Wiring John Cage: Silence as a Global Sound System

Wiring John Cage: Silence as a Global Sound System


Charles Baldwin on music in the new media ecology.

Is there a music to media ecology? John Cage argues: “Music as I conceive it is ecological. You could go further and say that it IS ecology” (Birds 229). The radical nature of this claim still demands to be understood. The challenges of Cage’s long trajectory across various media signal his stance toward a complex exteriority, an eco-musicology he calls “the impossibility of language” (113). Cage is a thinker of complexity, that is, of the materiality of systems, of the “working” aggregates he names music. His work is not adequately summarized by too-quick dismissals as a neotranscendentalism or Romanticism (as the audience dismisses him in For the Birds). Cage’s first book, a collection of lectures and writings from 1939 to 1961 titled Silence, remains a vital demonstration of what it takes to open our ears. This is a risky art, lacking clear articulation of what would be artistic or political practice (to choose two of a range of possible genres), but its obscure movement makes the work readable as a statement on eco-technics comparable to the “poetics” of Duchamp or Mac Low. In Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory, anyone “who cannot distinguish system and complexity is denied access to the domain of ecology. Ecology has to do with a complexity that is not a system because it is not regulated by a system/environment difference of its own” (31). Conceiving of this complexity as music is the systems theoretical reading of Cage’s work. How far can this claim be taken? Is there nonetheless a systematicity to the music of media ecology?

Radio offers a useful entry to Cage’s media work. From the first, the ham operators of the already passed youth of the medium supplied critical referents for what will later be the “interactivity” of contemporary media. These “pioneers” surfed the airwaves, ignoring geo-political boundaries for a more basic electro-magnetic topography, establishing their mythic function as living in an originary time of anarchic freedom for what is represented as the first public distribution medium. Radio is sustained by a myth of primary communication that has less to do with the brief and lonely night of the crystal radio operator - whom did they speak to? …ultimately only to each other - and more to do with the possible composition and decomposition of transmissions. By contrast, the mails become public only as the epiphenomena of military/governmental posts, and the telegraph, itself the first non-material communication system, began solely as a commercial venture (see Innis for history from the point of view of media). [ Daniel Punday and Richard John review Bernhard Siegert on the history of the postal system]

Sabotage, or what de Certeau terms more mildly “making do,” is the mode of resistance simultaneous with these histories, whether in alternative mail systems, cryptograms, or in the invested writing and reception of love letters. From the standpoint of media theory, one can theorize a “public” space in media only on the condition that it is already colonized territory. If the radio listener had always been theoretically able to listen to public broadcasts from some other space, by the time Bertolt Brecht tuned in, the real time broadcast already made visible a crisis in the medium that calls itself the public. Shared listening turns out to be no sharing at all. “So here is a positive suggestion: Change this apparatus over from distribution to communication.”

Brecht’s 1932 “Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat” calls for radio to be no longer “a mere sharing out,” but rather “a vast network of pipes […] to let the listener speak as well as hear” (15). For Brecht, radio carries a pedagogical promise that would overcome the inscription and surveillance of the broadcast and the program. Where is this promise heard? In an implicit theory of communication against an undifferentiated background of noise. This is not (yet) noise in the information theory sense of lost information, but rather a remainder of a pre-semiotic theory, a material kernel left only to music. Such a hardware noise can for this reason structure the broadcast without preventing “communication,” but only as long as it is believed that with the right equipment this noise from the outside will be silent. In short, to communicate, radio must no longer be a medium. For Brecht this is its destiny, an inevitable end to radio’s technical development. Sound become the locus of a continuity that escapes the semioses of power. Such a mythic immediacy forms a kind of crux, since an a priori acoustic exteriority can not guarantee its own value as emancipation. Noise doesn’t sound like much, by definition. Despite our lack of experience in solving the technical problem of noise, or perhaps precisely because of this inexperience, noise functions as a kind of alibi for political crisis. Yet if mediality may not even be a “structure” susceptible to “answers,” this does not preclude a hypothetical noise, which would no longer be noise but rather the medium of an ideal and immediate communication.

