Cage and Silence
I am trying to describe it ... It was a tone in which
all tones resounded while at the same time it contained all the silence.
(Psychologist Silvia Ostertag during a masterclass of cellist Pablo Casals).
 In Cage and Noise,
I investigate the way in which John Cage deconstructs the borders between
music and noise. More familiar, perhaps, is the way in which Cage has concerned
himself with the relation between music and silence. 'We should listen
to the silence with the same attention that we give to the sounds',
writes Cage. His point of departure is the simple, but crucial observation
that the materials of music consist of sounds and silence; that to compose
is to articulate these two. The only parameter of sound that is shared
by silence is duration. 'If you consider that sound is characterized
by its pitch, its loudness, its timbre, and its duration, and that silence
that is the opposite and, therefore, the necessary partner of sound, is
characterized only by its duration, you will be drawn to the conclusion
that, of the four characteristics of the material of music, duration, that
is, time length, is the most fundamental. Silence cannot be heard in terms
of pitch or harmony: it is heard in terms of time length', Cage states
in a lecture on Satie (Kostelanetz, p.81). From this, Cage finds that the
underlying structure of music can no longer be based on harmony and tonality
(Beethoven), or on the twelve-tone system (Schönberg). The underlying
structure of music is rhythmic. 'There can be no right making of music
that does not structure itself from the very roots of sound and silence
- lengths of time' (Cage in Kostelanetz, p.81-2).
 A central role of duration. A central role of the concept of silence.
During the course of Cage's life, his thoughts on silence have undergone
some changes, including the way it appears throughout his compositions.
In his article, 'So etwas wie Stille gibt es nicht' ['There is no such
thing as silence'], Eric de Visscher distinguishes three stages that may
serve to mark out Cage's developing thoughts on silence. The stages are
a structural notion of silence, a spatial notion, and silence as the absence
of any intention or purposiveness (cf. Visscher, p.48-54). These three
notions will be elaborated upon below.
(One comment: Unlike De Visscher, I do not regard these stages as a
chronological development, but as an analytical tool. In any given time
period, Cage may work in various ways. For example, he may drop some of
his ideas while reactivating others from the past. There is no linear progression;
it is more like layers overlapping one another.)
 A structural notion of silence.
At first, Cage conceives of silence in a traditional way, as the absence
of sound, or as minimal sound activity. Already, however, silence is not
just a negativity to Cage. The attention to silence aids in uncovering
musical structure since this can only be determined by duration (see above).
By assigning the primacy of the musical parameters to duration, Cage not
only opens music to silence, but to all sounds of any quality or pitch.
Music becomes an empty (silent?) concept from which any type of sound may
emerge. Silence acquires an important role: only through silence can the
musical material adopt many types of sounds.
A reversal takes place. A reversal in (thinking on) music. A reversal
in the traditional hierarchy in music where silence is secondary and subordinate
to sound (cf. Visscher in Nauck, p.8). Silence becomes an absolute prerequisite
for the introduction of all sounds to the musical domain. This new (concept
of) music originates from silence. A reversal for sure. However, this structural
notion of silence still leaves Cage bound to a relatively classical attitude
as it rests on the definition of silence as the absence of sound. The relation
between sound and silence is horizontal, that is to say, they take
turns in succession, thereby excluding each other. The musical structure
rests on their order and mutual exclusion (cf. Visscher, p.49).
 A spatial notion of silence.
Cage's 'Lecture on Nothing', a reading from 1950, signals a shift in
his thinking on silence. He realizes that the important role of silence
regarding musical structure does not yet establish a full recognition of
its positive qualities. Cage wants to avoid approaching silence from a
negative point of view, i.e., as absence of sound. At the beginning of
'Lecture on Nothing', he attempts to arrive at a different relationship
towards silence. 'What we require is silence; but what silence requires
is that I go on talking ... But now there are silences and the words make
help make the silences ... We need not fear the silences, we may love them'
(Cage, 1961, p.109-10). Silence is no longer the absence of sounds; silence
itself consists of sounds. Silence begets sounds. Chiasm. Reversibility.
