Tag Archives: John Cage

John Cage update

My post Some John Cage anecdotes now includes a YouTube clip in which you can hear him delivering some (other) anecdotes as part of his lecture Indeterminacy.

Some John Cage anecdotes

The avant-garde composer John Cage is, of course, best known for his “silent piece”, 4’33”. This involves collecting together some musicians and an audience, and requiring them to sit in “silence”, hearing nothing but ambient sounds, for four time periods (“movements”) totalling four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

A performance at the Barbican, part of which I saw on TV, made it clear that this is more than just some kind of stunt. The audience was large; one does not usually have the experience of being with such a  large number of people in such focused silence for so long. The silence was intense, even experienced second hand through the broadcast. And it’s more than twice as long, for example, as the two minute silence we observe on Remembrance Day.

I’m not concerned about whether 4’33” is music or not: the important thing is the experience, not what label we give it. Maybe really it’s theatre. Maybe it’s something else.

It seems everyone has heard of  4’33’.

But maybe less people are aware of John Cage’s writings. Like his music, they too are idiosyncratic. They include a Lecture on Nothing which is really a kind of meditation leading into periods of extended silence. The one I want to give a sample of here, though, is called Indeterminacy. In it, he took up a friend’s suggestion of giving a lecture consisting entirely of stories. He gave the lecture at least twice: a 30 minute version and (with different stories) a 60 minute version.

The catch was that in delivery, each story had to last exactly one minute. But they were of quite wiidely varying lengths, so he had to speak very slowly in telling some of them, and very quickly for others.

But—and here’s the point—many of the stories are very entertaining and well told. And having written ninety anecdotes for the two versions of the lecture, John Cage didn’t stop there. He continued writing them as he thought of them. In his collection of writings Silence, stories that aren’t included in the printed version of the lecture are as he says “scattered through the book, playing the same function that odd bits of information play at the end of columns in a small-town newspaper”, so every so often you’ll find an anecdote instead of blank section of a page.

Here are several of my favourites. The first concerns Xenia, who was his wife for about ten years:

Xenia never wanted a party to end. Once, in Seattle, when the party we were at was folding, she invited those who were still awake, some of whom we’d only met that evening, to come over to our house. Thus it was that about 3:00 A.M. an Irish tenor was singing loudly in our living room. Morris Graves, who had a suite down the hall, entered ours without knocking, wearing an old-fashioned nightshirt and carrying an elaborately made wooden birdcage, the bottom of which had been removed. Making straight for the tenor, Graves placed the birdcage over his head, said nothing, and left the room. The effect was that of snuffing out a candle. Shortly, Xenia and I were alone.

An unintended consequence of his interest in wild fungi:

When Vera Williams first noticed that I was interested in wild mushrooms, she told her children not to touch any of them because they were all deadly poisonous. A few days later she bought a steak at Martino’s and decided to serve it smothered with mushrooms. When she started to cook the mushrooms, the children all stopped whatever they were doing and watched her attentively. When she served dinner, they all burst into tears.

Hearing a lecture without absorbing it:

I went to hear Krishnamurti speak. He was lecturing on how to hear a lecture. He said, “You must pay full attention to what is being said and you can’t do that if you take notes.” The lady on my right was taking notes. The man on her right nudged her and said, “Don’t you hear what he’s saying? You’re not supposed to take notes.” She then read what she had written and said, “That’s right. I have it written down right here in my notes.”

These can be found on pages 271, 95 and 269 respectively of John Cage, Silence, Marion Boyars, 1978 (reprinted several times since).


In this clip you can hear part of Indeterminacy, as delivered by John Cage. Many thanks to Nanette Nielsen for the link. (Note that this features a different set of anecdotes from the ones above—and they’re every bit as worth hearing.)

The impossibility of silence

In Noise, distraction and caffeine? I mentioned the avant-garde composer John Cage’s assertion that silence is unattainable. The following quote comes from an article of his about “experimental music”.

In this new music nothing takes place but sounds: those that are notated and those that are not. Those that are not notated appear in the written music as silences, opening the doors of the music to the sounds that hapen to be in the environment . . . There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of a special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. when I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.

