‘organise the silence’

In Silent, a 2016 video installation by the artist duo Pauline Boudry / Renate Lorenz, the Berlin-based Venezuelan vocalist Aérea Negrot appears on screen, seemingly poised to perform. Surrounded by microphones, and expectation, she then proceeds to say nothing, as the first part of the video turns out to be a four-minute-and-thirty-three-second-long performance of John Cage’s iconic silent composition, 4’33” (1952).

But while Cage promoted an aesthetic of transcendent anti-expressionism, Negrot’s performance of silence is unapologetically expressive, and bound up with a specifically situated embodiment. In a single shot, lasting just over four and a half minutes, we watch her move through a richly textured procession of silences––some of them private and inscrutable; others clearly signifying. We see agency, strength and pleasure, as well as traces of vulnerability and trauma. There is hesitation, flirtation, amusement, distraction and disinterest. At one point she smokes a cigarette with a sort of cinematically coquettish contempt, blowing smoke into one of the microphones instead of giving her voice to it. Later there’s a moment of extreme pathos as tears run down the silent singer’s cheeks. What registers at first as something like stage fright then starts to look more like an active refusal, with silence emerging as a conscious technique of resistance.

There are no less than ten different microphones placed on stands in front of the performer, reminding us of the excessive scrutiny that women of color can be subjected to. There is violence in having one’s voice silenced, but there can also be another sort of violence in being forced to speak, and one way to respond to the burden of enforced speech is to hold on to one’s silence, and find what the poet M. NourbeSe Philip has called “a silence other than the one that is imposed.”[1]

4’33” was originally intended for classical concert halls, which are spaces where a particular sort of silence is inscribed in advance by the etiquette that dictates that audiences should sit quietly and attentively. In contrast, Boudry / Lorenz’s Silent happens outside, on a rotating stage, at Oranienplatz – a public square in Berlin’s Kreuzberg which was previously the site of the ‘OPlatz Movement’, a protest camp that lasted from 2012 until 2014, with hundreds of refugees, asylum seekers and other activists occupying the square to protest against the German state’s disfranchisement of refugees.

So, from the decontextualised confines of Cage’s empty composition, we have moved out into public space, with its multiple uses and layers of social memory. And, from the universalist imaginary of the concert hall that could be anywhere, we have arrived at a specific site, with a history of particular claims coming up against particular political-judicial forces. Oranienplatz and its recent past might not be immediately recognisable to all viewers, but there is clearly an intentional anti-neutrality in the setting for this re-staging of 4’33”.

According to the composer, his silent composition was originally inspired by his friend Robert Rauschenberg’s monochromatic White Paintings (1951). Cage saw these blank canvases as “landing strips” for shadows and dust, whereby the absence of the picture created a situation in which the painting’s unauthored and always-shifting environmental conditions could be perceived in new ways. In a similar spirit, 4’33” would offer an emptied-out sonic field, through which audiences would attune themselves to the incidental sounds of the surrounding environment.

In Boudry / Lorenz’s restaging of the composition, the notion that through silence we can learn that there is no such thing as silence is basically honored, and in this sense their relation to Cage’s piece is not one of subversion. But by clearly situating the silence in a particular body at a particular site with its particular inscriptions (and erasures) of recent social histories, they also remind us that the modernist claim to neutral purity was always highly suspect. This is not silence as a clean slate of decluttered sensitivity, stripped of all distracting particularities. It’s a situated, impure and politicised silence, which exceeds the original 4’33” score without needing to disobey its instructions.

*

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the cellist and performance artist Charlotte Moorman developed Cage’s 1953 composition 26’1.1499”. Like 4’33” from the previous year, this piece was named after its intended duration, twenty-six minutes and 1.1499 seconds. It was not an empty composition, like 4’33”, but in both pieces the self-referential, numerical title was meant to keep external meaning and narrativization at bay. Also in keeping with the ethos of 4’33”, there were parts of this score which required interpretative collaboration from the performer, who was explicitly called upon to bring extra-instrumental and non-musical noises into the performance.

