It was the morning on 5 September 2020. Inside a stone chapel nestled in Halberstadt, Germany, a group of masked people gathered in a circle. They came from various parts of Europe, their pilgrimage undeterred by the ongoing pandemic. Heads lowered, they entered the chapel in unison, circling a bronze machine – the air suspended in stately anticipation. A low humming emanated from the heart of the machine.
They were waiting for a change of note.
The futuristic machine was a custom-made pipe organ, playing As Slow As Possible by the late American avant-garde composer, John Cage. As its title suggests, the slower is indeed the better. Since the performance began in 2001, the pipe organ has been playing the same note over the last seven years. This morning, it was moving on to the next note in the score. The year 2640 will mark the end of the performance. In 639 years, we will hear the final note.
That is, if mankind still exists.
There is no doubt that 4’33 is Cage’s most (in)famous piece. At its premiere in the Maverick Concert Hall in New York, the audience saw David Tudor sit at the piano and, to mark the beginning of the piece, close the keyboard lid. Sometime later he opened it briefly, to mark the end of the first movement. The process was repeated for the second and third movements – and lasted four and a half minutes in total, leaving the audience equally perplexed and insulted. Many, including Cage’s friends, thought the composer had gone too far.
Sounds Like Silence presents new theoretical writings and artistic works referring to Cage’s groundbreaking work, including his response to his critics, “There is no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence – was full of sounds from within the self, determined by our receptivity. For those who didn’t know how to listen, their stream of consciousness reverberated through 4’33.”
It was no wonder, then, that Cage’s mute manifesto would evoke such widespread scorn. The audience came inspired by their reams of commentary and the social regiments of the modern concert life etiquette – only to be cheated by the bounds of their own perception.
What they heard was the noise of the ego.
What fascinates me about Cage is his meditation on silence – not as the absence of sound. He knew, from the outset, that complete silence did not exist. Once, he visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. In that silent room, Cage claimed he heard two sounds, one high and one low. Later, the engineer told him that the high sound was his nervous system in operation, and the low one was his blood in circulation. Perhaps, beyond bodies, the objects surrounding us are equally in constant reverberation – except that we have chosen not to listen.
When I heard of the German performance of As Slow As Possible, I made a commitment to myself to go and witness a change of note. I’ve already missed my first chance – trapped in continued isolation amid the lockdown.
That day, I lay on the sofa staring at the ceiling. I thought of Cage, and how his desire to discard inherited structures ruled his life. Could that be his resistance, in parallel, to his own fate: to be caged ordained a lifetime’s work to break free? I refused to let myself accept it as coincidence.