John Cage, “Experimental Music” in Silence, Marion Boyars, 1978, pp. 7-8 (originally delivered as part of a lecture in 1937)

Tangentially, just in case you’re bothered about the last sentence, here’s another quote from later in the book:

If one feels protective about the word “music”, protect it and find another word for all the rest that enters through the ears. It’s a waste of time to trouble oneself with words, noises. What it is is theatre and we are in it and like it, making it.

John Cage, “45′ for a Speaker” in Silence, p. 190

Some time I’ll try to write a review of the whole book. For now, enjoy those two quotes. John Cage was interested in Zen Buddhism, and I think that for him so-called silence served the same kind of purpose as it does in contemplative prayer traditions: silence is a space in which you give attention. Right now, I’d like more silence in this library, in which to give attention to what I’m writing . . . And I’m not sure how he would have defined music, but I suspect that “sound to which one gives attention for its own sake” might have covered it. And he introduced impossible “silence” into his music for the purpose of focusing on the sound that is always around us.

Noise, distraction, and caffeine?

Yesterday this appeared on Twitter. It was posted by a freelance editor and writer who works from home:

Dying JUST DYING to know why writers go to coffee shops to write! Isn’t it noisy & distracting? I really wanna know what the appeal is!

If you’ve read my earlier post Shhhhhh… you’ll know I’m quite sensitive to noise when I’m trying to work. In fact, I think real, total silence can be a wonderful thing…

… or it would be, if it existed. In fact the search for silence is elusive. The avant-garde composer John Cage discovered this when he visited a completely soundproofed room, and could still hear two sounds. He asked why; he was told that one came from his nervous system, and the other from the blood circulation through his ears.

So I think the issue isn’t so much about silence versus noise, as about distracting versus non-distracting sounds. Maybe being a musician makes me more sensitive to sound. I’m not sure. Anyway Sherrie’s Twitter question set me thinking about what the differences might be.

Demands, reactions and associations

What makes sounds distracting, then? I think several kinds of noise make it particularly difficult to work (or, for that matter, to go to sleep, or whatever else you’re doing which requires you to ignore them):

Sounds which make demands

If your phone or doorbell rings, it demands to be answered (regardless of whether you decide its demand is justified). If you cat miaows at you maybe it’s demanding to be fed. If you’re living with somebody frail whose sense of balance is dodgy and you hear an unexpected heavy thud from upstairs, the sound demands you go and check whether they’re OK.

Sounds you automatically react to

By coincidence, many announcement systems in public places use a sound almost exactly like that of our doorbell to signal an announcement. Even though I’m not at home and it can’t possibly be the doorbell, my reflex reaction is to wonder immediately who’s at the door and why. Typically this almost completely breaks my attention on what I was doing. Occasionally, a mobile phone with a ringtone identical to mine will ring: I find myself checking my phone even though I’m certain that it’s set to vibrate and can’t possibly be ringing. Instinct is immediate; thought takes time.

For me, muffled speech works similarly–for example a television in the next room, with the volume low enough for me not to hear the actual words, but high enough for me to hear the bursts of speech. My brain automatically hears that there’s speech going on and tries to listen, even though there’s no hope of making it out.

Sounds with unhelpful emotions attached

This might be the voice of someone you really can’t stand, or the sound of their footsteps going past as you hope they won’t come and talk to you… or the sound of your neighbours squabbling, heard through the wall.

Sounds with strong associations

I play the violin rather a lot. As a result, I find it next to impossible to concentrate if there’s violin music going on in the background. Inevitably I find myself listening to the playing style, imagining the technique of playing it, noticing whether it’s in tune or not, thinking that if I were the player I’d prefer to do different phrasing, wondering how difficult it is to play and how easy the music is to get hold of, listening to hear what bowings and maybe even fingerings the player is doing, trying to identify the composer, remembering the time when I was in an orchestra accompanying that particular concerto… “Background music” is an impossibility if it’s violin music. Music on an instrument which I’ve never attempted to play–maybe that would work. But violin music is a disaster for doing anything else to.

