John Cage Invites Us to Open Our Eyes to the World
In an interview for the “Écoute” documentary, Cage reveals his fascination for sounds and his faith in a constantly renovated vision.
One of the greatest problems of modern metropolises is that silence has become a rare privilege. Avenues are like a huge amplifier where the roar of engines is mixed with the impatience of honks, and carbon dioxide pollution has ceased to be our only concern.
We want insulating windows and thick walls in our homes to protect us from the already familiar noise pollution, or, at the very least, we want our home to be far enough from urban transit so we can live without its persistent soundtrack. However, for someone like John Cage (1912-1992), a confessed lover of sound in all its manifestations, the urban racket does not solely represent an annoying intromission, but an opportunity to pick up new sound hues, small sonorous pearls that are transported by the city’s saturated air.
John Cage was one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. Among his many creations we find the famous 4´33´´, a three movement piece where not a single note is played. Profoundly influenced by Oriental Philosophy, Cage attributed a fundamental importance to silence, which he inherited from his experience in Zen Buddhism. The I Ching, or the Book of Mutations, would help Cage elaborate his concept of Aleatoric Music where fate was a part of how the musical score was composed. As a member of the Fluxus movement, and one of the figures that inspired it, Cage was the best theoretician of 20th century sound, working ahead of electronic music and the free, non-standardized use of musical instruments.
Cage’s visit to Harvard’s anechoic chamber (a room that is perfectly soundproof) in 1951 is well known. Cage wanted to experience total silence; however, when he perceived the sound of his heart and of his nervous system, he soon realized that total silence was not possible. Cage deduced that silence obeys a psychological disposition more than a complete cessation of the acoustic phenomenon. Silence is a mental state.
In this interview, Cage speaks of his conception of music. With a window open to a busy street in New York, Cage confesses his love for isolated sounds, independent from any expressive or artistic intent. For Cage, the sound of traffic is always different, unlike a composition by Beethoven or Mozart which, at the end of the day, he says, are always the same.
The important thing here is discovering novelty in every occurrence, the singularity of every object, sound, time and place. With a small reference to a bottle of soda, Cage reveals the constant surprise that the world can be.
If we free ourselves from our memories, then everything we see is new; it’s almost as if we had become tourists or as if we were living in very exciting countries… because we don’t know them.
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