Cage and Noise

[1] Music. Noise. Cage. Noise and music. Noise in music. Music in noise. Noise about music. Cage about noise. Cage about music as a cage.
John Cage was not the first, nor the last composer to critically question and transgress the borders between music and noise (in addition to the borders between music and silence and between silence and noise). Time and conventions will tell whether or not he is to be regarded as the most important composer in this area. As it stands, however, it is not yet possible to write about this topic without paying proper attention to Cage's endeavors. At the onset of the 21st century, he is still an undisputed reference point.

[2] In accordance with traditional music history, Cage's views on music and noise can be positioned at the end of a long line of developments in the history of music. I confine myself to mentioning two names that have influenced Cage's ideas. Futurist Luigi Russolo (1855-1947) was one of the first composers of the 20th century that attempted to emancipate noise, for which reason he may be regarded as a precursor of Cage (cf. Noise as Undifferentiated Sound). Cage himself, however, has referred more often to French-American composer Edgard Varèse (1885-1965). 'Years ago, for instance, after I decided to devote my life to music, I noticed that people distinguished between noises and sounds. I decided to follow Varèse and fight for noises, to be on the side of the underdog', Cage remembers in 'The Future of Music' (Gena and Brent, p.38). Although Varèse still defined music as 'organized sound' - a view Cage highly contests - Cage did consider him a kindred spirit since Varèse, more than anyone else in his generation, was clearly and actively concerned with accepting all audible phenomena as material proper to music. 'While others were still discriminating musical tones from noises, Varèse moved into the field of sound itself, not splitting it in two by introducing into the perception of it a mental prejudice' (Cage, 1961, p.83-4). Following Varèse and exceeding Russolo's undermining moves, Cage crusades against the superior position of 'the concept of music' in the world of sound. According to Cage, it is this very concept that makes it extremely difficult to develop an uninhibited and unprejudiced ear for sounds that one does not (yet) count among music. Instead, one often tries to avoid, banish, or ignore these sounds precisely because they do not belong to the musical domain. 'There is so much in so-called classical music that is bound up not with sound, but with theory', says Cage (Gena and Brent, p.182).

[3] Cage is aware of the problems that these views bring about. 'Musicians will not admit that we are making music; they will say that we are interested in superficial effects, or, at most, are imitating Oriental or primitive music. New and original sounds will be labeled as 'noise'. But our common answer to every criticism must be to continue working and listening, making music with its materials, sound and rhythm, disregarding the cumbersome, top-heavy structure of musical prohibitions' (Cage, 1961, p.87, my italics). Cage composes (and argues in favor of a) music open to the sounds that are outside of it. A non-obstruction of sounds. The sounds of automobile parts, pipe lengths, and sheets of metal, for example. Familiar sounds, but sounds that were never before heard as music. He asks us to free our minds from the old concepts of music and to explore ways to 'let sounds be themselves'. He opposes the said 'intellectuality' of music, since it stands in the way of an acceptance of noise. According to Cage, noises are sounds that have not yet been intellectualized. The ear can hear them directly; it cannot fit them into abstract preconceptions. (It is the failure of the intention to make these sounds fit that constitute them as noise.) Sounds should appear without positions of superiority or subordination.
Cage and noise. Cage and music. Resistance and transgression. Challenging dominant forms of power (musical conventions, definitions). Refusing mastery and being mastered. Disrupting the exercise of power (of the music world).

[4] Music. Noise. Cage. Noise and music. Noise in music. The concept of music does not interest Cage. 'If one feels protective about the word 'music' (if this word is sacred), protect it and find another word for all the rest that enters through the ears. It's a waste of time to trouble oneself with words' (Cage, 1961, p.190). However, can Cage withdraw from this concept, this word? Can he - cagey, perhaps dressed up in a caftan - escape from this cage? Doesn't the problem of closure remain at the heart of Cage's project? The very gesture that carries his compositions, his ideas, beyond the conceptual closure of music, the cage called music, re-inscribes them within the limits of closure; they are bound in a double gesture, one of transgression and restoration. The transgression of the closure can only proceed by employing the musical language and conceptuality that restores music to itself. It is music that turns noise into (musical) experience. But Cage's work is also the mark of an alterity that music is unable to reduce. The deconstructive working of Cage's compositions leaves music as a fissured concept that is unable to tell its inside from its outside. Cage's thinking and composing can not only be thought of as an effort to push the concept of music towards a new border; it comprises the infinite deferral of its enclosing power.
Music. Cage. Cage: an open framework of various kinds (cf. OED). The concept of music as an open framework. Impossible to close off. Impossible because an exteriority (noise) comes to play, brush against, rub, press against the limit itself and intervene in the inside (music) only to the extent that the inside is lacking. It is lacking in something and it is lacking from itself (cf. The Truth in Painting, p.56). Impossible because the outside (noise) is always already on the inside (music).