Such a hypothesis would not be ecological. Emancipatory politics must always be able to sacrifice ecology as an imperative. Credit Brecht with recognizing the materiality of the apparatus, which unfortunately was not the materialism he was after. It is unclear what an “emancipatory communication apparatus” would be. Commonly cited examples such as pirate radio merely show that the medium is not yet communicating. Nonetheless, Brecht becomes the station identification for renovative, purgative media critiques (Enzensberger, Habermas, perhaps Chomsky) - more bandwidth, fiber optics, the latest vast network of pipes. If the current situation follows much the same programming guidelines, with much the same invested desire, the purported world-wideness of network technologies should be seen as a over-accelerated questioning of the conditions of communication without mediation. Interactivity is the end product of theory that takes the contingencies of electronic display as subject to progressive refinement. More than image tracking and resolution, a kind of acoustic “resolution” would define what is imagined as “true” real time, with acoustics as the exemplary instance of ever-wider band communication. The systematization of noise is the outer limit of technocultural investment in unmediated communication. The future would be to hear the Internet, as if inside our head. Noise becomes the dynamic for speculative technical development. But McLuhan is still cool, that is, radio is always on, though no one’s listening. Media cannot be silenced. Along with McLuhan’s hot and cold media, which presuppose variable degrees of engagement on the part of a narcissistic user, cool media presuppose a paradoxical disengagement under conditions of general mediality, or what Cage terms “interpenetration,” a “de-structuring” principle of self-canceling silences (Birds 40). Where Brecht seeks to minimize a hardware insufficiency in the interests of emancipatory communication, Cage seeks to maximize noise in the interests of creating responsibility for what is communicated. In the words of Daniel Charles, Cage “theatricalizes” the structurally unheard (50). “Theater takes place all the time wherever one is” (Silence 174). Cool media operate through events that make apparent underlying medialities; such events are ecological in their staging, where event-time is an intensity whose measurement variables are determined by aleatory processes without intersection with the event itself. “And consequently we come back to what exists” (Birds 40). Coolness displaces the structure of variable affect attendant on the hot/cold pair for an ethic of digitality, between response and passivity. Powering up his radio at the same time as Brecht, what Cage calls a “global sound system” is an art that disappears in performance, where art and environment resonate at the same frequency, fade, and are indistinguishable. In such an event, apparently systematic distinctions are made to vanish, which is not to say that they are no longer in effect. Often cited as a paradigmatic multimedia composition (see Corbett 74-75, Dyson 380), Imaginary Landscape IV (1953) uses 12 radios, where one musician “tunes” and the other operates volume and tone, following chance-generated notations. The continuous radio signal offers a regularity that functions autonomously, independent of the “programming” of a given channel. Tuning becomes the cut-up of programming, “a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology), and also of the literature and traditions of the art. The sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves, unimpeded by service to any abstraction, their 360 degrees of circumference free for an infinite play of interpenetration” (Silence 59). The artifice of the Cagean composition supplies the staging necessary for this “centering within themselves.”

The trajectory from disappearing mediality to visible theory is staged in Silence, in which Cage’s writing is organized not chronologically or thematically but musically; sections are often paired around Cage’s well-known “hearing” of silence while sitting in an anechoic chamber, in order to “exemplify,” “a room without echoes,” deafened by the artist’s own nervous system and heartbeat (Silence 8). An ear grows around an event that is not the absence implied in the common idea of silence nor the presence of an intentional mind. Communication is destroyed: the virtuality of a blank fold forms the interior of this work, the event of the chance composition itself. “Sounds, when allowed to be themselves, do not require that those who hear them do so unfeelingly. The opposite is what is meant by response ability” (Silence 10). What would it be for sounds to “be themselves”? This is a literal response ability, not a metaphysics of sound as a shell burnt away to a seed of meaning, but sound as a mediator that remains within musical systems. A non-acoustic music: a hearing of hearing. “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death” (Silence 8).

“The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.” Cage’s 1937 “The Future of Music: Credo” describes a “library of ‘sound effects’ recorded on film […with which] we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heart beat, and landslide” (Silence 3). The capture and control imperative of this early archival focus drew on analogies with film, where the frame offered a minimal unit of visual perception, a meta-principle of spacing correlating sound and silence: “structure based on duration […] is correct” (Silence 63). Hence the “mobility” of (Imaginary Landscape IV, where “aggregates” of sound in complex “constellations” appear and disappear “into history” (Silence 58). This speed is controlled by the limiting value of silence, as if following an optical model that recognizes a vanishing point of sound into structure, that is, into silence. This apparent threshold, which itself would have no duration but rather the infinite thinness of a cut through duration, allows for the claims to normativity of these early works: “…the radios did their job that evening quite satisfactorily” (Birds 169). This threshold is unimaginable, impossible; it contains the remains of an aesthetic of personal choice that will later be replaced by the use of aleatory compositions, whether with the I Ching or computer randomization.

