On John Cage’s Silence

From an interesting review of John Cage’s book, Silence. This week marks the centennial of Cage’s birth.

At once the converse and the equivalent of Cage’s statement is one to which many more artists of his time would have subscribed: “I have something to say, and I am unable to say it”. Cage, however, was a supreme optimist, much more concerned with what was possible – nothing – than with what was not, and rewarded in his optimism by the abundance of nothing that turned out to be sayable: not only the silence of 4’ 33” but also the undefined sounds and shapes for which he made room in his 300 or so other compositions, and not only all those but also the unplanned images in the prints and drawings that occupied him alongside music in his later years, as well as the words and sentences that float about in his numerous writings: essays, lectures, anecdotes, poems.

Silence, being his first collection of such items, is more anchored in consistent meaning than are later volumes, and, as Kyle Gann points out in his useful introduction to the jubilee edition, this is also the book in which Cage says most about music. Generally writing for musical audiences, the composer talks here about some of the techniques he devised to create music but not control it, techniques that could enable him to say nothing: processes that would work themselves out automatically, through moves on charts of pitches, durations, tempi and volume levels; inscribing notes where there were imperfections in the paper; tossing coins to decide what would happen where; using radios as musical instruments. Even the big lectures that occupy almost two-thirds of the book, and that begin to lift off from everyday sense as they employ the same or similar compositional means as the music – the “Lecture on Nothing”, which keeps commenting on its own empty structure (“Here we are now at the beginning of the thirteenth unit of the fourth large part of this talk”), or “Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?”, which proceeds along four tracks simultaneously – say nothing about music much more than they do about anything else.

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