Academic journal article Current Musicology

Suspicious Silence: Walking out on John Cage

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Suspicious Silence: Walking out on John Cage

Article excerpt

"What we require is / silence; but what silence requires / is that I go on talking

--John Cage, "Lecture on Nothing"

"Well, shall we / think or listen? Is there a sound addressed / not wholly to the ear?"

--William Carlos Williams, "The Orchestra"

Critical Innocence: 2012 marked what would have been the composer and writer John Cage's 100th birthday, offering a nice round numbered moment to commemorate and reevaluate Cage's lasting legacy. And it is a rich and still, astonishingly, controversial legacy, bringing forth bold assessments of Cage that range, as they have for decades, from worshipful acclaim, to ridiculing rejection. It seems with Cage, still, that it's either black or white, love or hate; that he is either a saintly prophet of new sounds, new silences, or a foolish charlatan leading anarchically astray.

Of late, however, one reads more and more critical accounts of Cage that, while acknowledging his wide-ranging influence and importance, suggest nonetheless of him a deafening innocence to his own renowned hearing. A new generation of writers and listeners, one that is perhaps more theoretically inclined and less reverential of the composer's acclaim, have begun to raise questions about what they perceive as the unexamined dimensions of some of Cage's claims about silence, the nature of the nothing that was thought to have constituted it. Cage, as a consequence, is now often more mystically presented as somewhat naively espousing a kind of zen-like syncing of a scene with a sound, with its immediate moment. Also, this more recent critique asserts of Cage a certain silencing of inconvenient sounds, sounds incompatible with, in particular, his own well-established story of silence; some have even characterized Cage's silence as, politically and ontologically, an antiseptic one "which exclude[s] the world and its cultural noise" (Brophy). And how simple, or simple-minded, others say, to seek, as Cage so often said he sought, out of the silence, his silence, the sound of "sound in itself." Or, how innocent it is to listen for the present of such self-present moments of "here and now." For we all now so knowingly know that the various mediations of "there and then," those "continuously compounded" intrusions upon immediate thought by thought's own "memory and expectation," so certainly prohibit our accessing any such punctually present sound, at any such present site, heard as here, heard as now.


But, of Cage's listening innocence, what might we make of these many reasoned, even reasonable, suspicions that are directed toward him, of such aspersions onto the foundational stories of sound and silence that Cage so often told? How are we to reconcile Cage's stated desire for "sound in itself," heard instantaneously "here and now," with what is--in theory--increasingly understood as a more dense and dispersed event of sound that, temporally spreading-out, is always elsewhere and already other than where we look, where we listen? How are we to hear, one wonders, any such present sounds, silent or otherwise, which (if they are to be heard at all) are often now thoughtfully rendered as acoustically thicker in their very thinking, in their having been thought? Resounding, re-sounding, such sounds now echo absently elsewhere in their rich range of references that, simultaneously superimposed, constitute them.

My suspicion (from one who has long admired and learned from Cage) is that many of the more recent attributions of a certain critical innocence to Cage, of his being in a kind of deafening denial to his own repressions of sound, have often failed to see, or hear, how cagey Cage could actually be, and how smart his innocence, such that it was, has finally proven to have been. And of such self-present hearing of the "here and now," it was Jacques Derrida who noted, in his own Husserlian study of the mythically sought "punctuality of the instant," that "the present of self-presence is not simple" (61). …

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