⟨ Book ⟩

Sounds Like Silence

Dieter Daniels

Words & Photography / Nathan Lee
Translation / Nicole Go

2020年9月5日清晨,在德國小鎮Halberstadt的石造小教堂裡,一群戴著口罩的人圍成圓圈站著。他們來自歐洲各地,即使疫情嚴重,仍然不影響他們來到這個山下小鎮。他們低頭,進入樸素的教堂,圍著一座結構古怪的銅色機器,嚴肅地等待著什麼的發生。機器空空如也的心中,正發出低頻的共鳴聲。

他們等待的,是一個音的轉換。

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。

前題是,如果,人類仍然存在的話。

John Cage的作品中,最核心的,毫無疑問是4’33”4’33”初次被演出時,表演者坐在鋼琴前,關上鋼琴蓋。30秒後,他打開鋼琴蓋,再次關上。再打開,關上。演出進行了4分鐘33秒後,表演者站起來,離開了,留下一臉困惑的聽眾。這份作品引起了不少人的批評,認為這是一個低俗的玩笑,甚至有幾位朋友和他絕交。

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。」

讀到這裡,我明白這作品引起憤怒的原因:他們帶著各種知識、批評的習慣來聽演奏。他們的知識卻無助感受作品,反而突顯了觀念對於感受的限制。他們感到被嘲弄了。

他們聽見的,是自我的噪音。

John Cage最吸引我的是,他所思考的寂靜,並不是聲音缺席的意思。事實上,他很早就知道完全的寂靜是不存在的。為了體驗「空無」,他曾經進入哈佛大學的隔音室。在這個98%以上聲波被隔絕的密室裡,他仍然聽到兩股巨大的聲頻。工程師對他說,高頻的是神經元的聲音;低頻的是血液的循環。不只身體,也許,我們身邊的物件,無時無刻都在發出各種微弱的聲音,只是被我們選擇不去聆聽。

這次經驗中,他領略到真正的寂靜,其實就存在於日常生活的流動之間。往後的作品,是一場漫長的暗示:去聽,音樂就在你旁邊,寂靜就存在於你的形體中。

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。

那天,我躺在梳化上,盯著天花的霉斑時,忽然想到,這是他費盡力氣打破形式的原因嗎?因為,在他的名字裡,有一個牢籠(Cage)存在著?也許,命名影響了事物的存在本質,令他不斷思考逃脫的方法。也許只是巧合,但我無法抑止自己這樣聯想。在心裡,我這樣對自己說。

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.