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

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

There is no silence, Seneca argues in his “On Noise.” Our ears are held hostage to the confusion of random noises, the shout in the street, or the whispers of demons when we are trying to fall asleep. Our head is a house of bondage to sounds. We can not turn off the noise.

We are also bound to the noise of argument, the clashing of claims, the slashing evidences, and the war of warrants rumbling unseen like underground swells whose sounds reach the surface in shocks of recognition. Our proposals ring with self-interest. Our argument reveals what we value, where what we value is simply what we want, and where, paradoxically, what we want is not necessarily what is good for us. We ask for proof, but what is accepted as proof varies by community and shifts over time. We are like Doubting Thomas, led by our cultured incredulity to insist on touching the wounds, because we are afraid of metaphor, but that’s all we have – language is metaphor, no matter how cleverly we disguise it in objective, disciplined prose. We fear it because metaphor is magic: “This [bread] is my body.”

To argue or not to argue, that is always the question, for walking away in hope for peace in silence and solitude we run into Hamlet’s wall, for we can enjoy the infinite space of a nutshell only if that space is not full of our own personal nightmares.

All of life appears to be a single, linked argument, and argument is noise. We can’t turn it off, or even down, but even if we could, we ignore argument at our own peril, to our own detriment. But to listen to it 7×24 is deafening, where deafness isn’t the absence of sound, but sound’s surfeit, a flood of noise that crests the wall of reason.

We turn to the experts for advice. Passionless, but full of fraternal ethos, the academics put forth their peer-reviewed journals, works cited, but the syllabus is the argument in the marketplace, the rubric their evidence, and the classroom their warrant. We pick our topic as if choosing a weapon, and begin our argument with an either or fallacy. The either or fallacy is the sergeant-at-arms in our contemporary house of sound-bondage: you are conservative, proceed to room 108, where you will find your beliefs folded nicely in the bureau drawers; you are liberal, your stuff is stacked neatly in room 209. Safely in our academic room for the night, we are lulled by a false sense of security, but we can’t get to sleep, for we can’t avoid the first person.

We were told not to use the first person, and in that way we could escape our impressionistic impulses, but “This is incorrect,” Seneca says. “There is no such thing as ‘peaceful stillness’ except where reason has been lulled to rest. Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface. All it gives us is a change of anxieties. For even when people are asleep they have dreams as troubled as their days. The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.”

A sudden pause as I’m reading Seneca’s “On Noise.” Was that a pun, that “sound mind”? For it expresses the point I am trying to make exactly. “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” John Cage said in his “The Future of Music: Credo” (1937). But Cage was never bothered by the noise: “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”

So to, our reading and listening of arguments: when we ignore the argument, we find it annoying, but listening to it carefully, we find that silence is denotative, noise connotative. One can easily imagine Cage living over Seneca’s bathhouse. In “Experimental Music” (1957), Cage suggests we should pay more attention to those arguments we did not intend: “…those who have accepted the sounds they do not intend – now realize that the score, the requiring that many parts be played in a particular togetherness, is not an accurate representation of how things are.” Ah, yes, for if we can’t accurately describe how things are, we can’t move on to how things should be.