Monday, October 3, 2016
Silence is Always Ideal, and Illusory. The John Caged.
The point of his infamous 1952 composition 4'33", at least according to one of the readings Cage himself encouraged, was not of course the timed “silence” of the musician sitting for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, but rather the audience’s realization during the performance that in fact “there is no such thing as silence.”
Silence is always ideal, and illusory. Silence is a thought experiment, provocative and unverifiable. Although it is almost certainly apocryphal, Cage loved to tell the story of how he supposedly came to realize the fiction of silence while visiting the anechoic chamber of a Harvard laboratory and unexpectedly hearing sounds— a low pumped thump and a high electric whine— in what was advertised as a perfectly soundproof room. When he emerged, perplexed, the technician explained that Cage had heard his own heartbeat and the hum of his nervous system, recording itself recording.
Had Cage played Zen for Record he would have had no need to travel to Harvard, or to invent any stories, because its lesson is the same: all inscriptive relays leave a trace of their own configuration. In other words, one can never find a perspective on a message free from the medium of its conveyance, because in the process of transmitting a message the network of recording and playback mechanisms always produce an account of their own instantiation as well. The media are always legible in the message (if not quite, pace McLuhan, the message itself). Michel Serres makes the same point when he declares that “noise is part of communication.”
As does Wolfgang Iser, when he restates one of the basic axioms of information science: “There is always noise in the channel.”
The same postulate might have been extrapolated from the tenets of Slavic Formalism, which understood poetic language as a language of diminished reference, oriented away from the communicative function and toward its other aspects (context, medium, structure, et cetera).
Indeed, Zen for Record is a perfect illustration of what the Russian formalists called “звукопись”: the noise emitted by the surface texture (фактура) of a work; pure sonic inscription; the essence of “sound writing” (a phono-graph). The strict formalism of an attention to the materiality of the media, regardless of any content, should not be mistaken as apolitical, however; Theodor Adorno extrapolated an entire ideology of musical reception from the “slight, continuous and constant noise” perceptible in the hum of the groove, the static of broadcast radio, and the dust and scratches of a cinematic soundtrack.
These a priori conditions of the medium, Adorno wrote, were “a sort of acoustic stripe,” branding every mediated performance as a convict in the prison house of amplified sound.