As she worked on 26’1.1499”, Moorman gradually contaminated its contents with spoken word interventions, where she would recite fragments of text that she collected over the years. As music historian Benjamin Piekut has chronicled, various clippings from newspapers reports, advertisements and other ephemera were stuck into the pages of Moorman’s score––including instructions for how to insert tampons; an advertisement for comfortable women’s underpants; a classified birth control announcement from Planned Parenthood; the title of the 1965 film How to Murder your Wife; as well as newspaper articles about Watergate; cuts to Medicare benefits for the elderly; and an attempted rape on a university campus. There’s also a page in Moorman’s version of the score where she lists ideas for “other sounds”, with a sub-entry on “people sounds” which includes: orgasms, laughs, newborn baby cries, hiccups, and “flatulent lady.”[2]

A photograph of Moorman’s set-up for a performance of 26’1.1499” on public television in 1974 shows colorful trinkets, toy missiles, balloons waiting to be popped, and, at the front of the stage, a carton of eggs which would be fried during the performance––all indicating a scene of exuberant cacophony that would be entirely at odds with Cage’s serene abstractions. And indeed, Moorman’s work was met with strong disapproval from Cage and his inner circle. In 1964 the composer’s friend Jasper Johns wrote to him in a letter that “C. Moorman should be kept off the stage.” In 1967 Cage commented that he thought she was “murdering” his piece, and in an interview in 1991 he recalled “I didn’t like it at all. And my publisher said, the best thing that could happen for you, would be that Charlotte Moorman would die.”[3]

They despised what she was doing, but from her point of view she had remained faithful to the composer’s principals. Her copy of the 26’1.1499” score includes a handwritten note reminding her of the Cagean principle, “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” And the 1974 photograph of her performance set-up shows a prominent framed portrait of the composer, smiling back at the TV audience. Perhaps at this point her relationship with the figure of John Cage had gone beyond earnest tribute and into something more like conscious trolling, but the fact remains that her development of the 26’1.1499” piece did not transgress its instructions. The score explicitly calls for sounds other than those produced on the strings of the instrument, and this prompt is explicitly left open to interpretation by the performer.

It is really Cage who transgresses his own principals when he dictates what should or shouldn’t be included in performances of his work. He wanted to open the work up, to break down the boundaries between the art and the life surrounding it, between what counts as music and what doesn’t, between the artist’s intentions and the incidental sounds of the world. But then he insisted that the world which penetrated the frame of the work was completely uncluttered, ahistorical and apolitical. Thus, when a woman brought in content relating to menstruation, contraception, abortion, rape and femicide, she was murdering the work, and the best thing that could happen for the work at that point would be for her to die.

Cage liked to listen to the sound of traffic passing his Sixth Avenue apartment. You can find recordings of his “silent composition” 4’33” made there, with the constant sound of the traffic playing out as background turned into foreground. What he liked about the traffic, he said, was that he could experience it as pure noise, without any contamination from narrative or technique. Without, in his words, “the feeling that someone is talking”[4] … But of course someone is talking! The sound of the city outside is the sound of an amalgamation of subjects, messages, talents, intentions, feelings, and all the other things that Cage’s aesthetic project was supposed to negate.[5] What a feat it was for him to drain all this out! A feat that depended on an active denial of complexity, and also on a certain crystallization of privilege. It takes a particular sort of subject position to be able to experience the soundscape of Manhattan as completely depersonalised and frictionless, to hear the alarms and sirens as neutral and devoid of meaning, or to imagine that emptiness could be smooth and transcendental and available to everyone in the same way.

We are often told that Cage was unconventionally generous in the amount of interpretive freedom that he granted to performers of his work. But, as he once qualified, he also felt that “When this freedom is given to people who … remain people with particular likes and dislikes, then, of course, the giving of freedom is of no interest whatsoever.”[6] So while he has long been celebrated as an exponent of chance, indeterminacy and open-endedness, he was also perversely prescriptive about what that meant. The work should be open to the world, he says, but open only in a specific sort of way––and only to a specific sort of world. Basically: anything can be music and anyone can make music, but please no flatulent women.

