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Cage, White, Mallarmé, Silence

This page contains a fictitious encounter between John Cage and French poet Stephane Mallarmé, an encounter between the silence in music and the white in a poem, an encounter between Cage's Waiting and Mallarmé's Un coup de dés. A short meditation on a possible analogy between the (non)thematization of whiteness in the writings of Mallarmé and the (non)thematization of silence in the compositions of Cage. A text on 'the space between': between the words, between the tones and notes.
'White on white. The blank is colored by a supplementary white'. Silence on silence: the silence is permeated by a supplementary silence. Between white and white. Between silence and silence.

[1] A synesthetic experiment. Which color most closely resembles silence? Speech is silver; silence is golden, as the saying goes. But meanings differ.
Composer R. Murray Schafer argues that if 'white noise' is the total of all audible frequencies at the same time, then silence could be called 'black noise'.
Conversely, John Cage associates silence with whiteness referring to the paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, in particular. In 1949, Cage viewed a new series of all-white paintings by Rauschenberg. ('White on white. The blank is colored by a supplementary white'.) What fascinated Cage was, as Rauschenberg said, that 'a canvas is never empty'. The canvasses are 'mirrors of the air', a landing-ground for dust, shadows, and reflections, not passive, but on the contrary, hypersensitive. The white paintings gave Cage the courage and 'authority' to compose his silent pieces.
French poet Stephane Mallarmé makes a similar connection between whiteness and silence. In 'The Double Session' (Dissemination, p.173-286), Derrida refers to a sheet in Mallarmé's Livre that features the following lines (Dissemination, p.230):
 

The intellectual armature of the
poem, conceals itself and - takes place - holds in the space that
                                                                isolates the stanzas and
among the blankness of the white paper; a significant silence that it
is no less lovely to compose than
verse.

 

[2] In much greater detail, Derrida addresses Mallarmé's text Mimique in which silence is an important theme (Dissemination, p.175).
 

Mimique
Silence, sole luxury after rhymes, an orchestra only marking with its gold, its brushes with thought and dusk, the detail of its signification on a par with a stilled ode and which it is up to the poet, roused by a dare, to translate! the silence of an afternoon of music; I find it, with contentment, also, before the ever original reappearance of Pierrot or of the poignant and elegant mime Paul Margueritte.
Such is this PIERROT MURDERER OF HIS WIFE composed and set down by himself, a mute soliloquy that the phantom, white as a yet unwritten page, holds in both face and gesture at full length to his soul ...
... Surprise, accompanying the artifice of a notation of sentiments by unproffered sentences - that, in the sole case, perhaps, with authenticity, between the sheets and the eye there reigns a silence still, the condition and delight of reading.

 

[3] Mimique. A Pierrot story. The Pierrot character associates silence with whiteness. The two most remarkable and typical features of the Pierrot are that it tells its story in silence and that his face is white (neutrality or utter coldness?). Throughout the history of the Pierrot story, silence and whiteness are inextricably linked.
Mimique is also a text about silence, a text that often praises silence (cf. the fragments cited above). Elsewhere in Mimique, Mallarmé talks (in concealed terms) about the surplus value of mime, the groping in silence. In 'The Double Session', Derrida points out that Mimique resides between two silences 'that are breached or broached thereby' (cf. Dissemination, p.223). Derrida could mean this in a literal sense: Mimique begins and ends with the word 'silence'. But (of course) there is more to say. This text on silence contains a considerable number of silences indicated by its many commas. Derrida notes that Mallarmé regarded these commas as pause marks and intervals that interrupt the progression of the sentence. The commas create silences. Thus, silence is present in both content and form.
Like Mimique, Cage's Waiting (Play music) can be read or heard as a 'text' that resides between two silences; the piece begins and ends with bars that contain only rests. Where silence is made explicit through the corporeality of the words in Mallarmé's text, the silences in Waiting (Play music) are strongly emphasized by its subdivision in bars. However, we must think of Waiting (Play music) from a traditional perspective, i.e., as starting from sounds, in order to understand the pauses as hindrances for the progression of the music. If the pauses in Mimique can be read as fragmentations of the story, Cage inverts what Mallarmé aims for in this text. The notated piano sounds in Waiting (Play music) seem to preclude silence; they emerge from a world that is occupied by silence.
Analogously, a text could be seen as emerging from white space. Mallarmé clearly experiments with this idea in some other texts. In his poem, Un coup de dés [Throw of the Dice], the words are spread left and right across the page. (Incidentally, the title of the poem nicely coincides with Cage's method of composing through the throwing of dice.) The special typography, the irregular interspaces bring about fragmented word islands in a sea of white. (The typography of Cage's books greatly resembles this work by Mallarmé.) The white seems to function as a primeval sea from which the text originates. The words form small islands that emerge from this primeval sea. They interrupt the whiteness of the pages. The blank white dominates (cf. Van der Sijde, p.203).
 

