Si­lence in Mu­sic (and Vice Versa?)

Par­al­lels be­tween Cage’s score and Rauschen­berg’s can­vases

Gulf & Main - - Contents - BY ERIK ENT WISTLE

Si­lence and mu­sic are strange bed­fel­lows. Just as a painter uses a blank can­vas to be­gin work­ing, mu­sic emerges out of si­lence as or­ga­nized sound to fill an au­ral void. Of course mu­sic it­self has its mo­ments of si­lence, too—such as the si­lence “heard” in be­tween mul­ti­move­ment works or ac­tual rests no­tated in the mu­sic it­self.

Iron­i­cally, some of the most pow­er­ful mo­ments in mu­sic rely on pauses or rests to achieve the com­poser’s de­sired ef­fect. It is worth not­ing, for ex­am­ple, that Beethoven’s Fifth Sym­phony be­gins not with the fa­mous short-short-short­long mo­tive but with an eighth­note rest im­me­di­ately pre­ced­ing it, which makes all the dif­fer­ence in how the mu­sic is per­ceived.

Tak­ing the idea of si­lence in mu­sic to an ex­treme limit is John Cage’s in­fa­mous work from 1952, ti­tled 4’33”. It con­sists of three move­ments of spe­cific du­ra­tion, but each move­ment in the score is sim­ply la­beled “TACET.” There is no no­ta­tion what­so­ever. At the pre­miere, the pian­ist sim­ply closed the key­board lid to sig­nify the be­gin­ning of each move­ment and re­opened the lid at each move­ment’s end.

The “piece,” such as it is, ends up be­ing a suc­ces­sion of am­bi­ent noises pro­duced ran­domly dur­ing the per­for­mance. Per­haps the air-con­di­tion­ing unit can be heard, as well as cough­ing and mur­murs from the au­di­ence, or the sound of foot­steps as be­wil­dered con­cert­go­ers de­cid­ing not to stick it out for the full 4’33” head for the ex­its.

Cage’s piece calls into ques­tion mu­si­cal con­ven­tions and per­for­mance rit­u­als, and the very def­i­ni­tion of mu­sic it­self. Here the role of the com­poser is re­duced to set­ting cer­tain ba­sic pa­ram­e­ters while re­lin­quish­ing all oth­ers to chance. Con­cert hall recital norms come un­der scru­tiny as the au­di­ence is made to feel un­com­fort­able and/or per­plexed.

An au­di­ence’s silent co­op­er­a­tion is usu­ally a given at a clas­si­cal con­cert, and back­ground noise needs to be kept to a min­i­mum at all times. (Hence the stan­dard re­minder to si­lence cell­phones and other de­vices at the be­gin­ning of con­certs.) Yet with Cage’s work, the au­di­ence be­comes an ac­tive if un­wit­ting par­tic­i­pant and must, as time goes on, de­cide be­tween re­main­ing silent dur­ing the piece or ac­tively con­tribut­ing to the ran­dom sounds be­ing pro­duced. Cage’s 4’33” may be a unique work that is sculpted ran­domly out of si­lence, but its com­poser was not work­ing in a vac­uum at the time it was com­posed. In fact, Cage had found in­spi­ra­tion from Robert Rauschen­berg, the worl­drenowned artist with lo­cal ties who died on Cap­tiva in 2008.

Cage had viewed Rauschen­berg’s “White Paint­ings” on ex­hi­bi­tion in 1951. The now-fa­mous pan­els are painted white and ap­pear blank. But as Cage noted, their ap­pear­ance changed ac­cord­ing to the set­ting in which they were dis­played, be­com­ing “air­ports of the lights, shad­ows and par­ti­cles.” The par­al­lels are strik­ing be­tween Rauschen­berg’s “blank” can­vases and Cage’s “TACET” mu­si­cal score and how they de­mand a re­sponse from view­ers and lis­ten­ers with their de­par­ture from artis­tic norms.

One of my pro­fes­sors once as­serted that Cage was a philoso­pher rather than a com­poser. I would say he was both, be­cause in ad­di­tion to his many rad­i­cal mu­si­cal ex­per­i­ments are metic­u­lous, beau­ti­fully writ­ten works us­ing tra­di­tional no­ta­tion. (Check out the sonatas and in­ter­ludes for pre­pared pi­ano). It seems that even Cage could not throw out the baby with the bath wa­ter.

Pian­ist, in­struc­tor and mu­si­col­o­gist Erik En­twistle re­ceived an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in mu­sic from Dart­mouth Col­lege. He earned a post-grad­u­ate de­gree in pi­ano per­for­mance at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity in St. Louis. He earned his doc­tor­ate in mu­si­col­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara. He teaches on Sani­bel.

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