In 1951 the composer John Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Upon entering he had expected to hear silence. Instead there was the song of his own being. ‘I heard two sounds, one high and one low,’ he said. ‘When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.’
The following year, on a summer’s night at the Maverick Concert Hall near Woodstock in New York state, the pianist David Tudor staged the debut performance of a composition that defined an artist’s work and altered the sound of music. Tudor sat the piano and, for four minutes and 33 seconds, in one sense, did nothing – only opening and closing the fallboard to signify where each of the three movements started and ended.
In writing 4’33”, Cage sought to show there was music everywhere – the four minutes and 33 seconds of ‘silence’ at that première performance was abundant in sound. ‘There’s no such thing as silence,’ he said later. ‘You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.’
People did walk out on a sensory challenge too great, too vast, unnerving. But 70 years later, with the world emerging slowly from a pandemic, the ineluctable art of John Cage resonates with compelling verve.
From the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai he had adopted the philosophy that the purpose of music ‘is to sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences’. But what happens when the music is life itself? ‘The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence,’ Cage said. ‘And the silence almost everywhere in the world now is traffic.’
For a brief time, as this infant decade struggled through a global health crisis, even the ‘silence’ of traffic – on the streets and in the skies – was dimmed, replaced by birdsong. The whistles and trills and warbles and squawks laced the air of spring 2020, to sober and quiet the mind, inviting us to hear our own bodies, to love our being, love life.
For some, however, the pandemic was not the worst thing to unfold in a world already grim with age. For them, lockdown life was still much too loud. Escape was required, music stripped of voice, notation pared, serenity in bloom: an atmosphere, a place, a home. It might easily be boxed away as ambience. But such a label can be viewed as dismissive, pejorative, when really this other ‘silent’ music has classical roots that bely its gossamer sheen, anchoring it to human experience yet seeking to defy gravity.
Mark Hollis knew what John Cage was talking about. The Londoner, like Cage, was an aural voyager who challenged the orthodox view of what music was and could be: and again, people either got it, or not; in any case, Hollis co-created three of the greatest albums in modern music, in his own quietly restless way. ‘The silence is above everything,’ he told an interviewer at the time of Laughing Stock’s release, ‘and I would rather hear one note than I would two, and I would rather hear silence than I would one note.’
In 1998 the former Talk Talk pioneer recorded a track as John Cope, a pseudonym drawn from a 1988 B-side. The track, titled simply Piano, sounds at first like an aural patchwork, but it is much more, evoking Satie (an early influence on Cage); but fingertips are applied with care, with strategy, to say what Hollis intends and no more, no less. The music’s purpose is in the hush between notes, the spaces inviting meditation – time to breathe, to be, to still the mind, ‘rendering it susceptible to divine influences’.
This is not overt indulgence, nor vain cleverness. It is musical impressionism: a place of repose, to pause but not dwell, to think but not ruminate, to find our way home. And for those still wondering what home is or might be, this is a sanctuary, a space to journey within, while the juggernaut world rushes on.
With a mind open to silence, the hush then lives in sound: the watercolour keys of Bill Evans, the mosaic clarinet of Mona Matbou Riahi, a Spanish guitar, a Malian kora, John Cale reading Kerouac. And then, there is Max Richter.
To a cinephile Richter would be a familiar name, given his prolific work in film soundtracks. But my introduction was via a hypnotic, inspiring programme by Laura Barton for the BBC. Highlighted is the tender masterpiece On The Nature Of Daylight with its soft waves of compassion ebbing and flowing, conveying of existence all that words can only imagine, all that captures a poet in awe.
In 2015 the British composer released Sleep: more than eight hours long, the album is ‘a personal lullaby for a frenetic world’, an ode to the neuroscience of slumber, and indeed designed to be played while sleeping. An abridged version, From Sleep, was released in the same year, to accompany the listener in daylight, in a waking dream – and it is here that Richter meets Hollis.
In an interview Hollis said: ‘Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note. And that, it’s as simple as that really. And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.’ The quote bears no small resemblance to the thoughts of John Cage. And the opening track of Richter’s From Sleep embodies those words.
Dream 3 is art for living, a well of calm, a flame of hope. On first listen it appears there is no rest, no silence, but time reveals what may seem initially hidden. For in the sustained notes of Clarice Jensen’s cello there is tranquility, solace, strength, the will to live. And then the violin approaches, gently, whispering it’s all right, it really is, even though this is hard, you will get through – keep going, keep breathing.
Music is a balm in the age of anxiety, a healing art, with a steadfast power to console and revive. And between the notes – in the silence and the stillness, where language bows to the intoxicating beauty of nature – is transcendence, the sound of life, your own blood in circulation. Be well.