by Brian Harper
One of the words most closely associated with experimental composer John Cage is silence, which is an odd word to identify with a musician. His most famous work — “4’33” ” — involves the performer sitting with an instrument, never playing it, and only occasionally making seemingly non-musical sounds, like clicking a watch or closing a piano cover.
For Cage, there was something happening in that silence.
“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time,” he once said. “There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
Cage’s ideas about silence extended beyond his art, representing something like a philosophy:
I noticed in New York, where the traffic is so bad and the air is so bad … you get into a taxi and very frequently the poor taxi driver is just beside himself with irritation. And one day I got into one and the driver began talking a blue streak, accusing absolutely everyone of being wrong. You know he was full of irritation about everything, and I simply remained quiet. I did not answer his questions, I did not enter into a conversation, and very shortly the driver began changing his ideas and simply through my being silent he began, before I got out of the car, saying rather nice things about the world around him.
My notion of how to proceed in a society to bring change is not to protest the thing that is evil, but rather to let it die its own death. I think that protests about these things, contrary to what has been said, will give it the kind of life that a fire is given when you fan it, and that it would be best to ignore it, put your attention elsewhere, take actions of another kind of positive nature, rather than to continue to give life to the negative by negating it.
We are living in a time ripe with Cage’s disgruntled taxi driver. On any given day, the trappings of life can coalesce into a perfect storm of fury-inducing misadventure. Traffic, weather, work, personal demands … it is not hard to become “full of irritation about everything,” particularly when the object of our ire is another furious cab driver. Just look at the effect the major presidential candidates have on so many of us.
It is also easy to justify the noise of our rage — or even just the noise of our modern existence — when we convince ourselves we are making it in defense of some righteous cause. Some injustice — like a presidential candidate mocking vast swaths of the American public — vexes our sense of decency, and we feel an impulse to do something to address it. So we react in kind. Then, our opponent shoots back, and we do, too. Soon, we are all irate together.