John Cage: Creating Silence

John Cage, who thinks that sound and silence both belong to the same continuum, points to conceptual violence, ideas that work in directions perpendicular to the material plane.

“Harmony, so-called, is a forced abstract vertical relation which blots out the spontaneous transmitting nature of each of the sounds forced into it. It is artificial and unrealistic.” John Cage, Silence p. 152

At what point does sound cease and become silent? 4’33”, a Cage composition which consists of a musician not playing an instrument is designed to operate on ideas about what silence is and where it might be found. Silence, so-called, is an ever-diminishing quantity. The closer you look for it the farther away it becomes. It is artificial and unrealistic. Silence is where we assume it to be, which is another way of saying silence is where we want it to be. Cage hates harmony because it creates boundaries that break the intensities of sound. Harmonic gaps are dams that prohibit the exchange of potential energy for kinetic, or worse, hijack the process to spin turbines. Rupture never really happens, only processes of convergence and divergence, an integration of sound and silence.

David Tudor performing 4’33”

Take Down Walls

Around 1440 BC, after Joshua had taken over the leadership of the Israelites from Moses and led them back to conquer Canaan, he spearheaded a sonic assault on the city of Jericho. Surrounded by mountainous terrain, Jericho has always been held as a promised city—a natural oasis in a vast desert.

As the Biblical story goes, the Divine Commander instructed Joshua to lay siege by completing a circuit of the city walls with his army in total silence once a day for six days, and on the seventh day (the number of wholeness and completeness in the Bible) he was to bring seven priests carrying shofars to make the circuit seven times. With the Ark by their side, they were all to blow their horns in unison while the army shouted at the top of their lungs—a sonic boom erupted over the city, a war cry strong enough to break mortar. It was the first ultrasonic bulldozer, the most powerful weapon on Earth.

As Steve Goodman points out in Sonic Warfare, audio artist Gregory Whitehead has created “a hyperstitional research institute” called the Jericho Institute. The short radiophonic piece blurs the use of acoustic weaponry by the U.S. military and the language of the Christian Right. According to the institute’s brief, it is aiming to “synchronize the latent vibrational power of these faith networks with an infrasonic sound that formally replicates the voice of God in terms of its frequency range and overall acoustic envelop. We call this process, ‘charging the airspace,’ a process that resembles rubbing on the magic bottle until the genie comes out.”

Indeed, when Joshua fit the Battle of Jericho, the walls came tumbling down.

A Mute World

Before there was language, there was the rhythm of music: the thumping beats of drumming, distinct pulses of sound in an environment otherwise filled with indistinct, ambient sound. It was like the beating of your heart your chest, that indescribable feeling that sound is being produced—rhythm being generated—without any audible noise until you get real close. Otherwise, before language, the world was mostly silent, or at least we believe it was.

And yet there were flying insects that buzzed, monkeys that howled, whales that sang, and trees that crackled in the passing breeze. The world has never been silent, and yet we interpret our noisy baseline (that unquiet flatline hum when you’re all alone in an enclosed room) as such. What would it do for our psychology to actually internalize the fact that we are never without the comfort of what audio engineers call “presence,” that compressed, high-energy sound that is emitted by almost all electronic media? And when are we ever not surrounded my electronic media?

In sensory deprivation tanks, the only “sounds” (that which the human brain imagines) are your own internal dialogue, the sloshing of saliva in your mouth, and the thumping of your heart, tapping out the seconds that go by. Bodily sensations are turned into sound waves. An eminent French physician and hearing specialist, Dr. Alfred Tomatis, has stated that the first sense organ that develops when we are in the womb is the ear—first as a receiver of internal dialogue, then it matures to pick up the outside world. It has been shown in numerous studies that the body is capable of amplifying and conducting sound frequencies—bones carry these sound waves. Without audible sound that originates from the outside (as in a sensory deprivation tank), is the music of our own bones the only thing we can perceive? That total silence is terrifying.

A clip from Ron Fricke’s nonverbal, nonacted film, Baraka:

Case Study: the Vineyard

Our DNA—that double helix that holds the blueprints for growth—can sometimes trap us in more ways than just which disease we might develop later in life. Nora Ellen Groce, an anthropologist, studies not just how our genetics can dictate whether we are born deaf, but how that initial mutation in the double helix can then shape how an entire community approaches silence and noise.

From the mid-seventeenth century until the turn of the twentieth, the small, isolated towns of Chilmark and West Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard were home to a group of genetically linked families that mostly carried a unique recessive genetic mutation that led to an astounding number of deaf children being born every year. The proportion of hearing to deaf was exponentially greater on the island than on the mainland.

These individuals, enclosed in their own silent worlds, were “just like everybody else,” the Island elders told Groce. The deaf were fully integrated into society, freely communicated with any and all (as most hearing people had learned the pidgin sign language used on the Vineyard)—there was no barrier between those who were constantly infiltrated by noise and those who experienced a fundamentally silent world. Their “disability” did not exist in these genetically and geographically isolated towns; instead of thinking that the deaf were tragically enclosed in their own world, they were remarkably unremarkable.

Then the automobile came, and some moved to the mainland and some stayed; the communities were no longer penned in by water, deaf children were not born in such astounding numbers, and the recessive gene for heredity deafness dissipated and disappeared. The double helix did not, in this case, confine because the community chose not to isolate those who could not hear.

Purity and Danger

The anthropologist Mary Douglas, in her study Purity and Danger, remarks that “unwanted sound” is just as scorned in native cultures as dirt. In the search for purity, numerous societies attempt to rid themselves of all that is deemed unclean—and mostly this takes the form of strict guidelines and rules regarding the body, sex, and food—and also to erase as many sounds as possible from their environment.

The regulation of sound and the imposition of a mute acoustic ecology is a way to create order out of chaos, regulating the social body and individual speakers. Sophocles is attributed with saying that “silence is the kosmos [good order] of women:” in order to control the unruly fairer sex, antiquity says that power must be wielded and the powerless silenced. Noiselessness is purity, unattainable.

Static on the Dial

Vendex from Radio Patapoe in Amsterdam on the differences between the free radio communication and commercial sound blenders (as quoted in Geert Lovink’s “The Theory of Mixing: An Inventory of Free Radio Techniques in Amsterdam”):

“If you put a signal through 40 km of copper wire, I think you should be able to hear that. That expensive equipment that normal stations use only produces more silence. The VU meters on real equipment work down to -50 dB, while a regular deck only goes to -20 dB. They’re quieter than quiet. The loud and soft sounds are pulled further apart. Why should you have the right to so much silence?”