do well to make our own, and make it of our own neighborhood, that we might better come to know where we live, and what we live for?

Still, parts of Walden might perplex us for lack of specific knowledge of how things were in Thoreau’s time: his attitude toward the poor toward the end of “Economy,” for example, might perplex us, toward being poor (if he could be considered poor, by any definition), or of fear of becoming poor. We might want to know something of almshouses and poorhouses of Thoreau’s time, of what became of citizens with mental health problems, of the growth of towns, of economic recessions and recoveries, of farm labor, of immigration and how immigration provided for cheap labor and the exploitation of recent Irish immigrants to build the railroad through Thoreau’s countryside (Thoreau, in Walden, appears to have several objections to the railroad). These questions would provide us with useful pursuits that might lead to new reading perspectives.

But still, the questions of what we think of the poor, of being poor (if we might be considered poor by any definition), or fear of becoming poor, if we harbor such a fear, might suggest our own rendering, writing, of our economy, in such rhetorical terms as Thoreau opened the door for us. And as for maps, we would do well to make our own, our own reading map of Walden, complete with distances, landmarks, signposts, and other markings and drawings, and footnotes, so that our reader, if we can imagine such a one, might better know our reading perspective and what we found, having lived for some significant time, in Walden.