Meandering general talk providing a pretext for playing some Japanese noise music at Cageday 4’33" at the Crawford Municiapl Gallery, August 2002.

Cageday 4’33":
Paul Hegarty, ‘Was Noise the Future of Silence?’

The history of avant-garde music in the 20th century is one where instead of music, sound, silence and noise are the points of interest. At the heart of this is Cage’s 4’33". But before silence was noise. The futurists brought noise into the realm of music, although what they produced was barely recognisable as music. Luigi Russolo theorised this development in his manifesto of an Art of Noises of 1913 (book of the same name in 1916). In this and other essays, he argued that noises were part of the modern environment, and had therefore become a natural part of human life. As far as he was concerned noise was ‘much richer in harmonics than sound’ (39) and ‘more intense’ (ibid.). Cage agrees with this, writing that ‘wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise’ (Silence, 3). He prefers noises (Silence, 116-7). Something important is changing in the way noise is understood: it is not just that noise is now ok – it is that the distinction between noise, noises and anything else cannot be made.
This lack of distinction is not a discovery of a timeless truth: for Russolo, ‘ancient life was all silence. In the 19th century, with the invention of machines, Noise was born’ (23). In fact (as Mel Gordon argues) natural sounds, and the sounds of familiar tools were discrete – the listener could separate off noises into specific sounds. With the Industrial Revolution, ‘the cacophony of sounds in the 19th century street, factory, shop and mine – seemingly random and meaningless – could not be easily isolated and identified’ (Wireless Imagination, 197). The advent of these new noises does indeed lead to noise, understood as unwanted sound, and hence, perhaps, the need for silence.
For Cage, noise is part of a personal experience, one that may or may not result from a bounded/structured performance, an experience that ties noise and silence together. For the individual to ‘complete’ him- or her-self, he or she must come to some understanding of non-being, of absence. Silence, then is not just a means, but also an end. In his search for silence, Cage famously visited (in 1951) an ‘anechoic’ chamber, a room that in theory was free of all sound. What he found, though, was that he could hear ‘the nerve’s [sic] operation, blood’s circulation’ (Silence, 13). Noise tells you you are alive – the only silence is of not being in the most fundamental of ways… Silence is not to be dismissed as impossible – its impossibility makes it even more important to come to an awareness of it. Or at the very least, have some experience of it, some encounter that signals the greater silence. Silence is not the absence of sound (not when heard by anybody living anyway), but the experience of sound and silence alternating, filtering into one another.
The listener now has some work to do: once you bring silence and noise into the place of music, music must change. There had already been challenges to music as an institution throughout the 19th and 20th century, but had any one performance quite such an effect as the transformation we see in 4’33"? Although the composer and perfomer set parameters, it is now the listener who produces the piece, and even if the piece is utterly rejected, it has still had a surreptitious victory, for you as a listener have decided to reject it. The listener is not in control of the piece, as what occurs is an only partially predictable combination of sounds and noises (coughing, weather sounds, shuffling, air-conditioning, traffic, sounds from passersby). As 4’33" has become more accepted, though, the experience has changed along with expectations (in a 1970 performance, students threw paper planes and made noises, there are all sorts of ‘performances’ to go with it – not all of these would be deemed ‘good’ by Cage)
At roughly the same time as Cage’s experiments with what could be altered at the limits of music, a new form of music emerges in France (although not exclusively). In 1948, Pierre Schaeffer coined the term ‘musique concrète’ to describe the recombination of sounds – any type of sounds, into pieces, usually on tape. Earlier composers, such as Satie and Varèse, had incorporated noises, but now a music was being formed exclusively from them. Cage had already been at work on such ideas, notably in the use of radios and record players in his Imaginary Landscapes, and both his work and that of Schaeffer and friends sought to create some sort of music out of the noises that had simply been found.
These noises, though, had not just been found – they were being selected, structured (however arbitrarily), and brought into the realm of sound: here the noises are to be listened to as if they were musical. Noises came from an infinite background musicality – finding and listening to them would change our experience of all sound, of our relation to sound. Basically, noises became musical, became worthy of the kind of attention that other organisations of sound had always been granted. But noise had not been allowed to exist as itself, as noise.