The early works of Silence “take for granted that meaning exists” (Birds 114). For Cage this is always a question of what could be called eco-anarchism. At this point, “I honestly and naively thought that some actual silence existed” (Birds 115). Silence is emphatically not political (Birds 112), and the “library of sound effects” would offer a grouping of possible anarchist counter-statements, making “available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard” (Silence 4). In counterposing silence to the political, Cage increasingly radicalizes the conditions of possible silence. Harmony and syntax are media of the police. Any hierarchy or structure is already saturated by forces whose cited presence marks the “end of music.” The alternative is a kind of naturalism of impulsive choice, selections from the archive that would be both viable manifestations of silence and yet resist totalitarian force. What would be the contents of this archive? How much music is needed for silence?

The realization that silence does not exist (Birds 40) marks a shift in Cage’s thinking. Think of Chuang Tzu’s Cook Ting:

A good cook changes his chopper once a year, because he cuts. An ordinary cook changes his knife once a month, because he hacks. Now, my chopper has been in use for nineteen years; it has cut up several thousand bullocks; yet its edge is as sharp as if it just came from the whetstone. At the joints there are always interstices, and the edge of the chopper is without thickness. If we insert that which is without thickness into an interstice, then we may ply the chopper as we wish and there will be plenty of room. That is why after nineteen years the edge of my chopper is as sharp as if it just came from the whetstone. (74)

Cage the reader of Tao and Zen would like his work to emerge like that chopper, to pass through sound as “actual silence.” But Cook Ting’s practice is not a theory of control, but of its own disappearance as theory. Silence is not what emerges but what makes the work itself shed light on its material. Silence is not silent but murmurs the acoustics of what can be heard. The archive is a global sound system for articulating nothing: “I have nothing to say and I am saying it” (Silence 109). The later works in Silence practice what the earlier works describe. Silence is both a collection of topical writings and itself a Cagean composition, its chance appearing in this intersection of the happenstance of “collection” and the eventfulness of “composition.”

Jean Baudrillard writes: “If one speaks of the environment, it is because it has already ceased to exist. To speak of ecology is to attest to the death and total abstraction of nature. Everywhere the ‘right’ (to nature, to the environment) countersigns the ‘demise of’ ” (202). For Baudrillard, any ecological theory merely acknowledges its inability to deal with anything but its own failure as practice. Media ecology would seem a particularly debased version of this failure. Such a reading echoes in the critical backlash to Cagean eco-politics, focused on the reactionary fetishism in claims “to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories of expressions of human sentiments” (Silence 10). From this point of view, Cage’s claim to non-intentionality is a happy-face elitism of the avant-garde. The chance compositions appear naive decontextualizations, and in the resulting inertia and insistent banality is read the citation of former contexts.

De-crypting and animating a specter of media’s historical sediment is the commonplace of new media studies. It marks the return of a kind of historical consciousness to non-Marxist theory (for example, in the work of Friedrich Kittler). [ link to Bruce Clarke’s review of Kittler’s Grammophone, Film, Typewriter( ] If technics are built on heaps of the dead, this accumulation allows a kind of cryptic media ecology, built on the critique of the zombie-state of what claims to be ecological. Walter Benjamin already gave a statement of this position, only to forecast its inevitable failure:

And that means pessimism all down the line. Absolutely. Mistrust in the fate of literature, mistrust in the fate of freedom, mistrust in the fate of European humanity, but three times mistrust in all reconciliations: between classes, between nations, between individuals. And unlimited trust only in I. G. Farben and the peaceful perfection of the air force. But what now, what next? (191)

Indeed, what next for this “absolutely”? What comes after the absolutism of unravelled belief in fate? Mistrust and “pessimism all down the line” would bring questions to Cage, questions of privilege, relevance, avant-gardism. Perhaps these critiques are fundamentally true: grant Cage his theoretical naiveté in claiming our trust in artistic reconciliation, and yet ask why he remains so cheerful. What is it in his resolutely apolitical theory (anti-capital as much as anti-critical) that nonetheless continues to “work”?

