John Zorn
John Cage
J-S Bach


Silence and Death

[1] In various interviews and essays, Derrida recalls an inflammation of his middle ear that he suffered in his childhood, and he associates it with death. His mother prayed in despair to God as the dangerously ill boy laid in his bed. Derrida links his lurking deafness, paradoxically manifested in hearing too much noise, to the danger of dying (cf. Han, p.6-7). An impending silence (or too much noise? Noise and silence seem to play exchangeable roles), and an impending death are conspicuously linked together.

[2] In a soundproof room, John Cage finds that he cannot escape from the sounds in his body. This leads him to think that as long as we live we cannot experience absolute silence. There will only be silence in death. Since it is impossible for us to experience our own death, we cannot experience silence either. With his statement, 'Until we die there will be sounds', Cage explicitly links death to silence. Perhaps, we may understand silence, think silence, but the experience of absolute silence remains an aporia to us. Silence, like death, can be conceived of as the impossible crossing of a border. We arrive at a border we cannot cross, an aporia, an impossible passage; or rather, the experience of a non-passage, an experience other than that consisting of opposing an other concept. A relation to an non-opposable other, that is, an other that is no longer its other. We are engaged in a certain possibility of the impossible (cf. Aporias, p.12 ff). In Aporias, Derrida points to the impossible yet unavoidable experience that 'my death' can never be subject to an experience that would be properly mine, or that I would be able to account for. Cage arrives at a similar conclusion concerning silence. The I can never experience absolute silence.
Death and silence. Connected to each other through the same impossible experience.

[3] Silence can be understood in two ways. On one hand, there is audible silence, a silence that stays within the order of the audible; it remains constitutively hearable. This category contains what Cage calls 'unintended sounds'. ('Silence means the whole lot of sound; it is all of the sounds we don't intend'.) It also includes sounds that are almost impossible to perceive either because the source is too far away, or because their frequency is extremely high or low. A few examples. In 1976, Cage composed Branches, which makes use of amplified plant materials. Cage was interested in sounds from nature and had found that the spines of cacti, when touched and amplified, reverberate. Recent radiographic studies show that the universe is filled with a cacophony of sounds originating from sudden changes in the atomic structure of exploding gases. Additionally, pulsars also produce sounds. Music scientist Wilfried Krüger and nuclear physicist Jean E. Charon discovered harmonic relations (overtone sequences) on a microscopic level in the so-called quanta of atoms, in the spin of electrons, and in the structure of molecules. Photo-acoustic spectroscopy has enabled us to hear the sound of a rose when the blossom springs from the bud; it sounds like the drone of an organ, reminiscent of a Bach toccata. Indeed, even an old symbol of silence, the deep-sea, turns out to be full of sounds (cf. Berendt, 1990, p.43-62). All these are examples of the order of the audible in-audible. Even Dieter Schnebel's book, MO-NO. Music to Read, remains within this category of audible silence. MO-NO. Music to Read contains many signs that appeal to our auditory senses enabling and inciting us to enter the domain of hearing-through-imagination (cf. No (-) Music - D. Schnebel). Contrarily, absolute silence refers to everything that falls outside the range of the audible. It has no structure of audibility; it is other than audible. This silence implies the silence in death, the silence of death, death as silence. ('Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life', says composer Murray Schafer.) Absolute silence is death; it is an aporia. Death is the experience of the non-passage and absolute silence brings us to a similar impossible passage, a similar aporia.

[4] Cage's thinking on silence remains within the order of the audible. To him, silence consists of ambient sounds, non-intended sounds. This is why he is able to think of silence as related to life instead of death. According to Cage in silence one hears the sounds of life. 'At my house, you hear the boat sounds, the traffic sounds, the neighbors quarreling, the children playing and screaming in the hall, and on top of it all the pedals of the piano squeak. There is no getting away from life' (Cage, 1961, p.135). Silence means the whole world of sounds. Life. Silence is life for Cage. Furthermore, this audible silence remains within the domain of duration. ('Silence cannot be heard in terms of pitch and harmony: it is heard in terms of time length'.) This silence is of a different order than the absolute silence that escapes life, and (with that) time. Death as silence, silence in death goes beyond duration: 'One always dies in an untimely way. The moment of death no longer belongs to its time', Derrida writes (Aporias, p.49, my italics). Absolute silence is not connected to time anymore; it is beyond time.

