那座看似來自未來聖殿的機器，其實是特製的管風琴。它正演奏著早已逝去的美國先鋒作曲家John Cage的作品As Slow as Possible。「愈慢愈好」是真的，過去7年，這台機器持續發出著相同的聲音。這天早上，它終於邁向另一個音符了。演奏從2001年開始，2640年結束。639年後，就能聽到最後一個音符。
在Sounds Like Silence這本收集了一切關於4’33”資料的書中，收錄了一封John Cage回應聽眾的信。對於這作品，他是這樣說的：「作品並不是真的寂靜，而是充滿了各種聲音。聽到甚麼，是取決於我們內在的空，取決於我們的接收能力。如果一個人，腦海充滿意見和想法，也就只聽得見他自己的意見和想法。」
我知道As Slow as Possible這場漫長的演奏後，我就答應自己，必須在生命結束之前，到現場聽一次音的轉換。已經錯過第一次機會了——每個人都被封鎖在各自的城市中。
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.