Through the intertwining of silence and sound, their mutual penetrability
now becomes appreciated. Each retains a part of its antipode; each requires
the other as its frame. The necessary interdependency between sound and
silence relates to two principal aspects: silence is not only the precondition
for sound - this means that silence contains sound - every sound in turn
harbors silence as well. (According to Martin Zenck, the 'Lecture on Nothing'
points out that the words of spoken language by which the silence is demarcated
are in fact the precondition for silence.) The latter principle manifests
itself especially in compositions that are on the outer limits of audibility,
such as Waiting
Cage and Noise).
In this 'silent piece', silence does not disappear when a tone resounds,
rather, it continuously resonates along with the tones. Here, a vertical
conception of silence comes into play. Sound and silence develop in a parallel
way without mutual exclusion; the one is always already present in the
other (cf. Visscher, p.49-50).
 A spatial concept of silence. Silence as a
space that is always already pregnant with sounds. And vice-versa! The
relation between silence and sound becomes more complex. To Cage, it no
longer suffices to state that silence and sound are mutually dependent
in order to exist, or that sound emerges from silence. Cage reverses this
idea: silence resounds in sounds. Silence becomes more prominent when traces
of silence in sounds are detected. 'Music already enjoys inaudibility (silence)',
Cage writes (Kostenaletz, p.116). After his 'Lecture on Nothing', Cage's
thoughts on silence and sound go through a shift that is embodied in his
'Lecture on Something'. (The opposition of silence-sound, together with
oppositions such as nothing-something, death-life, law-freedom, etc., form
an entire chain of apparent oppositions in Cage's universe that can no
longer be thought as oppositions. As such, they are objects of a strategy
of deconstruction in music.)
'It is nothing that goes on and on without beginning middle or meaning
or ending. Something is always starting and stopping, rising and falling.
The nothing that goes on is what Feldman speaks of when he speaks of being
submerged in silence. The acceptance of death is the source of all life.
So that listening to this music one takes as a springboard the first sound
that comes along; the first something springs into nothing and out of that
nothing arises the next something; etc. like an alternating current. Not
one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it. And no silence exists
that is not pregnant with sound' (Cage, 1961, p.135). Silence is (not)
nothing; it is no longer the absence of sound. It consists of all the ambient
sounds that make up a musical space, a space of which the borders cannot
always be clearly defined. Silence is the space in which sounds occur.
Sound and silence are simultaneously present with one constantly carrying
traces of the other. Cage now no longer reverses the hierarchical opposition
(where sound or music is primary and silence is secondary). Instead, he
undermines the opposition as a whole. Sound and silence become two versions
of a generalized arche-silence with the result that they both acquire
a different status.
 As long as Cage holds onto the structural notion of silence he has
no need to give up the idea of silence as emptiness. However, his merging
of silence and life brings about a dispersion of the difference between
silence and (ambient) sounds. This was not just a theoretical thought construct.
Evidence of this can be found in Cage's recollection of an experience in
a soundproof chamber at Harvard University. 'For, when, after convincing
oneself ignorantly that sound has, as its clearly defined opposite, silence,
that since duration is the only characteristic of sound that is measurable
in terms of silence, therefore any valid structure involving sounds and
silences should be based, not as occidentally traditional, on frequency,
but rightly on duration, one enters an anechoic chamber, as silent as technologically
possible in 1951, to discover that one hears two sounds of one's own unintentional
making (nerve's systematic operation, blood's circulation), the situation
one is clearly in is not objective (sound-silence), but rather subjective
(sounds only), those intended and those others (so-called silence) not
intended' (Cage, 1961, p.13-4). Silence cannot be the absence of sound:
'There is no such thing as silence', Cage concludes (Cage, 1961, p.191).
Silence consists of all existing sounds (silence as life) that surround
us (silence as spatial dimension) (cf.