[5] In spite of the emancipative work of such people as Russolo and Varèse, Cage finds himself confronted with a musical world that still defines noise as 'sounds of indefinite pitch'. There is a clear hierarchy in the world of sounds: 'musical sounds' rise above 'noise sounds'. Cage is viewed with suspicion because he explores this forbidden 'non-musical' field of sounds. His first move (strategically speaking, though not chronologically) is to undermine this hierarchical order by introducing noise into the musical world, suggesting they are equal to musical sounds. However, this first move still leaves music with the upper hand. Departing from 'musical' sounds, a shift takes place where noise may now also be listened to as musical sounds. Cage's second move is to no longer take musical sounds, but rather noise, as his starting point.

[6] 'When Cage opens the door to the concert hall to let the noise of the street in, he is regenerating all of music: he is taking it to its culmination. He is blaspheming, criticizing the code and the network' (Attali, p.136). According to Jacques Attali, Cage does question some of the old codes (the process of musical creation, music as an autonomous activity), but he does not yet suggest any new substitutions. However, it is my belief that many of Cage's compositions do initiate a rather radical shift in our attitude towards music. It is a shift that could be called a deconstruction in music: this strategy of deconstruction can be identified in the inversion of the initial hierarchy between music and noise (cf. hierarchical oppositions).
In what Cage calls 'a mental prejudice', music is always the privileged, positive term while noise represents what should be avoided, excluded, and silenced. Perhaps, one will never be able to completely banish noise - in the sense of unwanted sounds - however, one can still strive to do so with all possible (technical) means since it would do more justice to what it is all about: music. Musical tones are taken to be the principal aspects of a composition; noise is disrupting, subordinate, a meaningless factor.
Cage shifts the accent from the composing of music to the composing of/with/in noise, thereby questioning the traditional hierarchy between the two. The point of departure shifts from 'musical' sounds to 'noise' sounds. In an interview, Cage refers to a workshop he conducted for composers: 'I had the lights turned out and the windows open. I advised everybody to put on their overcoats and listen for half an hour to the sounds that came in through the window, and then to add to them - in the spirit of the sounds that are already there, rather than in their individual spirits. That is actually how I compose. I try to act in accord with the absence of my music' (Gena and Brent, p.176). Cage does not depart from music; his starting point is noise. He wants to create a music that belongs to the noises of the environment, a music that will take them into consideration. He starts from the simple fact that we are always already surrounded by sounds. What is important is how we relate to those sounds. Cage formulates a clear proposition: if we try to ignore them, they disturb us; if we listen to them, if we accept them, they are fascinating. Agreeing with this idea requires us to reconsider and adjust our views on music. 'It becomes evident that music itself is an ideal situation, not a real one. The mind may be used either to ignore ambient sounds, pitches other than the eighty-eight, durations which are not counted, timbres which are unmusical or distasteful, and in general to control and understand an available experience. Or the mind may give up its desire to improve on creation and function as a faithful receiver of experience' (Cage, 1961, p.32). Two points of special interest. First, Cage makes clear that all the music we hear is constantly and inevitably pervaded by noise, by undesirable and/or undifferentiated sounds. Second, the emancipation of noise is not the exclusive responsibility of the composer or the musician, but requires an active and transformable attitude on the listener's part as well. When the listener includes the sounds of the environment in the composition, he in fact becomes co-composer. Cage demands an open mind from the listener, a susceptible ear for all that sounds, better yet, for all that sounds and that is excluded from music in the traditional sense. If we can relate to these 'noise' sounds - sounds that are always already there, sounds that are always already part of the music, part of the inside - in a 'musical' sense, then the distinction between music and noise becomes very diffuse, uncertain, arbitrary.

