Unreal Nature

February 22, 2012

The Third Sound

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 8:18 am

…  It is true that Cage explicitly sought to subvert tactics based on human centeredness, yet all he did was shift the center from one of utterance to one of audition. He simply became quiet in order to attract everything toward a pair of musical ears.

This is from Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts by Douglas Kahn (1999) As mentioned in earlier posts from this book, I find much of this to be analogous to photography:

… The core of Cage’s musical practice and philosophy was concentrated on sounds of the world and the interaction of art and life. There is a musical specificity to be had within Cage, but it would be insufficient to understand his work. Indeed, my approach here takes Cage at his word when he says let sounds be themselves. I merely refuse to accept how Cage reduces sounds to conform to his idea of selfhood. When he hears individual affect or social situation as an exercise in reduction, it is just as easy to hear their complexity. when he hears music everywhere, other phenomena go unheard. When he celebrates noise, he also promulgates noise abatement. When he speaks of silence, he also speaks of silencing.

… Thus, during the twentieth-century Age of Noise, the most noted promulgator of musical noise was involved in the business of noise abatement. Silent Prayer was not alone in this respect because Cage, an inventor of techniques from an early age, developed several other techniques for eliminating, diminishing, or displacing the source of the noise, transforming the noise into something else, or canceling the noise by playing back its image, so to speak, in the negative.

[ … ]

[quoting Cage] It was after I got to Boston that I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Anybody who knows me knows this story. I am constantly telling it. Anyway, in that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said, “Describe them.” I did. He said, “The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.”

The anechoic chamber was the technological emblem for Cage’s class of silencing techniques. It was clinical and discursive, exhibiting attributes of both a bona fide anechoic chamber used in acoustical research and the anecdotal chamber diffused through Cagean lore. It absorbed sounds and isolated two of Cage’s usually inaudible internal bodily sounds, but in the process there was a third internal sound isolated, the one saying, “Hmmm, wonder what the low-pitched sound is? What’s that high-pitched sound?”

… When a piece of music is purposefully purposelessly made, Cage asks, “What happens, for instance, to silence? That is, how does the mind’s perception of it change?” It no longer serves as a means of emphasis for taste or expressivity or as an element marking a predetermined or developing structure. When there are no goals, means become meaningless because nothing is meant to be happening: whatever happens, happens. If there is no determination that the absence of musical sounds (silence, in the conventional sense) means the abeyance of a musical listening to any sounds, then what can be heard in the silence, as hitherto perceived, are the surrounding sounds. “Where none of these or other goals is present, silence becomes something else — not silence at all, but sounds, the ambient sounds. The nature of these is unpredictable and changing. These sounds (which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention) may be depended on to exist. The world teems with them, and is, in fact, at no point free of them.” Consequently, silence itself disappears and transforms into its traditional opposite — sounds — and for Cage where there are sounds, especially a world teeming in sounds, there will be music. It should be made clear, in this respect, that the freeing of musical intention in Cage is specifically geared to the intention to make music. The idea that intention, let alone a formidable culturally laden discursive framework is present within the act of hearing sounds as music does not receive equal attention.

… Through technology Cage could … take the totalizing impetus of all sound to its logical conclusion. The anechoic chamber was joined in this project by another piece of tangible and fictive technology, the microphone, and both pieces of technology had the job of amplifying small sounds: one did it through subtraction, the other through addition. To hear sounds in themselves one must first hear them. Small sounds and amplification went hand in hand, although their overall role changed over time. Earlier in his career, the amplification of small sounds served the cause of  noise as a practical means to increase the number of “more new sounds” in the constitution of a modernist material fount or to free them in Cage’s rhetoric of sonic emancipation. With his commitment to the impossibility of silence the world was suddenly overrun with small sounds, and although it would seem there would have been less immediate need for amplification because a plenitude of sounds was ensured, amplification was still called on to perform rhetorically, far beyond its actual technological capabilities, to increase the number of possible sounds and to deny inaudibility. Small sounds also moved to inhabit the vicinity hitherto occupied by conventional silence. When silence became a type of sound, actual silence was merely a state of inaudibility, and everything known before as silence became nothing but small sounds contingent on amplification. Thus, the idea of small sounds became for Cage not only a negotiation between old and new silences but eventually a reason for his development of implausible and impossible amplification technologies, which, like other major developments in communications technology, presumed and produced different, perhaps only a revamped, world outlook.

Cage’s dominion of all sound and always sound and of the corresponding panaurality is reminiscent of the totalizing reach of the Romantic utterance, resonating in voice or music throughout eternity and entirety, or of the nineteenth-century synesthetes who also used their utterances to insinuate themselves throughout the cosmos. It is true that Cage explicitly sought to subvert tactics based on human centeredness, yet all he did was shift the center from one of utterance to one of audition. He simply became quiet in order to attract everything toward a pair of musical ears.

My most recent previous post from Kahn’s book is here.

-Julie

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