The 1970s sees all that change – although arguably we already see the change in free jazz. Whilst in Europe, ‘industrial music’ emerged from a combination of sound experiments, the influence of William Burroughs and, later on, punk, Japan saw the rise of a true ‘noise music’ (play jazz guy here?) which combined free jazz, punk, heavy metal, ‘industrial’ music, and turned the volume up. Volume was to be part of the music. More than the rock noise of Anglo-American dinosaurs, this volume would replace the music with extraneous noise. Instead of feedback being an additional extra, there would be nothing else. Noise music merges all its sounds together, such that whilst the noise might suggest music, and occurs in the same places as music (albums, concerts) it never settles long enough to form the patterns we generally listen for in music or musicality. This is certainly not far from Cage’s thoughts about the relationship of the listener to sounds (and can be encountered in his experiments with radios, where noise is the primordial state), but I think we can see a subtle but major difference between Cage and noise music (other than the slightly obvious difference…). This subtle difference is what brings Cage and noise music together.

- Cage’s piece clears the way, opens a place for experiencing sound, and for this to be something like an experience of the world and the self. The clearing as a way of producing truth also runs through Western philosophy from Plato to Heidegger, and is re-assessed in more recent theory. In ‘Eastern philosophy’, and in Cage, this self, this truth is nearly intangible, a fleeting presence rather than an answer. There is a need to go through and into emptiness, discovering along the way that it can never be empty.

- noise music asks the question ‘full or empty’? It starts out as fullness: instead of the mind being cleared through ‘active listening’, the mind is stymied in its bid to control what it hears. Noise music is about density, and then from this density, from the excess of sound and sounds, comes an experience that is certainly indeterminate. Either the noise settles into a coagulated mass, and this becomes strangely soothing – allowing the switching off of rational thought, or it doesn’t settle, and endlessly confounds the anticipating listener.

- noise though is not the opposite of silence: in the same way silence includes both sound and silence (ie no such thing as pure silence, also, it needs sound as its other), noise includes what it is not – music, ordinary sound, even if this is accidentally – for example in our bid to structure what we hear, and it too needs an other – the other of organised sound. Above all, we can see the same purpose – only noise starts with fullness, Cage emptiness. Both transform, telling us about what we thought were their opposites.

The example of Merzbow: there is a semblance of structure: there are track titles, the times are often given. But this would be misleading – reading for themes being largely impossible. Arguably, repeated listening reduces the unexpectedness of the ‘music’ (it is not all ‘wall of noise’). Merzbow gets round this by bringing out a vast number of releases on many different record labels, in different formats: buying is not easy, collecting impossible, and promotion undercut (‘here’s the album you waited 2 weeks for’). This anti-commercialism, and noisiness of genre are central to the whole experience of noise music, which is in a way the material answer to Cage’s conceptual question about noise and silence that he poses in 4’33". If we take this record (20 000v), then we have a performance of 16.47 on one side, and an identical amount of silence on the other. If Cage’s silence is about attentiveness to noises, to the self, to the experience of listening, to the primacy of chance, then Merzbow’s is about the materiality of noise: here noise comes from the object itself, from its being activated. The object changes over time. Above all, though, it is this side, and not the overtly noisy side which is the ‘noise’ here. The b-side is the noise of this record – will there be anything on it? will there be a blast of sound somewhere? It unsettles the other side, emphasizing its musicality. Noise music plays with its own musicality in ways we can certainly see in Cage, but the subsequent changes in the production of music, the reception and dissemination of avant-garde music, and its very casual reprocessing of Western musics means that something else is happening here. I think. Noise music stretches the listener, reminding her or him that sound is felt as well as heard, that what we hear is subject to judgements we believe to be our own but that could do with changing, and that sound, music, noise are not absolutes but subject to endless change when brought together. Illustrating not the redundancy of Cage, but the continued relevance of the listener or whatever else we call that person in the wake of silence and noise.

What about the other silence, the silence of the totally other – that which lies outside what ‘I’ can hear? The archetype of this is death, but whilst people are happy to ask whether there is a sound if no-one is there to hear it, we don’t ask whether there is silence, if there is no-one there to hear it. Stephen Vitiello’s record tries to capture the sound of somewhere with no-one there, but has instead captured the premonition of the other silence. Throughout the history of recording, many have tried to capture the sound of the dead, but Vitiello has the unwanted distinction of having done it in advance. The recording consists of contact mikes attached to the inside of windows that don’t open, and also light triggering notes on a guitar, through a photocell and telescope. He himself has little to say about the destruction of the World Trade Centre, but does make a strange statement where the dead and living merge: ‘New York has always felt haunted. This disaster adds a whole new level to the need for real-estate by the increased population who will continue to haunt us’. Maybe it’s as well he effectively said nothing.

[tower 1 – north hit first – no-one gets out above 91st – this is the building he was in)