[5] Silence/sounds vs. absolute silence. Audibility vs. inaudibility. Life vs. death. Oppositions we cannot overcome. Borders we cannot cross. And the hierarchy is clear. Life and audibility are the privileged terms. Absolute silence and death are secondary, thought out of the primary terms. What always remains to be asked is how the essence of death is defined in terms of life, Heidegger explains in Sein und Zeit [Being and Time]. In Aporias, Derrida elaborates upon Heidegger's existential analysis of Dasein and death. He determines how death is subordinated to life in Heidegger. Derrida quotes Heidegger: 'Within the ontology of Dasein, which is superordinate to an ontology of life, the existential analysis of death is, in turn, subordinate to a characterization of Dasein's basic state' (Aporias, p.29). A hierarchical order thus delimits the field, an order structured by an uncrossable edge, the edge between life and death, between here and there. Heidegger stresses that the existential analysis stands purely on this side. Derrida: 'It is on this side, on the side of Dasein and of its here, which is our here, that the oppositions between here and over there, this side and beyond, can be distinguished. In the same direction, one could say that it is by always starting from the idiomatic hereness of my language, my culture, and my belongings that I relate myself to the difference of the over there' (Aporias, p.52). Derrida's analysis of Heidegger: talking about death consists of privileging 'this side'. Life is conceived of as prior, a plenitude; death is the negation of this. Situated on the margin of the privileged term life, the subordinate term death designates an undesirable, dispensable deviation. Derrida, however, reverses this logic: 'Rather, it seems to me that one should say the opposite: it is the originary and underivable character of death, as well as the finitude of the temporality in which death is rooted, that decides and forces us to decide to start from here first, from this side here' (Aporias, p.55). We are left with no other choice than to start from this side. The impossibility to start from yonder side implies that we are forced to relate to 'over there' from 'here'. It is death itself that imposes this necessity on us. Therefore, death is not subordinate to life in Derrida's view. Rather, life is secondary to death. It is the primordiality of being-toward-death, being-until-death, or being-to-death that makes life secondary to death. (In some of his other works, Derrida calls attention to Freud who poses similar suggestions. Freud, too, observes that life is generally the positive term while death is its negation. Yet, Freud argues that man's death instinct is the most powerful life force. This death wish, manifested in a compulsion to repeat, makes the activity of life instincts a special case within the general economy of repetition and expenditure. Freud redelivers death to life, a striking reversal.)
After Derrida first reverses the hierarchical opposition of life and death, he then proceeds to disintegrate the opposition altogether. He effectively contravenes the assumption as though there would be two contrasting forces at work here. 'The theme of immortality [the death principle, MC] ... is not opposed to being-toward-death, it does not contradict it, it is not symmetrical with it, because it is conditioned by being-toward-death and confirms it at every moment' (Aporias, p.55-6). As death can only be thought from our being-to-death, so does the death principle always determine our being-in-life. Consequently, our aspiring for immortality is pervaded by our awareness of our impending death. It is precisely this one certainty, the certainty of our death, that fuels our desire for immortality.

[6] 'Until we die there will be sounds'. The link to sounds that determine and confirm our life as life is imposed on us by an unattainable absolute silence. It is precisely this unattainableness that forces us to engage in sounds. Therefore, we are always connected to the possibility of absolute silence through our connection with sounds. Music turns silence (death) into experience. To experience the aporia. We are always already on the other side of the here. As sounds and absolute silence mutually pervade and determine each other, the clear opposition sounds vs. silence disintegrates. Sounds and silence are not each other's opposite; they do not exclude each other. One is always pervaded by the other. 'And who will not recognize here the crossing of borders?' (Aporias, p.58).