Sunday Night Journal — July 4, 2004
John Cage’s famous “composition” 4' 33" consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. I’m told that he resented the people (of whom I am one) who assumed he intended it as a joke, and that he had in mind a perfectly serious exercise in listening. His intention was to provide an opportunity for people to attend actively to all the ambient sounds of their environment.
Insofar as I know anything of Cage’s ideas, which isn’t very far, I don’t much agree with them. I gather that he was concerned with breaking down what he viewed as an arbitrary line dividing music from all other sound, and that 4' 33" was part of that effort. But the invitation posed by 4' 33" is nevertheless very much worth accepting.
Last Saturday I had planned to wash the cars, but began hearing thunder, and went outside to check on the situation. The sky was indeed looking pretty dark over in the west. I would have gone back in, not at all displeased to have a reason to postpone the car-washing, but I heard the sound of something that sounded like a recorder or a penny-whistle—more woody than metallic, so I think it was the former. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. It seemed to be coming from the south, but that seemed impossible, as the nearest houses in that direction are too far away. Although our house is in a small town, it’s in an odd location, with a lot of undeveloped (and I hope undevelopable) swampy and wooded land around. It fronts on a little creek, beyond which is a stretch of woods that climbs a bluff-side for a couple of hundred yards, with the nearest house in that direction at the top of the bluff.
Wherever it came from, the sound of the flute was as sweet as it was unexpected. It was too distant for me to hear it clearly or to follow the tune it was playing, although I thought it might be something more or less Celtic. I sat down in the wooden swing in the front yard and for the next twenty minutes or so engaged in a Cagean exercise of placing my attention as completely as I could on the sounds and sights of the coming storm. Mobile Bay is a hundred and fifty yards or so to the west, beyond a line of trees, and the sound of wind and waves rose together, soon overcoming the small and distant sound of the flute. The thunder became louder and more frequent, the clouds black overhead. The temperature dropped several degrees within a few minutes. The tops of the trees swayed wildly and noisily. I expected at any moment to be drenched by rain, but the rushing sound just kept getting louder. At last a few large drops began to fall. Looking through the line of trees toward the bay, across the lot which my wealthy neighbor has converted into a playground for his children, I could see rain falling, but the wind was so strong and I was so sheltered by the trees that little of it reached me. I expected to be driven inside by the deluge which the storm must have borne, but it never came. We had only caught the edge of the storm as it drove past in a northeasterly direction.
Mr. Cage did have a point; on some mystical level the difference between music and mere sound may indeed become arbitrary, or at least indistinct. For some years now I have not been able to experience silence. I have tinnitis, generally described as a persistent ringing in the ears but more accurately a constant colorless tone that might be one of the overtones of the ringing of a small bell, somewhere around the 5000hz range. Sometimes it’s worse than others, and in general I haven’t found it terribly hard to live with, although I’m sometimes anxious that it may be a harbinger of worse hearing problems to come. At any rate the more quiet is my environment, the more noticeable is the tinnitis, and so it has had the effect of making me appreciate sound, almost any sound that is not actively unpleasant, even more than I always have. Someone (and if anyone knows who it was, please let me know) has said that in heaven all that is not silence is music. Or is it the other way around? No matter. I look forward to it eagerly, and will perhaps appreciate more than many the silence, which I imagine to be the aural equivalent of the perfect blackness we see between the stars.