Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

John Cage at 100: Ideas About "Silence"

The fine non-fiction writer Richard Preston (The Hot Zone) wrote a book about radical biologists who climbed the tallest redwood trees in the most remote areas of Northern California. This book was titled The Wild Trees. Think of climbing a tree that's 350 feet high. There, above the old-growth redwood canopy the tops of the trees knitted together and one could walk around, there were new species to discover, an entirely new niche. And Preston writes of the overwhelming silence up there, only windsounds if any. Sound, time become warped. Space-sky and perception, silence overwhelming. 

John Cage, with one of his Nocturnes from 1948 in background, talking about sound. How much more zen-masterishly can you get? It's 9 minutes. It might slow your cells down and make you forget Mitt Romney and Barack Obama:

"Abstaining from speech marks him who is obeying the spontaneity of his nature. A violent wind does not last for a whole morning; a sudden rain does not last for a whole day. To whom is it that these (two) things are owing? To Heaven and Earth. If Heaven and Earth cannot make such (spasmodic) actings last long, how much less can man!" - Tao Te Ching, from chapter 23, Lao Tze, James Legge trans.

The firebrand schoolteacher and critic of public schools John Taylor Gatto thought one thing schools do to kids is a "manufacture" of "restless anti-solitude" and that schooling stood in the way of the problem of "solitude's mastery." Kids in Unistat grow up not knowing how to be alone with their thoughts.

Morris Berman, another radical critic of Unistat society, thought corporate consumerism and advertising militated against a possibly dangerous to the social order solitude among citizens. He quotes the great literary critic George Steiner, that we live in a "systematic suppression of silence."

"It can't get too quiet for me." - William S. Burroughs

"The marvelous and mysterious which is peculiar to night may also appear...in the remarkable silence that may intervene in the midst of lively conversations; it was said, at such times, that Hermes had entered the room..." - Walter Otto, The Homeric Gods

The poet Gary Snyder once wrote of eustacy, which looks like ecstasy, but he defined the former as "silent, solitary illumination."

When we're in very unpleasant mental states, it seems the last thing many of us want is silence, solitude. Or as my friend Mari L'Esperance put it in a line in one of her poems, "Silence ticking like something alive."

Wine-hearted solitude,
Our mother the wilderness,
Men's failures are often as beautiful
as men's triumphs, but your returnings
Are even more precious than your
first presence.
-Robinson Jeffers, "Bixby's Landing"

The aforementioned Burroughs (was he joking?) thought silence was once the primary reality. In this he probably was using Alfred Korzybski's idea about silence at the event-level of phenomenal experience, pre-verbally. Burroughs took this idea and made brilliant variations on the theme: language as a virus. We talk because the word-virus had found a host: us. I find this one of the funniest and most amusing ideas of the 20th century.

Marshall McLuhan, riffing of one of his favorite themes, the relation of figure/ground:
"New media are new environments. That is why the media are the message. One related consideration is that antienvironments, or counterenvironments created by the artist, are indispensable means of becoming aware of the environment in which we live and of the environments we create for ourselves technically. John Cage has a book called Silence in which, very early in the book, he explains that silence consists of all of the unintended noises of the environment. All of the things that are going on all the time in any environment, but things that were never programmed or intended - that is silence. The unheeded world is silence. That is what James Joyce calls thunder in the Wake. In the Wake  all the consequences of social change - all of the disturbances and metamorphoses resulting from technological change - create a vast environmental roar or thunder that is yet completely inaudible."- "Address At Vision 65," p.225, The Essential McLuhan

And the Greek irony: McLuhan the Great Talker suffered a stroke that pretty much knocked out his ability to speak. Oy! (see Philip Marchand's bio of McLuhan, pp.281-287 for the horrible, profoundly moving deets.)

Ez Pound's silence was self-imposed. He'd fucked up everything with his idiotic antisemitism, he'd hurt everyone he loved, he'd been a damned fool, his entire life was botched, like the civilization he thought he was trying to save. And Allen Ginsberg visiting him in Rapallo, singing Hari Krishna, playing Pound his Bob Dylan records, trying to get Pound to realize that sure, his antisemitism was his "fuck-up," but his poetic revolution had been a success; he'd influenced everyone, etc. Ginsberg to silent Pound, about Julius Orlovsky, "Manichean who wouldn't speak for 14 years because he believed all the evil in the universe issued from his body and mouth." - What Thou Lovest Well Remains, p.33

Pythagoreans and silence. Leary reading Gravity's Rainbow in solitary confinement. Buckminster Fuller, ready to commit suicide because of failure-feeling, deciding he didn't have the right to: he belonged to Universe. Bucky goes silent for a year to see if language was tripping up basic golden thinking-in-pictures. But once Bucky began speaking again, he never stopped. One wonders about the experiment of silence and his prose style.

I'm not sure if any of these thought-snippets on silence made any sense, and 57% of me doesn't care.

Here's a performance of Cage's Imaginary Landscape Number 4 , for 12 radios, etc:

Celebrating Cage's love of wild mushrooms
Alex Ross on Cage turning 100: The John Cage Century
The John Cage Database


Eric Wagner said...

Great piece! I love the image of Ginsberg playing Sgt. Pepper's, Dylan, etc., with Ez just sitting there. Ginsberg asked Pound's mistress Olga Rudge if he liked it, and she said, "If he didn't like it, he'd leave."

My Finnegans Wake Club just had our John Cage Memorial Finn, and my music history class will do 4'33" this afternoon. (The word "SILENCE" appears on page 433 of the old hardcover edition of Finnegans Wake.)

michael said...

I've often tried to picture Ol' Ez sitting quietly, wondering what this young Ginsberg was going to throw at him next, Ez and AG sitting quietly while Ringo sings, "I get by with a little help from my friends."

I seem to remember that Cage chose 4:33 due to the word "silence" being on p.433 of FW, but I can't remember where I read that, or if it was only a CoinciDANCE. Makes sense.