[7] Ambient sounds. Unpredictable by nature. Variable. (Musically) non-intentional. As such, they raise the question of non-intention, of non-doing, of doing-without-doing. All these sounds share in the absence of intention, which implies that they do not follow or pursue a predetermined direction, meaning, or destination. It is important to Cage that the act of composing does not disrupt this state of relative non-activity. His compositions must be in harmony with the events of the outside world.
Waiting (Play music) (Play music), a 1952 composition for solo piano, is one of many examples in which Cage uses noise as his starting point. Waiting (Play music) starts with 16 bars of rests, which implies that this work of music also consists of all the accidental noises in the room, whether humanly produced or not. Within this continuous stream of (non-intended) sounds, Cage's prescribed tones join in, hesitantly, softly, interrupted, as if they feel diffident to disrupt the 'music' that is already sounding. Towards the end, the piano sounds have long faded before the piece reaches its close. (In Dissemination, Derrida writes about the beginning of Philippe Sollers' novel Numbers: 'The initial capital letter is suspended by the three dots that precede it; the origin is suspended by this multiple punctuation and you are immediately plunged into the consumption of another text that had already, out of its double bottom, set this text in motion' (Dissemination, p.334). Sollers makes us realize that a text is always preceded by other texts. This idea carries one off to a labyrinth-like place. There is no origin. Likewise, the origin of Waiting (Play music) seems to be suspended by the 16 bars of rests. The ambient sounds that are always already present in Waiting (Play music), in all music, are a preceding text in which another text inserts itself. But, of course, these sounds are preceded by other ones for their part. Any origin is suspended.)
Music no longer drowns out the noise in Cage's works, nor should it; 'musical' sounds and 'noise' sounds relate accordingly to each other. Symbiosis. Each acts as both guest and host: music is a guest in the domain of the noise and noise is welcomed in the house of music. Cage makes one aware that every house, every home, has an opening (doors, windows). The house of music is open; it gives entrance to the stranger, to the guest, to noise. Cage brings us to accept the other of music, the other that is usually repudiated, that really should not exist. But conversely, the guest invites the host into his house. The guest becomes host of the host. Noise becomes the host of music. Cage denounces the hierarchy that privileges 'musical' sounds over 'noise' sounds. By starting from noise rather than from 'musical' sounds, he turns the hierarchy upside down. The music appears in the margins of ambient sounds and becomes an integral and special part of noise; music is grafted onto noise. Musical sounds become part of a composition that already contains ambient sounds (on the condition that it does so in a responsible and non-disruptive manner). But all this happens within the domain of music. Waiting (Play music) is music. It is a composition. It is a part of music history, part of an institution. There is no pure and simple absence of the frame. So, in fact, musical sounds enter the domain of music. They enter their own home as if they were coming from the outside, as if they were guests, strangers, noise. They enter their own domain thanks to the guest that is at the same time the host. What happens? A simultaneous appearance of two irreconcilable hypotheses. It happens. Not once, but again and again.

[8] 'Nothing was lost when everything was given away. In fact, everything is gained. In musical terms, any sounds may occur in any combination and in any continuity' (Cage, 1961, p.8). Waiting (Play music). Disclosure. Transgression. No longer are noise and music opposing poles of a contra-distinction. There is no contra-distinction anymore; 'noise' sounds and 'musical' sounds become subspecies of an arche-noise (or, perhaps, we can still just call it sound), an arche-noise that opens the play of differences. First made conscious, then subverted, the opposition now dissolves in a play of non-stable meanings, in which ground and figure easily change places. An endless displacement. An abyss.

[9] Noise and music. Noise in music. Music in noise. For Cage, deconstructing the border between noise and music is not an isolated endeavor, but a critical questioning of the border between art and life as well. After a concert, someone from the audience approached him with the following complaint: 'That kind of music if you call it music should not be played in a public hall, because many people do not understand it and they start talking or tittering and the result is that you can't hear the music because of all these extraneous sounds ... The music could be played and possibly appreciated, in a home, where, not having paid to be entertained, those listening might listen and not have the impulse to titter or having it out of decorum squelch it and besides in a home it is more comfortable and quiet: there would be a better chance to hear it' (Cage, 1961, p.135). Cage's response makes clear that the opposition of noise-music cannot be perceived without taking the opposition of life-art into consideration, and that his attention to noise also serves to transgress that opposition. 'Now what that someone said describes the desire for special cut-off-from-life conditions: an ivory tower. But no ivory tower exists, for there is no possibility of keeping the Prince forever within the Palace Walls. He will, nilly-willy, one day get out and seeing that there are sickness and death (tittering and talking) become the Buddha. Besides at my house, you hear the boat sounds, the traffic sounds, the neighbors quarreling, the children playing and screaming in the hall, and on top of it all the pedals of the piano squeak. There is no getting away from life' (Cage, 1961, p.135). At the root of the desire to appreciate a piece of music 'as such', to hear it without the unavoidable extraneous sounds, is the idea that a musical work is separated from the rest of life. Cage objects (cf. Silence and Death). He points out in various ways that non-intended sounds, sounds that need to be excluded because they are disruptive and reside outside of the music, are always already part of the music, part of the inside. The rests at the start and the end of Waiting (Play music) refer to the problematic difference between living with all the sounds from everyday life and the intended sounds of music. This composition does not begin with the first piano sounds, nor does it end with the fading of the final sounds. Before the piano is first heard, Waiting (Play music) is already 98 seconds on its way; after the piano sounds disappear again, the piece still has another 18 seconds to go. The beginning and the ending of Waiting (Play music) (that is, the beginning and ending of this piece of music) is at the heart a play with the demarcation of musical sounds from sounds that do not (yet) belong to music. Is it already music? Is it still music? A play. A play with music. A play by music. A play in music.

[10] Noise vs. music, non-intended sounds vs. intended sounds, life vs. art; the oppositional pairs resonating along with the first opposition form an ever-extending thread. However, the differences are not cancelled out. Noise and music, art and life do not really merge in Cage's work. His 'anti-art' still operates within an aesthetic abstraction similar to art. But the aesthetic isolation and abstraction are questioned. The borders are permeable, shifting, insecure (cf. Dahlhaus, 1984, p.49).