Monday, 2 April 2012

What is the Meaning of Silence? (Expectations in John Cage)

I've been thinking again about the 'Deep Listening' techniques of Pauline Oliveros and the radical musical philosophy of John Cage. In both these cases, silence is meaningful. It can be a deeply memorable experience to be part of a 'performance' of 4'33''. Why is this? What's so meaningful about silence?

This presents an interesting case-study for thinking about meaning as a 'structuring of expectations', which I have been exploring in recent posts. In the case of 4'33'', expectations of the listener/performance are particularly important. If I choose to listen to silence, what do I expect to hear? It is perhaps easier to say what I do not expect to hear.

Unlike listening to Beethoven I do not expect to hear sounds which have been consciously organised to give me a particular kind of musical experience which the composer and the players are all party to realising. Instead I choose to listen to whatever happens: traffic, the wind, my breathing, coughs, birds, the air conditioning, etc. I consciously 'open my ears' to the world around, hearing everything as significant - or meaningful.

My conscious expectation is to be 'elevated by the everyday'. That may be because I've 'bought in' to the rhetoric about the piece - how this is philosophically and musically revolutionary; how our ideas about music have narrowed, and how we need to open our ears. Although for many people encountering 4'33'', they might think that the very idea of being 'elevated by the everyday' is nonsense; they do not 'buy in', and their experience would be completely different (irritation, scorn, boredom).

But the rational exhortation is one thing; the experience is another. One feature of the experience is that even though we might expect the 'unexpected' sounds of nature, much in our listening processes have regularities. Our breathing and heartbeat are regular. We also become familiar with the regularities of the breathing of those around us. Some people (like me) have tinnitus, so that is a constant background sound too. Something might happen around us and we might hold our breath briefly, and then relax again. Some sounds we are responsible for, like the shuffling of legs and arms as we shift position.

On that 'sea' of regularities things happen and disturb it. A loud bang and we look around shocked, our breathing stilled, but only glancing at each other as we continue the performance. Someone farts and we try to stifle the laugh (or someone laughs as they try to stifle a fart!). The rumble of digestive juices is usually guaranteed to have a similar effect.

What I want to think here is that there are transfers of information going on here, and restructurings of expectations continually occurring. I don't believe there is really a performance of 4'33''  without someone saying "we are going to perform 4'33''", and there being some understanding of what that entails. That in itself creates an anticipation of something special everyone is going to do (much like the chemistry experiment in my last blog post). Then there is the experience itself. I anticipate continuing to breathe and my heart continuing to beat, and sitting quite still. I do not anticipate most of the sounds that happen around me. When they occur, I revise my anticipatory system: is it something that will repeat (like birdsong or someone else's breathing)? or only a temporary shock (a fart)? If it is something which repeats, I might anticipate it occurring again (I may tune into it to see)... My expectations shift.

But the specialness and meaningfulness of a performance of 4'33'' is more than just the shifting of expectations of a bird singing or someone breathing. It is a realignment in expections at different levels. At one level, I am told "this is special" (by those organising the performance). At another level, I have direct experience before and after. Before, I might feel there is nothing inherently special in everyday sounds: my expectation of them is nothing more than as the background of the more 'important' things I have to attend to in life. After the performance, I will have tuned into things and found regularities which I had payed little attention to. I will have heard the ways those regularities are disrupted by other sounds. I may even have taken more  control of my own regularities by slowing my breathing, or even holding my breath to listen more carefully at certain moments.

I think the meaningfulness of silence lies in that moment of taking conscious control over bodily regularities like breathing and physical disposition. There, the exhortation of 'specialness' of 4'33'' which makes its own disruption to everyday conscious thought (who would believe this?), finds an echo (or rather the information about 'specialness' is transferred) in bodily experience which realises itself through a performance of 4'33''. The moment of holding breath, or looking around, of focussing on the regularities of birdsong or the breathing of others, of embracing accidental noises... all these serve to transfer what was only contained in the conceptual exhortation into lived bodily experience. And in that transfer, so expectations are restructured and the meaning of silence revealed.

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