The symphony of the world – if the idea is not excessive and there is anything that can be called like that – is indeterminate and purposeless or, what is the same, consists of a sum of accidents, by the confluence of sounds of all kinds, of different origin and intensity, and it is no an exaggeration to posit it as a giant ready-made. This was the music Henry David Thoreau insisted on listening and for what he developed something comparable to an existential discipline; this was also the music that John Cage decided to create – or rather to arouse –, and to which he opened the doors to contemporary sensibility, once he understood the importance of incorporating the noises – the unpredictable and crowded world of “mere” noises – to the musical work and, more than that, to the life, since then the music becomes not only in the life of sounds, but above all, in the participation in the sounds of life.
Cage, bold reader of Thoreau, moved, like him, to the mountains, nearby the Stony Point forest in New York. Unlike Thoreau he did not live alone or built with his hands his own cabin, but it is undeniable that during the long periods he spent there, looking for fungi and listening to the sounds of nature, he proposed to place himself in midstream of nature, surrounded to the flow of what happens in that terrace outdoors, that is the lack of intent, sheltering a project of auditive discipline which owed much to Walden reading and to the dairies of the prodigal son of Concord, and that ultimately marked his conception of music as a structure, an eminently temporal structure that, however, can be represented spatially as a receptacle or room with open windows, a locus wherein the visit of the chance is invoked – the intervention of the contingent and the stochastic –, and hence the suppression of self, its surveillance and controls was promoted.
That silence does not exist and everything is filled by the sounds, that one cannot speak of a sound properly “acoustic”, but in any case of a mental type – i.e. ideally –, Cage found it inside the anechoic chamber, when looking the absolute silence he realized that even in a soundproof bubble it was not possible to escape from the noise. There, enclosed in walls sealed to all sonic filtration, he discovered at the bottom of all, as an inevitable last layer, were human sounds, the unnoticed soundtrack of life, at a time effect and mark of the vibration of existence: blood flow, breathing, perhaps the evolution of the mind. All was there, blurring or tarnishing the silence, or rather, denying it subtlety and permanently as the grain of the tabula rasa or the invisible stains on the white paper; and one cannot but recognize the poetic possibilities that there may not be one silence, but many silences: a variety, even unrepeatable of environments for the emergence of silence, which then would no longer be silence in strict and total sense, but always stained, threatened even by the shocking squealing of the own eyelids opening.
The image of silence as tabula rasa or blank page (which took Cage to declare that the famous vertigo of Mallarmé had been in vain: he never really faced an abyss of whiteness, he was never face to face with a start from scratch, pristine and virginal), refers to another image rather of lakeside type, where silence would be comparable to the perfect tranquility of the lake; that tense and shimmering surface that Thoreau greeted so many times when he awaked in his adventure in the Walden forest. Like the stillness of the lake, which is never absolute, because life bustles inside and manifests through vibrations and is continually altered by the caress of the wind, sometimes fierce, never miss waves or bubbles impinging on the web of silence; every sound, even the most infinitesimal and inaudible, could be compared to a bubble bursting on the surface in the static appearance of the lake, which, as noted by Cage at the beginning of For The Birds (the series of talks held with Daniel Charles over several years), the question is rather how many bubbles there are on silence, how are exploding, and in what sequence and order.
Gaston Bachelard wrote that to hear the silence our soul needs that something shuts up. The crash of a car alarm that has several minutes gnawing the nerve endings is interrupted and, suddenly, although in other circumstances we might not classify as thereby (because actually, that calm is full of noise nuisances: someone speaks by phone at the next room, in the distance one can hear the paperboy amidst the incessant flow of cars), removing a particularly insidious noise layer is sufficient for us to find relief, to experience it as the withdrawal of a drill from the eardrums and, at least for a few seconds, before the hearing records a new nuisance, we feel very close to silence.
The environment also consists of sound material, for what in many cases we have no choice but to call “noise pollution” and in the space of one block, even one house, it is possible to scroll through various environments, moving from each other as entering in successive bubbles, in soundboards of varying configuration and amplitude. And as one moves from room to room acknowledging differences and temperature fluctuations, each space accommodates different clusters of sounds, different densities of what we habitually call silence.
The impromptu music around us, this relative but after all sonorous silence, that sometimes comforting and sometimes disorienting, was for Thoreau not only the undercurrent that accompanies the flow of life, but also a kind of channel for thought, perhaps the inadvertent influence and constant change in our moods. A century before Cage transformed the conception of Western music, diverting from the creative ego and the imposition of a melody, to make it embrace the contingent and the spontaneous, Thoreau had already made the leap to the idea of a overflowing music, transcending concert halls and its domesticated sounds – it could be said that the music grows cultivated in flowerpot –, carrying the listening to the nature – both of the raging storm as the lone cricket in the corner –, to the status of aesthetic experience, a kind of ecstasy or classifiable reconciliation called 4’33” or happiness, when auditory opening corresponds to the release of prejudices, with an abandonment of hierarchical classifications, on what asserts and matters as a musical subject. “In music – writes Cage with an attentive eye in Thoreau’s writings –, we should be content to keep our ears open. Everything can enter musically in an ear that is open to every possible sound! Not only the music we deem beautiful, but the music made by life itself.”
Whether we understand it as the music of chance, and as the soundtrack of the Earth, we can not fail to accept we are surrounded, enveloped by the sound material; the air we breathe is filled with vibrations, waves percuten in our eardrums without purpose and without we can avoid it. And although it is often difficult to accept the sound of a jackhammer as a form of music; and despite the intemperate shouts of neighboring reject any hint of comparison with C’s and even the flute in the hands of a child barely qualifies as a musical instrument, we always have on hand the affable resource of Thoreau of denying the existence of the noise, of accept it as part of the magnificence of the landscape and not as a source of disgust and annoyance. After all – particularly when listening to the distance –, any sound, even the most infernal, produces one and the same effect: “the vibration of the universal lyre”, a vibration that, if we welcome and learn to incorporate it into our existence, is also able to yield some form of ecstasy.