Noise, Silence and Sound). This ultimately opens the musical
world to the entire world of sounds, including non-musical sounds (cf.
Visscher, p.51). By doing so, Cage also undermines the distinction between
central and peripheral tone properties that were natural for centuries
in European music. Intensity and timbre are no longer subordinate to the
pitch and duration of the tone. They no longer add 'color' or 'spice' to
these so-called central properties; rather, they are to be regarded as
independent and equal parameters. The traditional hierarchy between the
secondary tone properties (expression and coloratura) and the primary,
structural parameters (tone duration and pitch) is now implicitly subject
 Silent music. Like Waiting
This composition does not contradict the properties of silence. The sounds
retain the 'reverberation of nothingness' from which they originate. Obviously,
this silence is not to be understood as ordinary silence. Silence can be
full, all encompassing, indeed, it may even be loud. During the first sixteen
bars of Waiting
, a world
of sounds unfolds that was excluded from the world of music for the longest
time. Since Cage cannot and will not manipulate these sounds, it is always
unclear what these sounds will be. The tenuous piano sounds that join these
ambient sounds from bar 17 on will not drown them out. The 'silence' remains
audible throughout the piano part and is inextricably integrated in the
composition. Silence and (musical) sound are both present at the same time.
One is not reduced to the other. There is no hierarchical relation either.
The sounds of the piano engage into a dialogue with their environment;
they join the already present sounds respectfully, that is, without too
much disturbance, and modestly retreat before the piece reaches its close.
A double silence. A first silence frames the musical piece (a silence framed
by the concept of music in turn). A silence around music, but only
experienced through music. A second silence is not a background silence,
but converges with the musical piece. Silence on silence. Silence
 Silence as the absence of any intention.
After describing his experience at Harvard, Cage writes that the difference
between sound and silence cannot be a property of an object or a situation
since sound is ubiquitous at all times. Therefore, a division between the
two rests on a distinction between intended and non-intended sounds. In
his 1958 reading, 'Composition as Process', a summary of his ideas on silence,
Cage returns to this matter. 'Formerly, silence was the time lapse between
sounds, useful towards a variety of ends, among them that of tasteful arrangement,
where by separating two sounds or two groups of sounds their differences
or relationships might receive emphasis; or that of expressivity, where
silences in a musical discourse might provide pause or punctuation; or
again, that of architecture, where the introduction or interruption of
silence might give definition either to a predetermined structure or to
an organically developing one. Where none of these or other goals are present,
becomes something else - not silence at all, but sounds, the ambient sounds.
The nature of these is unpredictable and changing.
These sounds (which
are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention)
may be depended upon to exist. The world teems with them, and is, in fact,
at no point free of them' (Cage, 1961, p.22-3, my italics). Silence no
longer coincides with itself, but transforms into unpredictable and changing
ambient sounds from which one cannot escape. These sounds are called 'silence'
because they are non-intentional. It is the presence or absence of an intention,
meaning, or purpose that distinguishes musical sounds from silence. Silence
is not merely the absence of sounds; something is called silence when there
is no apparent connection to the intentions that produce these sounds.
(This means that there is no essential distinction between silent silence
and loud silence according to Cage. They both lack intention.)
Out of respect for these sounds, Cage takes care that his compositions
do not disrupt this state of non-intentionality or silence. He argues in
favor of 'a composing of sounds within a universe predicated upon the sounds
themselves rather than upon the mind that can envisage their becoming into
being' (Cage, 1961, p.27-8). Musical sounds should be in harmony with the
sounds of the outside world. Silence becomes a perceivable presence (i.e.,
the sounds that surround us) and composing is about finding sounds that
respect this silence. 'When I write a piece, I try to write it in such
a way that it won't interrupt this other piece which is already going on'
(Cage in Duckworth, p.15). Cage writes his music on the sounds that always
already surround it. Arche-silence. Not a word, not a concept that
can be defined. Arche-silence is the play of differences (among music,
silence, and sound). Arche-silence makes possible this play of differences.