Thursday, May 27, 2010

Silence: Lectures and Writing

Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writing. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

With regard to the intermingling of genres and multiple modes of conveyance within a particular artwork, John Cage's collection offers readers several possibilities and models in both form and content. For example, in his article “Forerunners of Modern Music,” the author writes: “technologists and by intersection, becoming aware of the otherwise unknowable...imagining brightly a common goal” (65). To this extent, scientific discourse and the humanities, often times thought to be at odds with one another, not only “intersect,” but share a “common goal”; likewise, while addressing contemporary music in his essay “History of Experimental Music in the United States,” Cage insists that musical composition during the mid-twentieth-century exhibited “principles familiar to modern painting and architecture: collage and space” (69-70). Echoing his claims that music employs ideas and techniques from other art forms, the author also believes that “[w]hatever method is used in composing the materials of the dance can be extended to the organization of the musical materials”; but more than an instance of co-opting, the “form of the music-dance composition should be a necessary working together of all materials used. The music will then be more than an accompaniment; it will be an integral part of the dance” (88). At his most radical, Cage comes “to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom” (274), in that “it should be determined which sounds further the growth of mushrooms” and whether or not they “make sounds of their own” (275), etc. Not surprisingly, then, many the articles and lectures within Silence are “unusual in form” so as to “permit the listener [or reader] to experience what [Cage] had to say rather than just hear about it” (ix). As such, “form” becomes, or at least aides in, the “experience” of writing, art, and music itself. Take, for example, “Erik Satie,” which Cage describes as “an imaginary conversation between Satie and myself” wherein “neither of us hears what the other says” (76). For starters, the type-setting for each composer's words are stylistically and spatial different: Satie's words are italicized and flush-left, while Cage's words are standard-font and off to the right-side of the page; moreover, the text is staggered so the composers' words move down along a vertical axis. Toward the end of the conversation, Cage incorporates an increasingly complex series of diagrams into the fabric of the text, thus adding an imagistic component. Throughout Silence, Cage also attempts to mimic the manner in which “musical action of existence can occur at any point or along any line or curve or what have you in total sound-space” (9). More specifically, the use of magnetic tape and its spatialization of sound (i.e. the way, instead of working with time in the form of meter, one could manipulate a length of tape in centimeters of inches) was copied by separating texts into pre-formatted columns or rows. When one reads the text within a particular column or row, it must be vocalized within a standardize time-frame, regardless of the number of characters present. Therefore, longer passages need to be read faster, while shorter passages need to be read slower. Another technique readers confront during the collection is poly-vocal arrangements. The lecture “Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?” actually contains four “independent lectures to be used in whole or in part—horizontally and vertically” (194). While the lecture can only be delivered by, at most, a single “live” lecturer, that “live” reading “may be superimposed on...recorded readings. Or the whole may be recorded and delivered mechanically” (194). The lectures themselves are divided into pre-determined time-units, that cover fifty-seven minutes, though not all lectures last for that amount of time. Lectures that don't last the full time-period contain white space, signifying “silence.” Of course, given that Cage conceptualized “silence” not as the absence of sound, but as “ambient sounds” that are “unpredictable and changing” (22), this necessarily means that non-annotated “noise” will enter into the delivery of the lectures and produce indeterminate effects and affects.

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