      A DICE THROW
 

                              WILL NEVER
 
 

                                                  EVEN WHEN CAST IN ETERNAL

                                          CIRCUMSTANCES
 

                                                        UP FROM A SHIPWRECK
 
 
 
 
 

WHETHER
         the

               Abyss
 
 

  whitened
          slack
                raging
                       at a tilt
                           flaps a hopeless

                            wing

                        its own
                                   too
                                    early falling back in the struggle to trim its flight
                                                            and covering the spurts
                                                                            cutting down the leaps

 

[4] According to Mallarmé, meaning always is the effect of a play between the words. The white of the page is thus charged with meaning; moreover, it is the precondition for any meaning to emerge. Furthermore, the open spaces in Un coup de dés indicate that the text cannot coagulate into any definitive meaning; the words refer to one another, but together they do not form a closed structure. Mallarmé calls his typographical play 'espacement' [spacing], a term Derrida adopted in his text, 'Différance' (Margins of Philosophy, p.3-27). 'The movement of signification is possible only if each so-called 'present' element, each element appearing on the scene of presence, is related to something other than itself' (Margins, p.13). A sign refers to something other than itself; therefore, it stands in relation to what it is not. 'An interval must separate the present from what it is not in order for the present to be itself, but this interval that constitutes it as present must, by the same token, divide the present in and of itself ... this interval is what might be called spacing, the becoming-space of time or the becoming-time of space' (Margins, p.13). Both Mallarmé and Derrida emphasize the role of space, of whiteness, in the determination of meaning. In Dissemination, Derrida addresses this issue in different words: 'Languages, as we now know, are diacritical realities; each element within them is in itself less important than the gap that distinguishes it from other elements' (Dissemination, p.250).
The space between words, the gap, the white, becomes the precondition for a text to appear as text. From the diacritical, Derrida will later draw another consequence, namely, 'a certain inexhaustibility [of meaning] that cannot be classed in the categories of richness, intentionality, or a horizon'. The dissemination, the infinite dispersion of meanings, escapes the author's intentions similar to the way that (composed) silence escapes the composer's compulsion to control the world of sounds. Un coup de dés 'reveals' this dissemination in the abundant white, the spaces between the words. The text joins the white and complies with the blank in the same way the prescibed musical sounds join the already existing silence in Waiting (Play music). Silence. Not an unarticulated nothingness. No meaningless absence of sounds. Silence must be re-thought. Through whiteness.

[5] Many of Mallarmé's poems feature a polysemous play on the concept of white. Words such as 'snow', 'swan', 'virginity', 'foam', 'frigidity', 'glacier', and 'paper' are all associated with whiteness. Two possible entrances towards the white seem to unfold. First, the white seems to become a set theme in the associative chain (just as silence becomes thematic in Mimique), a semantic concept. 'The 'blank' appears first of all, to a phenomenological or thematic reading, as the inexhaustible totality of the semantic valences that have any tropic affinity with it', says Derrida (Dissemination, p.252, my italics). An inexhaustible totality. Although inexhaustible, Derrida seems to assume a totality with regard to the semantic valences. Polysemy. Second, in Un coup de dés, Mallarmé does not write about whiteness. Rather, he shows it making it visible through the typography. A non-thematic position. Un coup de dés attempts to make something visible that cannot be expressed in words, something that escapes wording. Derrida calls this 'the blank as a blank between the valences, a hymen that unites and differentiates them in the series' (Dissemination, p.252). Thus, Mallarmé's whiteness relates to both the totality, however infinite, of the polysemous series, and to the spaced splitting of the whole, the writing site where such a totality is produced. However, the latter is not just one extra valence, a meaning that enriches the polysemous series, an extra signified or signifier. Neither is the blank the transcendental origin of the series. Derrida calls this whiteness the 'non-theme of the spacing that relates the different meanings to each other' (Dissemination, p.252). The blank comes neither before, nor after the series; it intervenes between the semantic series in general; it liberates the effect that a series exists. Whiteness as/is différance.