However, there’s another kind of distraction, which I find quite a fascinating one.

Sound and mental channels

Try this simple-sounding exercise. write d en;goenovneojco ddo… Sorry, that should have said: try to speak and write simultaneously. This is something which most of us probably think we have no trouble doing when, for example, we’re writing notes while speaking to someone on the phone. But if you watch someone doing it, you’ll see that actually, they alternate between speaking and writing. You won’t see the pen writing on the page, or the fingers typing on the keyboard, at the same time as the lips are speaking words. It seems that the brain has one channel for creating words, and that if one activity is using it, another one can’t. The gibberish sentence above was the result of me trying to type “Write some words down” at the same time as saying “Speak a sentence”. “Write” came out OK, after three tries, but only because I told my fingers beforehand what the first few letters were which they had to type. And even then, it didn’t come out as “write” until the third attempt.

I think something similar happens with noise. It’s most obvious with speech, of course: if I’m writing words, then hearing other words is typically very distracting. And sometimes I’ve missed chunks of a speech programme on the radio by texting someone to tell them that it’s on: while the language part of my brain is processing the words to go in the text message, it’s not processing the words from the radio. But generally if I send someone a text about some music I’m hearing, that doesn’t make me miss any of the music. But obviously if I’m looking through a violin part to think how to play it, then background music can be extremely unhelpful. (Playing in an orchestra does eventually give one the ability to shut irrelevant music out in that situation, though–for example you can be mentally trying out your difficult passage while another section of the orchestra is rehearsing something else.)

Music, though, is related to language in some ways, and some researchers now believe we probably evolved music as a species before we evolved words. For example it’s thought that the way music communicates emotion is similar to the way tone of voice does, and a startling experiment some years ago demonstrated that people from different countries actually heard musical pitches differently.

Is there such a thing as “background music”? For some people there is, and some swear that they can’t work without music. For others, music is an impossibly compelling distraction which makes work impossible.

For me, the situation tends to be somewhere in between. I remember a particular occasion at university when I was studying (yes, I occasionally did!), and thought it would be helpful and enjoyable to have some music on at the same time. I put on one of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. Could I work with it on? Not at all! And yet, I sometimes studied quite happily with music on in the background.

What I now know is that different kinds of music are different for me in this respect. I think it’s to do with the way the music is structured, and how similar it is to language. Baroque music, Bach in particular, is next to impossible to work to. It virtually breaks down in to sentences and words and letters. Music from the classical period is rather easier to work to. The nineteenth-century Romantic composers are much easier; with twentieth-century composers it depends on the style; probably the least distracting is the kind of atonal piece which has no discernible rhythm and consists of shifting tone-colours, long crescendos and the like. I think that’s because it’s the kind of music which is least like language, so it’s not using the same channels.

Non-distracting noise

What, then, is non-distracting noise? And why do people go to coffee shops?

I think there are three main aspects to it:

Sounds with relaxed or studious associations

These probably vary from person to person. As I type this, I can hear the comfortingly pleasant whirring of my laptop’s hard drive. For those of us who like working in a quiet place, I think that paradoxically the sounds can be part of what makes it feel quiet; being able to hear the birds outside, for example (as long as they’re behaving themselves, singing nicely and not squawking away).

Sound which shuts out other sounds

A good example of this is the tradition of playing quiet organ music before a church service: it helps people not to notice the distracting noises of people coming in, shifting in their seats, and doing all the things people do before a service.

Less obviously, but importantly:

Sound which doesn’t let you listen to it

I think this is where the coffee shop comes in. If enough people are having conversations around you, it’s hard to accidentally start listening to one of the conversations. You only catch the occasional word, and there’s nothing to latch on to. The situation’s over-complex for the ear, so it’s easier to give up trying to follow anyone’s conversation and just enjoy the pleasant atmosphere while getting on with whatever you’re trying to do.

So maybe that’s why people work in coffee shops. The emotional and attention-demanding noises are left at home, and the congenial, non-distracting noise envelops you so you can work.

That’s my theory, anyway.