Torch in the Ear

In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise BY George Prochnik. Doubleday. Hardcover, 352 pages. $26.
No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (Icons of America) BY Kyle Gann. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 272 pages. $24.

The cover of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise The cover of No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage's 4'33" (Icons of America)

Absolute quiet isn’t a problem for most of us. Rather, it’s the barrage of modern life that makes it so we cannot abide long silences when they happen to come our way. We arrive home and switch on the television, even if no one watches, especially if we’re alone. We turn up our iPods to at least control our sonic environment. We lull children to sleep with white-noise machines—devices that, it turns out, make the young liable to distraction and slowed language processing.

Why does silence obsess us, and why is it so difficult to find? In a world of sounds on top of sounds—engine roars, traffic drones, appliance hums, babies’ cries—silence has a tremendous, even mythic allure.Yet in deep quiet there is still sound: our breathing, other air movements, and, of course, good old tinnitus. Not only that, but our ears, natural amplifiers, grow more sensitive the quieter it gets, such that when approaching absolute silence, we actually hear better. One of the more compelling tropes surrounding silence is that it fosters contemplation, even enlightenment. To paraphrase Emerson, silence allows us to become the transparent ear, taking in all.

On August 29, 1952, a young pianist named David Tudor strode onstage at the Maverick Concert Hall, near Woodstock, New York, sat down, and played nothing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. But it was not nothing, there were sounds: of a gentle rain on the roof; trees rustling outside the open doors in back; the audience shifting, coughing, getting up to leave. While John Cage, the piece’s composer, would go on to author many works of great sonic density and complexity, 4'33 is that for which he remains most famous and infamous; music that aspires to silence.

With Cage in mind, Susan Sontag wrote in 1969, “The notions of silence, emptiness, reduction, sketch out new prescriptions for looking, hearing, etc.” This radical vision of the artistic and experiential potency of silence is at the heart of Kyle Gann’s investigation of 4'33", No Such Thing as Silence. The former Village Voice new-music critic examines the ways in which Cage’s piece was and is boosted and derided, and the result is an easily digestible yet illuminating volume.

Gann recognizes that for many listeners, 4'33" seems simply a gag or a provocation. Yet he concludes that really it is “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention.” To Gann, the piece frames Cage’s entire oeuvre, at a stroke communicating his interest in the sounds of nature, the uses and limitations of avant-garde music practice, and his debt to influences from composers like Erik Satie and Morton Feldman to the philosophical writings of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Meister Eckhart.

Cage didn’t begin writing music until he was in his twenties, and then only because “the people who heard my music . . . had better things to say about it than the people who looked at my paintings had to say about my paintings.” Yet he was immediately drawn to the avant-garde, to the twelve-tone compositions of Arnold Schoenberg. First working in percussion and later with prepared piano, Cage initially utilized a system he called the macro-microcosmic strategy, where “the rhythmic structure of the entire piece had the same proportions as each part of the piece.” This devotion to strict structures was augmented when, after moving to New York in the 1940s, he became interested in Eastern music and culture. Gita Sarabhai, who advocated for classical Indian music, affected his musical approach greatly: “One day Cage asked Sarabhai what her teacher had told her was the function of music. She replied: ‘to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.’” Zen educator D. T. Suzuki taught Cage that “Buddhists declare all things to be empty, [but] they are not advocating a nihilistic view; on the contrary” an ultimate reality is hinted at, which cannot be subsumed under the categories of logic.”

Relatedly, Gann explains that “the most distinguishing factor of Zen is the practice of zazen, or sitting meditation.” Cage didn’t pursue such meditation; instead, as he wrote, he decided “to find a means of writing music as strict with respect to my ego as sitting cross-legged.” Cage’s structural focus transmuted to embrace chance operations, thereby eliding the logic, will, and aesthetic designs of the composer. Hence, when Cage finally gets to 4'33", he has embraced the notion that “from a Zen standpoint, there is no difference between playing a note and not playing a note, that a chord on the piano and a cough from an audience member behind you and the patter of rain on the Maverick Concert Hall roof are not different, but the same thing.”

While compelling as poetry and primary source, Cage’s own volume titled Silence (1961) should be preceded by Gann’s fascinating primer. Moments of textbooklike exposition (do we need a definition of the Bauhaus movement?) are counterbalanced by energetic accounts of Cage’s avant-garde exploits. Gann’s keen understanding of the period allows him to productively explore Cage’s misinterpretations (of Zen, of the artwork of peers like Robert Rauschenberg), which informed the composer’s practice as well.

Cage’s interest in silence was motivated as much by musical concepts as by his interest in Zen and spirituality, and indeed the search for contemplative opportunities outside of sound inform the lives and philosophies of a great many people. But since the Industrial Revolution, finding spaces and experiences out of earshot of the clamor of machinery has become increasingly challenging. George Prochnik, in his compelling new study In Pursuit of Silence, wonders why we accept so much noise and how we might begin to seek out a quieter way. He argues that noise comes at us in such a disorganized, haphazard, unpredictable manner that we never stop being startled (and never start to concentrate) or simply grow numb: “The brains of individuals who’ve made deep commitments to silence seem to enjoy its very character on a metabolic level, themselves becoming more still and quiet—less likely to amplify neural responses willy-nilly in a purposeless static when some chance stimulus calls out.” It turns out that the peak of brain activity, of thinking, comes in the tiny pauses between sounds, when we simultaneously process the previous sound and anticipate the next. When noise never abates, brain activity tends to flatline.

Prochnik visits locations of extreme silence and extreme noise, from an Iowa monastery for Trappist monks, who strive to “be silent and listen,” to a Florida car-audio competition, where bass-blasting boom cars compete for maximum decibel output. Prochnik finds European noise-reduction efforts mired in bureaucracy and stymied by corporate imperatives (the cutting-edge noise maps being produced across the Continent ultimately lead to recommendations for more recommendations). He wonders whether our relationship to quiet might be fundamentally broken: A vast number of American children today not only don’t know how to be quiet, they frequently associate it with tragedy or trauma, the “fear of disappearing, of the stillness of eternity lurking in the recesses of silence.” Prochnik proposes a turn to quiet not for solitude but to save the communal: “The more we observe the distinction between things, the less mental space we have for our isolate selves.”

It’s this turn that offers an intriguing path back to Cage, who pursued silence to open doors to even more sound and to communal listening. He made his own quest for absolute soundlessness, a journey that culminated in a visit to Harvard’s vacuumlike anechoic chamber, where he claimed he heard the sound of his own blood pumping and concluded, “There is no such thing as silence.” An astronaut interviewed by Prochnik says the same about floating in the actual vacuum of space, where the spectacle of the universe is accompanied by the sounds of one’s breath, mouth, blinking eyes.

Yet despite the cataclysmic volumes enjoyed by boom-car enthusiasts, Prochnik finds, to his surprise, that they are not wild-eyed maniacs but primarily a community of thoughtful music lovers. Whether or not the note is struck (or boomed) makes no difference, provided our minds are allowed the clarity to listen. For Prochnik, the imperative becomes to make the world quieter through policy, but it seems more likely that the responsibility will remain with individuals to turn down the volume from time to time and pay attention to listening. Earplugs, anyone?

J. Gabriel Boylan is a music and art writer.