It is 60 years ago. We are in a little concert hall just outside Woodstock, New York. The back wall of the hall is open and overlooks the Catskill Mountains. Onto the small wooden stage walks the pianist David Tudor. He sits at the piano, glances at a stopwatch, and closes the lid over the keyboard.
In No Such Thing as Silence, Kyle Gann asks the following questions of John Cage’s 4’33”:
How are we supposed to understand it? In what sense is it a composition? Is it a hoax? A joke? A bit of Dada? A piece of theater? A thought experiment? A kind of apotheosis of twentieth-century music? An example of Zen practice? An attempt to change basic human behavior?[i]
Or might it be none of these? 4’33” is often regarded as an end, a philosophical cul-de-sac, but over the course of six decades the negation of music has proved fertile ground for many composers. This appears to have been particularly true in the last 20 years or so, as though the noise of the avant garde’s war of words had itself to subside into silence before we could appreciate 4’33” on its own terms.
This article attempts to survey some recent silent compositions, but it can only hope to provide a brief overview. For a start, I am interested in the legacy of 4’33” as a composition (not a piece of sound art, a Zen koan or a proto-Fluxus happening). For all their merits, I find these latter forms somewhat insensitive to silence’s rhythmic, dynamic, expressive and structural possibilities. Sound art and happenings are capable of many things, including a reconsideration of time and duration of which Cage may well have approved,[ii] but retaining what Christoph Cox calls “the protocols of performance and composition” has its advantages too, and it is these I want to investigate.
The three movements of Cage’s score undoubtedly present a structured event and demand a listening situation with a defined start and finish, and a degree of internal differentiation. Cage later described that the internal structure of each movement had further been composed by adding together silent durations determined by the I Ching. The only difference between 4’33” and a “regular” work, then, is the absence of notated sound to articulate this form, but this is just a matter for the performer’s interpretation. A lot of emphasis is placed on the fact that 4’33” is the opening up of music to the non-intentional. This is undoubtedly one aspect of it, but my starting point is how these small intentions give unique shape to this particular silence.
Since Cage, silence itself has proved a remarkably resilient and heterogeneous material. The Swiss composer Jürg Frey has spoken of “many different silences: silence between sounds, before you hear a sound and after you’ve heard a sound. Silence which never comes into contact with the sounds, but which is omnipresent and exists only because sound exists.”[iii] The potential variety of silent composition is easily demonstrated by comparing two scores (both available online) by another Swiss composer Manfred Werder and the Russian composer Sergei Zagny: Werder’s 20061 (of 2006) and Zagny’s Metamusica (of 2001). Werder’s describes, in three short lines, a performing/sounding situation; Zagny’s is written as though conventional piano music, with clefs, staves, bar lines, rhythms, articulation marks, etc., but no actual notes. The former seems to be directing its attention to how the music should be realized; the latter to the what.
Zagny belongs to a generation of Moscow-based conceptual artists, poets, and experimental musicians that includes the poet Lev Rubinstein, the artist Dmitri Prigov, and the director Boris Juchananov. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s he composed a number of text-based or graphical scores that deal with musical performance practice. Metamusica confronts such concerns in typically radical fashion. The look of the score recalls absurdist pranks like Erwin Schulhoff’s “In futurum” (part of which may be seen here), but closer inspection reveals that it is a copy of Webern’s Variations for Piano, op.27, just with the notes removed. In fact, Zagny leaves only holes—not even rests—where Webern’s notes should be. It’s a Webern-shaped space, with all the Webern taken out. When read “correctly,” according to its time signatures and so on, the score is incomplete and not really performable. Instead, it is meant to be projected on a screen to an audience, who fill in the gaps and realize the music mentally. The rhythms and dynamic markings (and the presence/absence of the Webern original) are clearly meant to direct those realizations.
A more high profile counterpart to Zagny’s conceptualism may be found in Stimmen…verstummen… (“Voices…fall dumb”) by his Russian contemporary, Sofia Gubaidulina. The complete ninth movement of this orchestral work is a cadenza for solo conductor. The rhythm conducted is a reduction of the work’s overall form, and Gubaidulina places an almost mystical emphasis on this movement. It is, she states in the score, “the real main theme of the symphony, its inmost sense.” Answering the question of whether this movement can be recorded, she answers in the affirmative: “If this higher sense is really being realized [that is, the higher sense created by the conductor’s silent gestures], the tape machine will surely record and reproduce it.”
