Monday, January 30, 2012

Seasons Don't Fear the Silence

                First of all, I would like to address the personally-saddening fact that I haven’t been blogging recently. This is going to change starting NOW!  I’ve been writing applications for four different writing camps this summer, and that’s taken up a lot of my typing energy, as has mock trial and my new internship at UNM’s newspaper. Thanks for reading; this blog isn’t looking to die anytime soon.      

As I sit here and type this, I’m watching and listening to Julliard’s live broadcast of their Focus! Festival that celebrates John Cage’s 100th birthday year. After the intermission, in an impromptu move, they played an audio recording of John Cage speaking, called “John Cage speaks.” In his delicate, tenor voice, he said:
“I have nothing to say, and I am saying it, and that is poetry as I needed it. This space of time is organized. We need not fear these silences. We may love them.”
The first sentence of that quote is one of the most famous Cage quotes, but the sentences that follow are just as important. They create a rule to live by that not only applies to the listening of Cage’s music, but the rest of our lives.

                At the Focus! Festival, Cage’s Third Construction, for percussion quartet, was played. This was the second time I had heard this piece in the past week. The first time was truly live, with the conch’s actual sound waves running through my ears at Sunday Chatter’s Cage/Reich percussion day. It was easily one of the most breathtaking performances I’ve ever seen—and I am talking about all performances. However, before this piece, three people got up and left. They had heard Living Room Music by Cage and Marimba (Piano) Phase by Reich. Living Room Music has indeterminate instrumentation, employing any object from one’s home. This particular performance included a lamp, a map, voice, and other objects.

                Cage, as well as other composers of the like, is famous for being someone who induces walk-outs like these. Wolff, Feldman, Tudor, Brown, and countless others lived by the paradox of achieving so much with music that so many hated (and still do, as demonstrated by the three I saw). This music is well-known, and there is no need to explain its philosophy, but the reactions and realizations it brings are infinitely telling. It’s puzzling, but at the same time, this family of pariah sounds shows us more about our cultures than most forms of music labeled as “beautiful.”
                When Cage says “We need not fear silences,” he is, to some degree, talking about sound. Sound is a blanket of comfort. We turn on the TV or radio when we are home alone, some use white noise machines to sleep, “awkward silences” between people are hurriedly filled with small talk.  
                An aural example of the fear of the “silences” of music occurred at the world premiere of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Fresco in 1969, when the Bonn musicians rebelled against the music. The piece was meant to last four-and-a-half hours, using the orchestra in four different places in the foyer of the performance hall. The musicians were said to stand by their beloved classics and, with “glissandos no faster than one octave per minute,” were puzzled and captured in the silence of unfamiliarity and fear. The musicians were furious with Stockhausen, despite the fact that he described to them his vision (“music internally animated through the concentration of the musicians”). On the day of the performance, the musicians left a hand-painted sign on the warm-up room, reading: “We are playing, otherwise we would be fired!” During the performance, the musicians were taunted by audience members, and many left only an hour in. The concert was stopped about 20 minutes short.  
                Scandals like this show how the fear of the unfamiliar can bring out the bitterest side of humans. Even the notes of an acclaimed composer can be rejected because they aren’t arranged in comfortable ways. Contemporary music is being accepted more as time goes on, but there are still the ones who walk out of theaters or question the need for it.
                However, Cage is also talking about life in his quote, we can assume. Silence is a synonym for worry and unfamiliarity. Humans hate being in different situations in which their personal boundaries are pushed. The poetry that Cage talks about comes through his acceptance of these moments of silence and fear. Because time is balanced, he says, silence is just as important as sound. This is musically known, but in life, uncomfortable, idle, or hard times are thought of as unnatural and evil. Perhaps we need this silence, however, to understand and appreciate the sound. Often, when we push ourselves outside of our comfort zone and come out successful, the results are more rewarding than any familiar deed. Ideas, literature, art, opinions, and thousands of other concepts are improved when people initiate. Initiation cannot be done without the acceptance of the silences of life.
                After the intermission of the concert where the three people left, Cage’s Child of Tree and, of course, Third Construction itself were played. Not only did these patrons miss out on a particularly musical cactus and a life-changing performance, they missed out on the opportunity to accept the silences in life. Does this mean their lives are unbalanced, as Cage said? No. Their silences just took the form of the absence of the performance. 

Do not fear the cactus 

1 comment:

  1. Ha! Several of my students certainly fear that cactus (having been assigned that performance to which you've linked)!

    I think you’re quite right about "comfort" being at the root of many of these issues. As I’m sure you know, Cage thought of silence as the absence of intentional sound. When I lived alone for several years I was very familiar with intentional sound as a kind of antidote to loneliness, particularly the sound of human voices. But (ironically?) part of the comfort issue with silence in groups is the almost shocking intimacy of it. The subway car humming with fourteen separate conversations is a much more relaxed place to sit than the stone-cold car packed with silent people.

    Also people are frequently not aware of what a significant role they play in the form of a piece. As Roger Sessions pointed out in 1949 (and many phenomenologically oriented theorists have discussed more recently) the listener is a co-creator of a piece. So in moments of silence their involvement becomes even more clear and perhaps this catches some listeners unaware.

    But I think there is even more to it when you see people become noticeably angered. Why should people become so angry about not liking some music…don’t we experience not-liking music fairly regularly? I think one reason is that people feel a pressure and an expectation that they should “get” so-called art music. For many non-musicians (and many musicians too!) there is a fear that they will be seen as philistines/simpletons for not “getting it” at a concert of new music. People resent the clubs to which they are denied admittance--the anger is then a kind of proactive push-back.

    To me, the solution is to tell people that there is absolutely no expectation that you’ll really like or connect with every piece of new music, just the same way they’re free to not like whatever randomly pops up on the radio when they flip stations. No one is denied admittance to anything, of course, and I tell people frequently that you only have to find one piece you really like to make the experimentation worth it. Sometimes it is interesting and fun to flip stations and find what’s out there.

    Cage also said, “if you take what the Europeans call the various parameters of sound, you find that only one of them exists in what we call silence, and that is time.” So maybe it’s simply our unsettled impatience and our premature fear of mortality that we encounter there in the silences.

    “This unrelenting work
    This grey , unresting industry,
    What aim, what future, what peace
    Will your hard profits buy?”


    I should add that Bonn has come some ways forward in terms of its musical adventurousness. In our recent opera there I was fully expecting the Beethoven Orchester's contrabass player to complain about the extremely soloistic part I wrote for her, but she did it without question. Not all of the players were totally receptive, but they put up with quite a lot (in opera orchestra terms). Nevertheless, the theatrical aspects of the production were quite challenging and pushed the audience to its limits at times. But German audiences today can be pretty extraordinary at times.

    More disappointing is the criticism, which (whether positive or negative) tends to be surprisingly superficial in musical terms. They should take your thoughtful and sensitive writing as an example of how one can comment penetratingly on music!