On a given Sunday night, January 18th 2004, the spectators that filled the Barbican Hall in the British capital could presence a memorable performance of the BBC Symphonic Orchestra: musicians ‘en garde’, fingers over the piano, extended arches and eyes in the conductor, who, curiously, starts to count the minutes in a clock. An anxious silence of suspended breaths fills the room. It’s only broken with the coughing that follows the turning of a page in the sheet by the people on the stage in order to give a start to the second movement. And so it is in the third. Four minutes and 33 seconds later, the public’s ovation. They had just experienced one of the most emblematic compositions of the contemporary erudite music, 4’33”, which had, in that night, been televised for the first time since its conception, around half a century earlier, by artist, theorist and composer John Cage.
According to critic Alex Ross, author of The rest is noise: listening to the twentieth century and Listen to this, Cage was to the second half of the last century what Schoenberg was to the first: the latter with his pioneerism in defending the emancipation of dissonance and experimenting atonality (non-linearity among notes that should repeat in a melody, bringing some ‘comfort’ to the listener and the ‘resolution of conflict’ to a piece); and the first, with his performances and improvising with his ‘prepared piano’, in which objects were put amidst its strings so they’d produce different sounds. Although Cage had been a Schoenberg pupil in his youth, Oriental music is the most remarkable influence in his work – and, being so, it wasn’t strange that he considered music, noise and silence were all part of an inseparable profusion. “Sound should present itself devoid of human interference. 4’33” ends up being an anti-egoic manifesto in this sense”, observes Pauxy Nunes, Composition professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ).
William Brooks, researcher at the universities of York and Illinois, says Cage didn’t believe in the existence of absolute acoustic silence. “The experience that nourished this disbelief was his passage through an anechoic chamber in Harvard University”, where, even in a soundproof environment, he could still listen to the low sound of his blood circulation and the high sound of his nervous system at work. “I think in his mind there was a kind of distinction between silence as a real absence of acoustic stimulation – and this was what he said that didn’t exist – and silence as a mental state – and this, I believe he’d have said, especially in his last years, that did exist”, he ponders.
Sound versus silence, Brooks recalls, might not be a binary opposition. “The opposite of silence is not necessarily sound, from a musician’s point of view: there’s a kind of triadic opposition that exists between silence, musical sound and noise. The two last have duration in common, whereas silence is only duration”, he points out. He says that, under this point of view, silence has become a metaphor, a description of a mental state in which nothing is privileged and in which one is open to anything around.
In his book O som e o sentido: uma outra história das músicas, composer José Miguel Wisnik corroborates with this idea of silence as non-diferentiation. He writes that, as in the example of Newton’s disk, that makes all colors fuse into white as it gains movement, “the total sonorous is silence” because it is the “matrix of all possible communication, of all canalization of whatever message it is, the matter of all sonorous landscapes, frequency of frequencies, pulse of pulses, noise/zero”. Silence is, under this point of view, filled of sound in its essence. On the other hand, Wisnik reminds, “there’s no sound without pause. Our eardrum would go into spasm. Sound is presence and absence and is, for the least it looks like, drenched with silence”.
And the frontier between silence and noise is found in a horizon continuously fluid and less easily prone to be set boundaries in. Brooks reminds that, in the past century, people would throw a kitchen sink at a drum set in order to produce sound in performances. “Historically, the limits (between sound and silence) is kept in constant movement. In a broader sense, the tendency has been to become more inclusive. There are less and less sounds that can be taken as noise, non-musical or not appropriate to a musical continuity. In Cage’s work, for example, there’s no noise and music, only sound”, he observes.
However, the American performer wasn’t the first to blur the limits between silence, noise and musical sound. “After the Industrial Revolution there were people who did it already”, Pauxy Nunes tells. “They took machines on stage and did concerts with turbines, for example. That, at the time, was avant-garde in its extreme”, which ended up giving birth to electronic music as we know it today. A name that became known for such practice and is considered one of the precursors of futuristic music is the painter and composer Luigi Russolo, who wrote the manifesto The Art of Noise in 1913. It wasn’t unusual that his audiences got shocked with the sound of valves and engines he used in his performances: all in all, it was just pure noise. Which is split from sound, according to William Brooks, by absolutely social, historical and social criteria. “There’s no physical property or a priori to establish a difference between both”, he notes.
But, even being so, there’s no way out from certain definitions, which serve as a starting point to analysis. Pauxy Nunes says that the classical conception of noise encompasses undesirable sound, “which conveys something that doesn’t translate a style or practice, that doesn’t fit a defined melodic height”, and which, even having been historically avoided by the classic canon, has always had its space, even if peripheral: “In the 20th century, it was either avoided or used as a kind of slight ornament, as if it were a different color, in painting”, he says. Changes in philosophical thought and the upcoming of Psychoanalysis made noise, then, start to equate to the desired sound. “It’s an element that emerges and starts to pair up with melody”, according to the researcher.
Whereas noise is disturbance to the canon, silence is classically considered as a negative value, a “background over which music is outlined, a blank canvas”, Nunes observes, “but these same changes in Western thought were responsible for making this background start to gain a value in itself – like in Painting, in which the white canvas becomes as a relevant element as the dye”, he compares.
And we cannot forget that, though sound, silence and noise have their musical implications and give room to philosophical and technical discussions, they also have deep social implications – sometimes manifesting themselves not just as metaphors. Or, as Jacques Attali holds up to view in Noise: the political economy of music, silence as non-diferentiation manifests itself in contemporary society in the production and consumption of goods, and where “unanimity becomes the criterion to beauty” and all surfaces need to be smooth and polished. Hence the importance of noise, of the rituals of parties and carnivals, he says. The breaking of uniformity inverts hierarchies and gives a glimpse of the strings that manipulate power behind them. Noise, in this sense, is quite far from being a social disturbance.
(The original version, in Portuguese, has been published here)