Examples of musical “dumb theatre” can be found in considerably more complex musical circumstances, and even the very densely notated scores of Klaus K. Hübler and Aaron Cassidy contain miniature pools of silent music within rich sonic surroundings. Their scores notate different performing actions independently—so fingering separately from breath and embouchure on a wind instrument, for example. As a consequence, fingers may be operating in the absence of breath to sound the instrument. (See Benjamin Marks’s performance of Hübler’s Cercar for trombone for an example.) A discourse is set up between sounding and non-sounding notes, both of which act on a level playing field as far as notational intention is concerned.
This brings us to the halo of silence that surrounds any performance act. Brian Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule for solo flute (1971) begins with 15 seconds of “absolute silence and lack of movement” (to quote the score), and many works by Gerhard Stäbler similarly load their silences. In White Space for voice and string quartet, for example, the musicians silently prepare a single gesture, before holding themselves in an extended state of anticipation. We are back to that Woodstock theater and the tense atmosphere that must have been created as the audience waited, fruitlessly, for Tudor to play a note.
The works described above all rhythmicize a silence, but in his Némajáték (Veszekedés 2) (Dumb-Show (Quarrelling 2)) for piano, from Book 1 of the Játékok series, György Kurtág goes further than all of them and gives it a dynamic shape too. So this short piece begins with three notes played forte, followed by a double-sforzando cluster chord, despite the fact that the accompanying rubric specifies that the piano’s keys should be touched only very lightly, “without moving any of them.” “The gesture is very important, just beyond the sound (a gesture for the crescendo, another one for the accelerando…),” Kurtág has said of this piece.[iv] This is an extension of the idea that every performance act takes place within the context of the surrounding silence, with which it partners in creating an artistic sound.
The pieces of Játékok are full of indications that are either unrealizable or unsoundable, but nevertheless precisely demanded—crescendos under sustained piano notes, needlessly crossing hands, single notes played by two hands at once, and so on—Dumb Show is an extreme example of Kurtág’s habit of bringing the physical gestures of performance to bear on the music’s interpretation. Incidentally, modern day performances of Schulhoff’s “In futurum” replicate Kurtág’s model, even though Schulhoff’s piece was composed nearly 60 years previously. (One such performance may be viewed here.)
Tudor quietly raises the lid of the piano, and lowers it again. The second movement begins, and rain begins to fall.
The composers so far mentioned have approached composition of or with silence from a relatively conventional point of view. That is, through the creation of a score, which is to be realized within a relatively standard performance context (that is, in a concert hall or similar space, with close attendance to the events described by the notation) or with the composer retaining control of the musical content of the work. One of the better-known lessons of 4’33”, however, is the extension of musically valid sounds beyond this arrangement. Werder has concerned himself more than many with composing the situation within which music—or at least sounding events—may take place.
Since 2005 he has devoted himself to works that are titled only with a year, and a superscript number for each piece within that year. For convenience, I will call these “date pieces,” although there are few connections between them other than the titling convention and their notation as short, aphoristic texts. The first, 20051, is perhaps the simplest in conception (although not necessarily in realization), and the closest to 4’33”. Its score simply reads:
( sounds )[v]
In subsequent works, Werder refines this conception, in the process proving its potential subtlety. 20062 adds just two letters, but in doing so radically changes the possibilities for realization:
( sounds )
In contrast to the freedoms of 20051, two possibilities are narrowed down: several events (places) occurring simultaneously (a [single] time); or a single event that takes place across a series of performance spaces—perhaps processing between each.
20061, on the other hand, is almost Baroque by comparison. Not only is the performance space quite specifically designated, but for the first time the presence of a performer(s)—and hence a divide between stage and audience—is specified:
a place, natural light, where the performer, the performers, like to be
( sounds )
Werder’s later works in this series introduce specific sounding objects (as in 20086), or short literary quotations that hint similarly at musical possibilities. As an ongoing project they represent a virtuoso set of variations on some of Cage’s original premises.
