Notes for Francis Dyson “The Ear That Would Hear Sounds In Themselves: John Cage 1945-1965”

JOHN CAGE 1935-1965
(373) Cage has certainly hurled music and its premises into the stormy mass of the postmodern present, yet at the same time he can be charged with recuperating music's content, sound, within a neoromantic nostalgia for the prediscursive “in itself” of Nature.
(374) “Let sounds be themselves.” From these four words Cage opened the musical establishment to the democratic ambience and semiotic ambivalence of aurality, while at the same time inaugurating the disappearnace of the received category “music” for which he is now so famous.


Was this brilliant conclusion on constituting sound corrupted after admitting that there are always sounds when there is embodiment, and silence is a decibel level beneath which body sounds like those Cage reportedly discovered in an anechoic chamber: what about the characteristics of programmed sound generation that exist in both sound and silence in virtual realities, are these not also involved in both sound and silence? So you can also talk about the material conditions of virtual 'ensoniment' (and virtual enlightenment, if visual reality is dynamically created by the software, like the screen on which you read this comment).

Cage was fascinated by electronic devices, but did not write computer software empowered by a background environment producing the rest of the auditory field he pretended unable to imagine: recall how Sterne carefully extends the reach of technological systems when he interprets discrete constituent elements like specific models or family classes like telephones to include the entire chain of systems supporting its existence in any particular instance, including tone tests, electrical distribution, legal institutions, and capitalist businesses. Still looking for definition of quasi-object that Dyson keeps invoking. Computer clearly goes in their enumeration with “television, radio, and the phonograph.”

(375) And this he did by using silence “to separate one section of a composition from another” (CC, p. 51), instead of the traditional structural device of harmonic cadence. Realigning the parameters of the tone (pitch, amplitude, timbre, and duration), Cage placed duration in the position pitch normally occupies within the tonal hierarchy. Duration, substituting for pitch, was then the “correct” structurizing principle for musical composition, correct not on the basis of a contingency (Cage happened to like silence or he didn't happen to have a good ear) but on the basis of necessity.
Sound has four characteristics: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration. The opposite and necessary coexistent of sound is silence. Of the four characteristics of sound, only duration involves both sound and silence. Therefore, a structure based on durations (rhythmic: phase, time lengths) is correct (corresponds with the nature of the material), whereas harmonic structure is incorrect (derived from pitch, which has no being in silence).

(376) Probably influenced by the abstract filmmaker Oskar Fishinger, . . .


Introduce quasi-objects as another writerly concept; replace piano with virtual reality production studio.

(378) Only through the abstracted space of technology can the ontological void that “sound/object/spirit” suggests double as an opening, providing a locus for the aural/object thus reconfigured. Cage explores this transformative space in Living Room Music (1940), a percussion and speech quartet using “instruments to be found in a living room: furniture, now vacated of the petit-bourgeois piano, is presented as a site for musical production rather than mere reception. In contemplating a possible music of the living room it is difficult, however, not to consider also those sounds originating from other, quasi-object, in fact technological, sources – television, radio, and the phonograph – which have traditionally inhabited the living room and which would presumably form part of its new instrumentality.

Does his argument hinge on our buying into the quasi-object theory to apply it to going further by writing software and building sound systems?

(381) The radio also emits both the sound and history of audiophony, making audible those mystical traces surrounding the latter's inauguration in the nineteenth century. . . . Thus in the imaginary of Imaginary Landscapes, sound occupies the non-space of electronics, possesses the nonbeing of the invisible and intangible, and releases the spirit, not of objects, but of the quasi-objects that constitute technology and are themselves permeated by the animating force, or spirit, of electricity?


What better place let sounds be than virtual realities where we can make statements such as symposia mixing design note avoid having same grain or voices will be indistinct?

(382) But for Cage, a process is not simply a state of being; it is also a metaphor for ideal artistic practice, a practice that integrates the artist with sounds in themselves in a continuum of creativity and creation.

Listening to symposia interpolates auditory field in example of visual equivalent of cacophony, forbidden in good reading and thus good handwriting (Baron, whom I criticized severely for wasting my time reading the first half of Better Pencil).

(382-383) His evacuation of the self through the practice of nonintentionality suggests the kind of subjectivity required to let sounds be themselves, and this subjectivity, by embracing sound without imposing intentions or values, is more aligned to listening, to the way in which sound infiltrates the ear and is beyond the ear's control, than to seeing, with its mechanisms for projection directing the seen always to be controlling eye/I of the seer.
Object would become process; we would discover, thanks to a procedure borrowed from science, the meaning of nature through the music of objects. (FTP, p. 221).


So God can't hear silence: there's my theological statement; back to the philosophy of computing.

(387) If bodies as well as objects can be made audible, through technology, if the prostheses of technology can radiate inward, to the center of being, as well as outward, to the broadcast medium, then the “process” of letting sounds be themselves is also a process of self-realization at its deepest, most painful, and most internalized level. . . . Cage often acknowledges that this experience radically altered his conception of sound and silence, for hearing the internal workings of his body instead of the silence he had anticipated, he understood the impossibility of hearing pure silence, since one always hears with one's body and that body is itself permeated with sound.


(398-399) Thus tonality “speaks,” ceasing to represent only itself, referring to things outside itself (emotions, intentions, histories, intellectual schemas) and becoming an object of interpretation. . . . Cage's notion of “sound being itself” satisfies both meanings of the term, in that it refers to an observer possessing a quasi-subjectivity itself constituted via technology and thus “dissolved from man,” and an object that, formed by silence as the absence of intention, is without meaning and therefore “dissolved from song.”

Enter Kittler and Manovich: software takes command in electronic sound.

(400) By inhabiting the netherworld of electronics on the one hand, and the metaphorical/paradoxical interstices of language, the very limits of representation, on the other, it is able to represent both the Ur-silence, the sound of unintentionality, and the sound in itself, as it represents only itself, from a still living but also detached perspective. Thus there is “no more discourse. Instead – electronics” (FTB, p. 173).

Again Kittler sustains this image of extreme technological determinism by scoffing at souls whose intentions may exceed their ontogenetic influence; my argument begins with noticing another characteristic domain of both silence and sound when they exist in virtual, computer-generated, audiovisual-and-other-senses worlds, their technological embodiment, as the new place to study and sniff for Being.

(401) Within this configuration the perceiver is also rendered invisible, becoming a subject who, lacking intentionality, is bound to act only via the prostheses and spaces that technology supplies: the loudspeaker, the computer, and the audiophonic and informational interface. Yet by those same prostheses the subject is able to inhabit a domain usually reserved for the dead, able to speak the unspeakable usually reserved, as Nietzsche said, for the deific or for music.

Dyson, Francis. “The Ear That Would Hear Sounds In Themselves: John Cage 1945-1965.” Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avane-Garde. Eds. Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. 373-401. Print.