*

In a 1977 essay for Artforum, the feminist art historian Moira Roth identified Cage and a selection of other influential downtown New York white male artists from the 1950s and ‘60s as proponents of what she termed the “aesthetic of indifference”.[7] Trying to come to grips with their valorization of negation and passivity during the McCarthy period, she considered the pervasive sense of political paralysis that many Americans felt during this era of fervent patriotism and right-wing action.

Later, in the 1990s, the queer theorist Jonathan D. Katz set out to read Cagean silence in light of the composer’s existence as a not quite out gay man (while he never publicly came out, Cage’s lifelong relationship with Merce Cunningham was a very open secret).[8] Responding in part to Roth’s “Aesthetic of Indifference” article, Katz reminds us that the McCarthy era was characterised not only by hysterical anti-communism but also by rampant homophobia. The Red Scare overlapped with a Lavender Scare in hateful cultural anxiety about America’s dangerously invisible enemies who could operate in society’s midst. According to this paranoid current, the queers and the commies were enemies who could hide in plain sight, recruiting new members and corrupting family values from within—so fighting their existence meant first detecting and exposing them.[9]

Silence, in this context, was complicated. It was a necessary means for survival, mandated by a culture in which being publicly gay was not an option. But then this protective shrouding also energised the homophobic hatred, because the same silence that was imposed was also perceived as a power and a threat. In Katz’s reading, Cage should be understood as part of a pre-Stonewall generation of gay man in America, for whom silence was a symptom of oppression, and a strategy of survival, and also potentially a space of oppositional existence.

Towards the end of Cage’s life, silence would become amplified as a queer political issue during the AIDS crisis, as the rallying call Silence = Death was used by activist groups like ACT UP to highlight the public indifference and government negligence that was leaving victims of the epidemic stigmatised, socially isolated, uninformed and unsafe. A particularly brutal unspeakability had long been enforced around queer love—also known as “the love that dare not speak its name” —instilling shame and confusion, feeding into fear and censorship, leaving abusers unaccountable, and depriving queers of their history. In the AIDS crisis, the silence had literally become lethal: the more that media outlets, health officials and government authorities continued to fail to speak up and take political action, the more lives would perish.

It will by now come to us as little surprise that Cage wanted nothing to do with this explicit politicization of silence. When he was confronted by a protestor chanting “silence equals death” during a public symposium on his work, not long before he died in 1992, he responded airily with, “in Zen, life equals death.”[10]

*

So Cage’s commitment to the “aesthetic of indifference” was unwavering, even in the direst of circumstances. But in the first decade of the twenty-first century, his 4’33” composition would be developed by the sound artists and political organisers Ultra-red as a critical tool for recording and processing the history and ongoing ramifications of the AIDS crisis.

Ultra-red is an amorphous collective initially founded by the AIDS activists Dont Rhine and Marco Larsen in Los Angeles in 1994. For a project called SILENT|LISTEN (2005-2006), they held a series of public meetings that brought together people living with HIV and AIDS, as well as local community organisers and health-care professionals, with view to “create records of the past, present and future trajectories of the crisis.” Taking place in various art museums and institutions across the US and Canada, these meetings would open with a “performance” of 4’33”, which meant that all present would sit together in silence for around four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Participants would then be asked to speak about what they could hear in the silence, and audio recordings of their statements would be made, so that a kind of an oral history archive was built up, out of the silence.[11]

The title SILENT|LISTEN plays on the fact that the word ‘silent’ and the word ‘listen’ are anagrammatic rearrangements of each other. In the graphic for the project, we see the word ‘silent’ spelled out horizontally, with the word ‘listen’ repeatedly overlapping with each of the letters on a vertical axis, visualizing the fact that these two forces can intersect with each other in multiple ways. Silence is a precondition for listening, while listening to what is not there, or not meant to be there, can allow for things to be heard in new ways.

When certain lives are forced to subsist in silence, silence also becomes a shelter in which to meet. So rather than only understanding silence as an oppressive violence, this project re-framed silence as an opening for collective resonance. This is not to downplay the violence of the anti-queer and racist and classist silencing that constituted the AIDS crisis. Reclaiming the silence does not necessarily solve anything in this sense, but it does affirm a non-dualistic understanding of sonic presence and absence, where the silence is not just an emptiness waiting to be filled with voices; it is also an invitation to develop new listening practices.