Werder belongs to a group of mostly Central European composers associated with the Wandelweiser Edition publishing house and record label, without whom no discussion of silence in contemporary composition would be possible. Members of the group include Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, Michael Pisaro and, among its founders, Kunsu Shim. For many of them, composition is an exploration of the region that asymptotically approaches silence. Houben, for example, refers to music existing “‘between’ appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something ‘nearly nothing’.”[vi] The score of Werder’s for one or a few performers simply stipulates “a lot of time. / a few sounds. / for itself simple,” which he describes as “a framework focusing rather on an acoustic exploration of the surroundings…I think the sound events operate primarily as articulations affecting the listener’s quality of perception of the surroundings.”[vii]
In his history of Wandelweiser, Pisaro describes Shim’s understanding of 4’33” and its importance to the development of the Wandelweiser group:
For Kunsu, the music of Cage, and of those who worked with him and followed in his wake was felt to be more radical and more useful than the writing: because it had so many loose ends and live wires still to be explored (something I would also later encounter with other Wandelweiser composers). Thus 4’33” was seen not as a joke or a Zen koan or a philosophical statement: it was heard as music. It was also viewed as unfinished work in the best sense: it created new possibilities for the combination (and understanding) of sound and silence. Put simply, silence was a material and a disturbance of material at the same time.
In their different ways, the Wandelweiser composers have devoted themselves to following those loose ends, often much further than Cage might have expected. Pisaro refers to Shim’s expanding space in limited time for solo violin (1994), for example, which requires bow movements of such slowness that they truly produce sounds on the edge of audibility. In one two-hour performance of the piece, Pisaro reports, it was 20 minutes before he could make out any sound at all; after which his sense of hearing had become so attuned that those sounds that were produced began to take on an extraordinary richness. Realizations of Werder’s for one or a few performers have taken place over days, bringing the musical performance far closer to the passage of real life than the four and half minutes performed by Tudor in 1952.
Images (above and right) from Peter Ablinger’s Listening Piece in Four Parts (2001). The composer states: “I performed the 4 parts on 4 different days during December 2001, mostly alone with my wife Siegrid by putting 20 chairs on 4 different places. The chairs have been removed after about 2 hours at each place. But the 4 places remain – now as a piece of music – for all who are aware of this fact.” Images and text provided courtesy of Peter Ablinger.
Although not a member of the Wandelweiser group, Peter Ablinger was a sympathetic friend and has explored his own path around silence. Whereas most Wandelweiser music (at least that I am aware of) begins from a performance situation, and extends this to extreme lengths in order to interrogate our listening experience, Ablinger starts from the other side of the proscenium arch, with the listeners themselves. Much—perhaps all—of his varied output across multiple media may be thought of as tackling the circumstances of listening. Those works grouped under the title “Seeing and Hearing” are explicitly described as “music without sound,” for example, and consist of series of abstract photographs arranged in related groups. Two-Part Invention (2003), from this group, exists as a set of directions (a score?) for creating and displaying a set of 32 photographs. “Seeing and Hearing” exists within a larger subset of works, titled “Listening Pieces.” These include “transition pieces,” such as Passing a tunnel (2011) and Listening Piece in 2 Parts, in which the listener is required to listen to “the change from the large room to the small one,” and then “the change from the small room to the large one.” Others are “chair pieces,” in which ordered arrangements of chairs are set out in specific locations: the auditorium-like arrangement invites attentive listening, but no further directions are provided. “Not the sound, but the listening is the piece,” states Ablinger. The place of the work becomes important: the surrealistic use of chairs in spaces such as parking lots, fields, or beachfronts has an effect on place similar to that of Cage’s durational framing on time: the space where the chairs are (and hence the sonic environment that can be heard while sitting in them) becomes separated from the adjacent spaces and sonic environments, and thus sounds differently.[viii]
By aestheticizing and compositionally organizing the sonic environment, Ablinger’s transition pieces cross into the territory known as soundwalking. This is another large field, and can only be summarized in this article.[ix] Broadly, it involves the composition and notation—through sets of written instructions, maps, etc.—of walking journeys through or among acoustically significant spaces, and instructions on what to listen to and how in the environments encountered. (In fact Werder’s 20062 might be interpreted as a soundwalk.)
