Sound, Silence, and John Cage: Four Musical and Spiritual Ideals to Live By
I’m sitting cross-legged on a downtown sidewalk. My five year-old son is in my lap and for 10 minutes the little guy is completely focused and very still; we’re watching and listening with curious eyes and ears to an unusual music performance.
The musician appears to bring his full attention to each moment as he tilts a microphone, capturing subtle sounds and rhythms. He moves the microphone closer still until it’s directly in contact with the sound source; a living cactus. The musician rubs a stick gently and slowly across the thick, green cactus and then plucks the white, spikey bristles. A small audience has gathered. We listen. And watch. Some look surprised and then break into a smile.
Up and down the main street through downtown Santa Cruz there are similarly odd and intriguing performances of compositions by musical pioneer John Cage. It’s part of a celebration in honor of Cage’s 100th birthday (Cage died in 1992).
Cage studied classical music and later experimented with radically altering the landscape of musical possibilities. He’s inspired musicians across many genres, from new age to ambient and contemporary classical; avant-garde to noise and punk rock. Cage is perhaps best known for his experiments with silence and using techniques of randomness for composing music. He was deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism.
Perhaps his most famous composition, 4’33’’, is performed by musicians who sit with their instruments and don’t play a single note, for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The piece was partly inspired by Cage’s visit to a soundproof room. He was surprised when he heard two sounds inside the silence (…and it wasn’t Simon and Garfunkel). A sound engineer told Cage the high-pitched sound was his nervous system and the low sound was his blood flowing.
In meditative practices of Buddhism and Hinduism, these sounds are sometimes referred to as “nada.” I’ve heard Vipassana teachers and Buddhist monastics talk about these “sounds within silence,” which can be concentrated upon to bring deeper focus and calm. Baba Hari Dass, a Hindu guru who has maintained a vow of silence since 1952, once wrote: “The inner sound, nada, can be that of a flute, bells, sitar…”
John Cage’s experiments with sound, silence, and music remind me of some musical—and spiritual—ideals to live by:
Music can come from anywhere: crickets, ocean waves, a cactus, a human heartbeat. We just have to remember to listen.
Keep opening to the possibility of hearing and making new music!
Listening to sounds without judgment is a great practice for increasing our capacity to listen to ideas and beliefs of others without moral judgment.
We each have the freedom to decide where we draw the line between music and not music (if we draw that line at all).
FYI: John Cage’s birthday celebration was organized in Santa Cruz, California by Phil Collins and New Music Works (newmusicworks.org) and included percussionist William Winant as well as performances of compositions for radios and toy piano. Photo by Daev Roehr.