Yoko Ono’s Snow

Originally published on February 7, 1977

As usual, I’ve been going to a lot of concerts. On my desk at the moment are several different programs from events which I’ve attended recently, and which I suppose I really ought to report on. But the snow that has been falling so abundantly has made me aware of some nonhuman music that seems more important. Of course, it’s a good thing we have human music too, but once in a while it seems worthwhile to take out a week to consider ideal music, like snowflake music – music that involves no human frailty, no vanity, no money, no careers, and no messages. Just pure natural music.

Snow is a special thing for me, as it must be for most people. That soft coldness, that delicacy, that short life, and all those perfect crystalline structures are so… well, it’s foolhardy to try to describe such things. I also have vivid personal recollections of Conrad Aiken‘s short story ‘Silent Snow, Secret Snow,’ and I frequently recall a conceptual score in Yoko Ono‘s Grapefruit, which has something to do with listening to the snow. Of course, listening to snow is absurd. Everyone knows that it is silent, as in Aiken’s title. Even when it lands right on your face you don’t hear it. Yet the idea of listening to it is attractive all the same, and this image sticks in my mind as one of my favorites from the scores of conceptual music that avant-gardists did in the ’60s. Only maybe this one isn’t purely conceptual.

One snowy afternoon recently I was leaving a rehearsal with a friend who happened to be carrying a lovely umbrella. I commented on it, and he told me it was Chinese, and that he had particularly appreciated the way he could hear the snow under its tighty stretched fabric. I was dubious, and as we walked down Broadway, I couldn’t hear a thing. But then we turned onto a side street, and as the traffic sounds faded, the snow became audible. It was an incredibly delicate sound. Imagine the softest, lightest rain you have ever heard, and then imagine that the sound is not taking place on an umbrella right over your head, but about 20 feet away. Something like that. In any case, it sounded great, and we just listened to the snow for a block or two.

Later, as I began thinking about the sound of snow, and considering writing about it, I found myself listening to my feet as I walked along snow-packed sidewalks. That sound is familiar to all of us who live in snowy climates, and writers in English even seem to have agreed on a word for it. I haven’t taken any surveys, but I’m fairly sure that ‘crunch’ is by far the most common word to describe the sound of footsteps in the snow. But as I listened, really listened, I began to hear something else. It’s something much more gentle than that. ‘Crunch,’ after all, is something you do when you bite down on a piece of celery, and the word sounds very much like ‘crush.’ Our feet don’t do anything that violent to the snow, they just pack it down a bit. It isn’t exactly a crunch, it’s a… Well, I guess there isn’t any word for it, which explains why writers have made do with the wrong one, and which also shows how linguistic approximations can distort our perceptions. For years I have assumed that my feet really did crunch when I walked in the snow. I trusted language conventions instead of really listening.

Now that I really had listened to the snow, and heard it, I went back to Yoko Ono just to recall exactly what her piece had said. I took down my copy of Grapefruit, opened it up, and sifted through until I came to her ‘Snow Piece,’ which is actually ‘Tape Piece III.’ My memory, it seems, had distorted the piece quite a bit. The actual text read as follows:

Take a tape of the sound of snow falling.
This should be done in the evening.
Do not listen to the tape.
Cut it and use it as strings to tie gifts with.
Make a gift wrapper, if you wish, using the same process with a phonosheet.

By that time the snow had stopped falling. Too late to make a tape recording. Maybe next time.

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