In the work of Hildegard Westerkamp, soundwalking overlaps with the political and social values of acoustic ecology: “Unless we listen with attention,” she states, “there is a danger that some of the more delicate and quiet sounds may pass unnoticed by numbed ears and among the many mechanized voices of modern soundscapes and may eventually disappear entirely.”[x] The importance of acoustic ecology, that is, the preservation of endangered natural sounds, was recently explored in a New York Times article by Kim Tingley, and a greater awareness of our sonic environment is undoubtedly a legacy of 4’33” and those who have picked up its ideas.
Tudor lifts the keyboard lid one last time, and his performance is over. The rain has stopped, but sounds from the Catskill Mountains outside the auditorium can still be heard. The applause begins.
In her article “Soundwalking,” Westerkamp provides instructions for her reader to take on their first soundwalk. Towards the end of these, she writes:
So far you have isolated sounds from each other in your listening and gotten to know them as individual entities. But each one of them is part of a bigger environmental composition. Therefore reassemble them all and listen to them as if to a piece of music played by many different instruments. Do you like what you hear? Pick out the sounds you like the most and create the ideal soundscape in the context of your present surroundings.[xi]
Cage’s silence, and his opening up to environmental sounds was undoubtedly radical but, as we have seen, the possibilities for further exploring the composition of silence may be limitless. David Dunn, a composer and renowned acoustic ecologist, has developed the idea of composed listening to one logical conclusion. Beginning once more from 4’33” and its implications, he writes:
What has seldom, if ever, been discussed is the actual meaning of the composition as a cognitive process and its literal implications for music and its epistemological foundations as a human discipline. …What I have been imagining is that beyond the event horizon of 4’33” is a different universe of musical perception where composition might be based upon or at the least inclusive of an awareness of the primacy of mind, where an emphasis is placed upon the processes of perception and not materials. Purposeful Listening In Complex States of Time is my attempt at exploring the boundary of this concern for composition as the organization of perception rather than the manipulation of the material basis of sound.
Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time (1997–8; score here) contains no sounding events, in spite of its great level of detail. Instead, it specifies and orchestrates the cognitive listening state of its performer/audient. The following parameters are specified: level of attention (sky, body, ground), direction of attention (left, right, forward, behind, all round), proximity of listening attention (adjacent, near or distant), and time of event listened (present, past/remembered, future/imagined, non-specific). Further marks indicate the duration of each respective listening state (moving between them at a relatively fast tempo), and transitions between states. This is clearly an extension of the soundwalking idea (and that of Zagny’s Metamusica), in that the score’s instructions are directed towards the listener. But Dunn pushes those instructions beyond the level of an amateur or casual audient to professional-level engagement. The complexity of Purposeful Listening’s notation demands dedication and rehearsal. The level of aural attentiveness it elicits is far greater than that achieved by 4’33”, no matter how carefully one listens during that work. Its cognitive richness (and perception and organization of the sounding environment) is correspondingly far greater. Silence may take many different forms, but Dunn’s may be the most compositionally sophisticated and multi-layered of them all.
ii. On this point, see Christoph Cox: “From Music to Sound: Being as Time in the Sonic Arts,” originally published as “Von Musik zum Klang: Sein als Zeit in der Klangkunst,” in Sonambiente Berlin 2006: Klang Kunst Sound Art, ed. Helga de la Motte-Haber, Matthias Osterwold, and Georg Weckwerth (Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag, 2006), pp. 214–23; Eng. trans. available here.
iii. Quoted in Dan Warburton, “The Sound of Silence: The Music and Aesthetics of the Wandelweiser Group,” available here.
v. Many of Werder’s date pieces may be downloaded from Upload .. Download .. Perform . Net.
vi. Houben, “Presence–Silence–Disappearance,” available here.
viii. On a related theme, please see Chris Kallmyer’s “Sonic Cartography and the Perception of Place,” available here.
x. Hildegard Westerkamp, “Soundwalking,” Autumn Leaves, Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice, ed. Angus Carlyle. Paris, Double Entendre: 2007, p. 49. Available here.
Tim Rutherford-Johnson writes on contemporary music for the Guardian, INTO, Tempo, and his blog, The Rambler.