Tuning Cage to one frequency:

When the allies entered Germany towards the end of World War II, it was discovered that improvements had been made in recording sounds magnetically such that tape had become suitable for high-fidelity recording of music. [With magnetic tape] we are in fact technically equipped to transform our contemporary awareness of nature’s manner of operation into art. (Silence 8-9)

In a time where radio meant live broadcast, accelerations in magnetic tape technology (recording, re-recording, mixing, splicing) made German airspace “operational” in real time: apparently live broadcast of recorded speeches created the virtual presence of Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis, temporal-spatial displacements intended to confuse Allied Intelligence. Why does Cage supply this information? How should the fact that Cage notes his indebtedness to Nazi technical development be read in light of his proclaimed counter-politics? Can this becoming-art of our understanding of nature’s operation be tied directly to a military-logistic origin? Is this a lapse revealing a deep-seated technocracy, where the inevitability of technical development is used to justify the contingencies of its historical passage?

Since these questions can be seen as questions only under certain historical presuppositions about media, perhaps they do not have immediate answers. Perhaps the citation should be allowed to stand within Cage’s theoretical substitution of “utility” for “possession” (Birds 62), where iterability displaces propriety. For Benjamin, beyond the propriety of belief in fate is still an absolute division: “indeed, precisely after such a dialectical annihilation, this will still be a sphere of images, and, more concretely of bodies” (192). Cage composes in the medium of the concrete, forcing consideration of the gains and losses of taking his work to task in the name of theoretical responsibility. Consider reactions to chance procedures: either exterior to any possible system (that is, meaningless), or inevitably meaningful in their appearance, recuperated within a system of historical citation. Such a schematism provides answers to what is in fact not a question. What is termed chance is a complex structural insufficiency irreducible to system, but nonetheless marked as an ecological boundary. Theory systematically finds answers to its questions, but the validity of these answers is determined more by the requirements of the theory than by the ideal propriety of questions and answers. There is both chance and system, argues Cage: “the coming into being of something new does not by that fact deprive what was of its proper place” (Silence 11). The archival aggregate of the book itself releases its silence in these alterations, distributions, rolls of the dice. Silence is a constant and pervasive medium of unregulated translation and exchange. If the later texts in Silence are I Ching-determined dispersions or koan-like chains of anecdotes, this merely becomes the visibility of procedures at work in apparently intentional writings. The decision that accepts the mediality of what is meaningful is no longer passive or hidden but risks an opening that shows only its own performance: “nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music,” nor, Cage repeats, by hearing or playing music, to which he adds: “our ears are now in excellent condition” (Silence xii). What blocks the ears is the belief that events, conceived as music, must already be subject to system theoretical considerations. Noise must be “heard” by the system before it can be played. Cage replies: “A thing leads to other things, but a musical instrument leads to nothing” (Silence 125). It may be true that to accept accomplishing nothing is a sign of political exhaustion, but it may be equally true that to stop here is too easy, that beyond this exhaustion is an ecological imperative that may not simply be capitulation. What if there was still something left to do? Cage cuts forward to sound text as accident handler, replacing the residual Romanticism of cults of the dead with an inscription that disappears. He recuperates optimism through non-reconciliation.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Trans. Charles Levin. St. Louis, MO: Telos Press, 1981.

Benjamin, Walter. Reflections. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1986.

Brecht, Bertolt. “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication” [“Der Rundfunk als Kommunikationsapparat”] Radiotext[e]. Ed. Neil Strauss. New York: Semiotext[e], 1993. 15-17.

Cage, John. For the Birds. [with Daniel Charles]. Hanover, NH: Weslyan UP, 1995.

–. Silence. Hanover, NH: Weslyan University Press, 1973.

Chuang Tzu. “Fundamentals for the Cultivation of Life.” Sources of Chinese Tradition. Vol. 1. Ed. Wm Theodore de Bary. New York: Columbia UP, 1960.

Corbett, John. “Radio Dada Manifesto (An Excoriation with Six Histories).” Radiotext[e] Ed. Neil Strauss. New York: Semiotext[e], 1993. 71-84.

de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988.

Dyson, Frances. “The Ear That Would Hear Sounds in Themselves: John Cage 1935-1965.” The Wireless Imagination. Eds. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994. 373-408.

Innis, Harold A. Empire and Communications. London: Oxford UP, 1950.

Kittler, Friedrich, A., Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Trans. Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1990.

Luhmann, Niklas. Social Systems. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1995.