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JUST LISTENING

- The magic hand of chance

Silence 50th anniversary edition By John Cage, Wesleyan University Press, $24.95

“Why is it so difficult for so many people to listen?” intoned John Cage — composer, writer, philosopher — in a 1958 lecture called “Communication”. He was addressing American university students and faculty, and his lecture was composed entirely of questions, and quotations from other composers of contemporary music. The order and quantity of the quotations were determined by “chance operations” possibly dictated by the throwing of dice, as directed by I Ching, the ancient Chinese Book of Changes. It was a book that Cage had been using increasingly in his musical practice and everyday life like a personal Bible of Randomness, which provided practical as well as metaphysical guidance, and inspired him to compose a massive piece for the piano, called Music of Changes, in 1951. For this lecture, Cage, then in his mid-forties, used the I Ching even to decide when he might pause and light a cigarette. His questions and quotations, each a separate line on the printed page, look like a mix of play-text and choreographic notation. Throughout Silence, Cage talks about his lectures as performances, minutely notating their unfolding in time, and this exquisite 50th-anniversary edition — collecting his articles, essays and lectures from 1937 to 1961 — finds the perfect typographic solutions for the lectures’ brilliant and unsettling playfulness.

Arnold Schoenberg, Cage’s teacher for a while, had described his pupil as “not a composer but an inventor of genius”. Today, Cage’s writings — in Silence and in the books that followed: A Year from Monday, Empty Words and Anarchy, among others — embody that radical and expansive genius perhaps more enduringly than his music does, apart from the iconic 4’33”, first performed to scandalized audiences in 1952. Silence is one of those great, life-changing books — like Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer or Tagore’s Chhinnapatrabali — which we read and re-read at different stages in our lives, and at different levels, and whose existential lessons far exceed the media and genres that form their original contexts of writing.

In “Communication”, it becomes clear as the questions tumble out that listening is about far more than merely music: “Why is it so difficult for so many people to listen?/ Why do they start talking when there is something to hear?/ Do they have their ears not on the sides of their heads but situated inside their mouths/ so that when they hear something their first impulse is to start talking?// The situation should be made more normal, don’t you think?/ Why don’t they keep their mouth shut and their ears open?/ Are they stupid?/ And, if so, why don’t they try to hide their stupidity?/ Were bad manners acquired when knowledge of music was acquired?/ Does being musical make one automatically stupid and unable to listen?/ Then don’t you think one should put a stop to studying music?/ Where are your thinking caps?”

This West-Coast provocativeness — Cage was born in LA — refuses to be cowed by the high classical tradition of music from Bach and Beethoven to Stravinsky and Schoenberg, the grey matter of Europe, everywhere in ruins after the war. In “Forerunners of Modern Music” (1949), Cage compares Schoenberg’s atonal wilderness to a “bombed-out city” that affords composers “the opportunity to build again”. This is a kind of “resurrection”, provided it is not the same old phoenix that rises again and again from the ashes. For Cage, building structures that are radically new begins — and possibly ends, we realize with a sort of freeing puzzlement as we get deeper into Silence — with the acceptance of the “emptiness” out of which music has to salvage its new meaningfulness. The mysterious and almost mystical gift that glimmers like a secret jewel at the heart of Cage’s writings is none other than “Nothing”. It is a word that is wrested from the stranglehold of Occidental nihilism and brought back to vibrant life with nourishment from an idiosyncratic and often sublimely comic appropriation of Oriental mysticism, especially the Zen discourses of Daisetz Suzuki and the gospels of Ramakrishna (although Meister Eckhart was an abiding influence as well).

When Cage wrote “I have nothing to say and I am saying it”, or “Each something is a celebration of the nothing that supports it” (in the “Lecture on Nothing” and the “Lecture on Something” respectively), then Nothing becomes a keyword, linked to a delicately held conviction. It denotes a state of being in the world, an unillusioned and clutter-free receptivity founded upon an unselfconscious acceptance of the sum of what “happens” in a universe of endless “possibilities”. Sounds are “events” in this “field of possibilities”, and this is the universe where listening, in its largest and deepest sense, bears fruit. But, we have to clear our decks to recognize and receive this Nothing, the vital emptiness, in which each sound becomes fully itself while being brought into relation with other sounds in time and space. And this structure of correspondences has nothing, or little, to do with the will or intention of the composer, and with subjectivity or profundity earnestly valued by the great traditions of Europe. It depends, instead, on the mind’s openness to the “magic hand of chance”, the “happenings” that make up the living textures of our existence. What the writing, hearing and playing of a piece of music accomplishes, according to Cage at the beginning of Silence, is, precisely, “nothing”. This difficult and humbling call to a wise passiveness, challenging the will-driven foundations of Occidental models of creative action, pushes the idea of music towards the performance of its own vanishing trick — paradoxically, through a revival of the magic of listening. It is when we truly learn to listen that we realize that silence is never purely empty: “THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS SILENCE. GET THEE TO AN ANECHOIC CHAMBER AND HEAR THERE THY NERVOUS SYSTEM IN OPERATION AND HEAR THERE THY BLOOD IN CIRCULATION.”

This openness, through silence, to a music of chance, created by the ever-changing web of what happens — life itself at its most immediate and ordinary — is what 4’33” holds in its empty frame every time a pianist comes on stage and sits at an open piano for exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds doing absolutely nothing, yet demanding that the audience listens as it would listen to, say, a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue. “Contemporary music,” Cage declaims in mock-strident capitals with long pauses between the phrases, “is not the music of the future nor the music of the past but simply music present with us this moment now this now moment.”