[6] Derrida criticizes the limited idea of 'thematicism' to interpret Mallarmé's work. 'If we can begin to see that the 'blank' and the 'fold' cannot in fact be mastered as themes or as meanings ... then we will precisely have determined the limits of thematic criticism itself' (Dissemination, p.245-6). This may immediately refer to the non-thematic white of a page (a 'falling outside of the text'). But Derrida also points out something else. He attempts to show that Mallarmé's word associations do not only refer to meanings; therefore, they can only unjustly be called thematic. Derrida addresses (as does Mallarmé) the material aspects of a word, something a thematic approach does not usually do. 'Thematicism necessarily leaves out of account the formal, phonic, or graphic 'affinities' that do not have the shape of a word' (Dissemination, p.255). Phonic or graphic affinities. Mallarmé plays with connections such as 'cygne' [swan] and 'signe' [sign], or 'vol' [flight] and 'voile' [veil or sail]. This is where the words hesitate between sound and meaning, and where the musical character of Mallarmé's poetry becomes apparent. A non-discursive sonority. At times, this creates a paradoxical situation. For example, blankness or whiteness can connote both virginity (the virginal white of a page) and sexuality (the naked skin of a white woman). It differs from itself in the same way as silence differs from itself (the other) in Cage's music (cf. Music, Noise, Silence, and Sound) .
Mallarmé's poetry is a play of articulations, a re-inscription within sequences that can no longer be controlled. An example. 'White' does not comprise the essence of 'swan', because 'swan' equally determines the value of 'white'. 'White' and 'swan' have different connotations. The inexhaustible expressiveness of these words is caused by their mutual interaction (that only increases when other words are added to the chain). Each word is the trope of the other (cf. Van der Sijde, p.227). There is no center 'hors-texte', no transcendental signified that can keep this endless dissemination under control. (A change from polysemy to dissemination.) 'If there is no such thing as a total or proper meaning, it is because the blank folds over' (Dissemination, p.258). But this folding over is not a chance event that happens to the blank from the outside. It is within the blank as well as outside of it.

[7] Can we make an analogy with Waiting (Play music)? A first reading might suggest that the opening and closing bars of Waiting (Play music) coagulates into a thematized silence. The silent bars take up an equally important part of the rhythmic structure of Waiting (Play music) as the bars that contain notes indicating that Cage treats both in an equal fashion. The theme is silent, i.e., the composer cannot determine the theme. The theme is infinitely open because every performance fills it with the random sounds of the environment. This silent theme will not be limited or controlled. However, it is alternated in a horizontal movement with a theme from the composer's hand. Silence and sounds take turns, relieving each other in time. Therefore, they are juxtaposed to each other in more than one way: 'non-sounds' vs. sounds, non-intention vs. intention, open theme vs. closed theme, nature vs. culture, life vs. art, etc.
Cage, however, not only composes with silence, he also composes in silence. The silent parts and the written notes of Waiting (Play music) both join an always already present silence, always already resounding sounds. Silence and (musical) sound are no longer each others antagonists. They are no longer engaged in a sequential play. Silence does not only harbor an infinite abundance of sounds. Important in this second reading is that silence has nestled itself in the musical sounds. Silence does not stop when Cage's premeditated sounds resound. 'Silence has invaded everything, and there is still music', says Cage in For the Birds. Silence was always already present and it remains present. This is the non-theme of the duration. In the silent parts of Waiting (Play music), a silence on silence opens. Silence is colored by a supplementary silence; it differs from itself. ('White on white. The blank is colored by a supplementary white'.)
I call this silence of the second reading arche-silence. Waiting (Play music) is situated between silence, a thematization of silence (the general rests), and arche-silence, the rising and dissolving of differences and meanings (between silence and silence, silence and sound, sound and sound, etc.), the folds in the musical syntax. Arche-silence is the possibility of conceptuality, of a system within which every concept refers to other concepts. However, this arche-silence is not the origin (in the traditional sense of the word) of these differences. It is not an in-different presence because it is itself always pervaded by differentiation. The arche-silence does not precede these differences. Everything 'starts' with the differentiation. Différance. Thus, there can no longer be a matter of origin. Arche-silence is silence as differentiation: 'The blank [silence, MC] refers to the non-sense of spacing, the place where nothing takes place but the place. But that place is everywhere; it is not a site fixed and predetermined' (Dissemination, p.257).