In 2006, Ultra-red released a free-download digital album called Archive of Silence, which drew in part from the recordings that were made during the SILENT|LISTEN public meetings.[12] What emerges from the tracks on this album is an approach to archiving which refuses total access or transparency. The voices of the Archive of Silence are muffled and fragmentary, broken off and looped, sometimes abruptly taken over by white noise. These suspensions of language are maintained as necessary parts of the record, which is a record of survival as well as of erasure and irredeemable loss. Rather than trying to completely fill-in the gaps, this is an approach to the archive which foregrounds its own incompleteness.

There is one track on the Archive of Silence album called “A Time to Remember”, which is composed entirely of different inhalations, their sounds extracted from the recordings made during the SILENT|LISTEN meetings. These extra-linguistic resonances––breaths taken before or between or instead of words––would usually be counted as silences in the historical record, which is to say they would not be counted at all. But when excerpted and arranged into their own song, they give a sense of the languages that are developed at the edges and in the gaps of the official narratives.

Besides the performances of 4’33” at the public meetings, there are other explicit references to Cagean silence throughout Ultra-red’s projects from this period. A series of tracks on the Archive of Silence album are presented as iterations of the iconic silent composition, including one which features the sounds of protesters chanting “silence equals death” in unison, which happens to be exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds long. At the very end of the final track on the album, An Epidemic of Silence, there is an extended absence of sound followed by a recording of John Cage saying “this is the kind of music that anyone can make; all you have to do is open your ears and listen.”

While the overtly political context, content and commitment of Ultra-red’s work make for a drastic departure from Cage’s modernist end-game gesture, they did not have to subvert the basic proposition of 4’33”. They simply expanded its application, while honoring the principle that silence can give space to what was previously unheard––and that it can frame a different sort of listening. As with the Boudry / Lorenz and Charlotte Moorman works, it was about using the composer’s open-ended framing device as a way to re-hear the messy resonances of socio-political specificities––the sorts of specificities that Cage himself had preferred to muffle out.

I shared a version of this text as a keynote lecture for the program Unseen and Unheard, presented by Cashmere Radio in July 2019, as part of Howling Wolf Festival in Berlin. 

 

[1] M. NourbeSe Philip, “Dis Place – The Space Between”, in A Genealogy of Resistance and Other Essays (1997), republished in Bla_K: Essays & Interviews (Book Thug, Toronto, 2017) pp 251–88; 275.

[2] Piekut, Benjamin, Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press) pp 154-155.

[3] ibid, pp 149-150.

[4] See “John Cage – About Silence and Traffic” accessed www.youtube.com/watch?v=H-Xy-gAaOzw February 2019.

[5] See for instance the list of negations in the text that Cage wrote to accompany an exhibition of Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings in 1953: “To Whom / No subject / No image / No taste / No object / No beauty / No message / No talent / No technique (no why) / No idea / No intention / No art / No object / No feeling / No black / No white (no and).”

[6] In Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, New York: Limelight Editions, 1988, p. 67.

[7] Roth, Moira, “The Aesthetic of Indifference” in Artforum, November 1977, 46-53

[8] Katz, Jonathan D. “John Cage’s Queer Silence; or, How to Avoid Making Matters Worse” in GLQ 5:2 (1999) pp 231-252.

[9] On the under-acknowledged history of the Cold War lavender scare see Johnson, David K., The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.

[10] Caroline A. Jones, “Finishing School: John Cage and the Abstract Expressionist Ego” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Summer, 1993), pp. 628-665; 665.

[11] The album SILENT|LISTEN: THE MINUTES (2008) is available for free download from Public Record.

[12] Also available from Public Record.

 

A version of this text also appears as a chapter in the book Master of Voice, published by Sternberg Press in May 2020. The book comes out of the Master of Voice MFA program at the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam (2016-2018), where I was the theory tutor. Image above courtesy of San Serriffe bookstore in Amsterdam.