This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
Visited the Cross on the beach this afternoon – with an (almost) mystical vision. The beach was quiet, only the sounds of the waves reaching shore. Standing in front of the Cross, I noticed a woman picking flowers nearby. Everything slowed down. Sorrow and beauty, death and life intermingling.
Silence – with sound. I felt my night reading of the Cage biography coming alive.
It was 1952. Cage was searching for silence in life and music. Harvard had a state-of-the-art anechoic chamber which was the most “silent” place on the planet. Kay Larson, Cage’s biographer, describes Harvard’s anechoic chamber as a “sound proof box lined with sound-absorbing baffles, guaranteeing the most perfect silence on earth.” The chamber absorbed 99.8 or more percent of the energy of a sound wave. Cage arranged for a visit.
At Harvard, Cage entered the chamber expecting what was advertised – perfect silence. Instead he hears a “dull roar” and a “high wine.” Alarmed, Cage demanded an explanation from the engineer. The engineer explained that the whine is the firing of Cage’s neurons. The roar is Cage’s blood flowing through his veins.
Cage is taken aback. His Zen studies convinced him that silence existed. When silence was put to the test, it failed. Silence had so intrigued Cage that he anticipated the next question: What does silence sound like? Now Cage understood that silence doesn’t exist. His question was still born.
Cage was “stupefied.” This was his turning point. Cage had to rethink his Zen journey.
The turning point: “There is no split between spirit and matter. And to realize this, we have only suddenly to a-wake to the fact.”
Larson writes: “In the quietest place on earth, he hears himself. Seeking silence – looking for the vacuum where ‘he’ is not – Cage hears the ceaseless buzz of being.” Cage reflects: “Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.”
Cage’s turning leads to his most famous and controversial composition - 4’33.” The composition lasts four minutes and thirty-three seconds, hence the title. Yet music there isn’t, at least as it is known as a performance art. Instead, 4’33” consists of the following: For four minutes and thirty-three seconds a pianist sits at the piano, opens and closes the keyboard lid twice, studies the score without playing a note; when the time is passed, the pianist stands and exits the stage.
What does Cage’s musical silence signify? Like the anechoic chamber, the lack of music isn’t silence. Being in the performance space without a performance allows the audience to experience the noises of their bodies and the world. Cage’s musical “silence” collapses the division of art and the world, spirit and matter. For the rest of his life, Cage tries to “write in such a way that it won’t interrupt this other piece which is already going on.”
Quite controversial it was, the music that wasn’t music as it is understood to be. There are always those who don’t want to hear the music of life. “Listen” to the letter to the editor that was published anonymously after the performance:
This form of phony musical Dadaism built up by sensational publicity, frightens audiences away from the real music of our times. The arrogance of its nihilistic sophistries might be amusing to most people. But there is a war of nerves against common sense today, particularly in all fields of art. And if we don’t check these insipid fungus growths that eat into the common sense of our people, their destructive influence will grow and gradually undermine the health and vitality of our civilization.
Sound familiar? Such “sounds” can be transposed into other areas of life. Think of Muna speaking in my Holocaust class. Think of those who don’t want to hear her “Insipid fungus growths that eat into the common sense of our people.” We certainly don’t want her “destructive influence” to be felt, lest it “grow and gradually undermine the health and vitality of our [Jewish] civilization.”
The countdown continues, apropos of Cape Canaveral. In a few days now Rosh Hashanah arrives.
Our Jewish anechoic chamber. Where we could hear our ethical blood pulsing and our historical neurons firing if we weren’t so afraid. We could listen to the silence that isn’t silence and thus face our turning point.
We know the rote greetings and prayers, the sweetness of the New Year and all of that. Let’s suspend them, along with membership dues, High Holidays’ paid seating and the Yom Kippur false fast.
Instead, let’s make the synagogue an anechoic chamber for the High Holidays. The congregation can arrive with its expectations of the religious performance and then, in its place, listen to the sounds that are the real stuff of our lives.
Who knows, the silence that isn’t may be justice and compassion.