John Cage
J-S Bach
John Zorn


Silence, Noise and Ethics

[1] In Music, Deconstruction, and Ethics, I cite Lawrence Kramer's observation that music was connected to a 'logic of alterity' in previous centuries. Music represents the other, the irrational vs. reason and the rational, the female vs. the male, fragmentation vs. unity, etc. Music is synonymous with the subordinate, the secondary, the subversive, the supplementary, the marginal. Music as the other. When music as the other can bring us in contact with the other other, it is ethically charged.

[2] In Noise, Jacques Attali presents music as the opposite of the other. Music is a representation of the same, the self, the existing order, that which holds a dominant position. By taking this position, Attali, like Kramer, assigns an ethical-political function to music. Music disciplines and normalizes. It banishes subversive noise. It brings about order (differences) in a world that would otherwise be characterized by indifference and chaos. 'The code of music simulates the accepted rules of society' (Attali, p.29). Disciplining takes place in musical education that passes on existing conventions. It can be observed in the hierarchical organization of a (classical) orchestra that puts itself in the service of conductor and soloist. Attending a concert requires us to comply with a code of conduct. In short, music is a means of social control.
Technical developments have enabled musical disciplining to deeply penetrate our lives. Music is omnipresent. It has replaced natural background noise; it invades and even annuls the noise of machinery. Music has become a background noise to life. What is the effect, the result of this 'musicalization of culture' (George Steiner)? Attali removes any misunderstanding: music is a means of silencing people! The radio forbids any impulse one might have to sing. The volume drowns out conversation. Popular music in particular (in text and/or music) conjures up a harmonious life. (Specters of Adorno.) Silencing requires the total infiltration of music. 'One must then no longer look for the political role of music in what it conveys, in its melodies or discourses, but in its very existence. Power, in its invading, deafening presence, can be calm: people no longer talk to another ... Today, the repetitive machine has produced silence, the centralized political control of speech, and more generally, noise. Everywhere, power reduces the noise made by others and adds sound prevention to its arsenal. Listening becomes an essential means of surveillance and social control' (Attali, p.122).

[3] The omnipresence of music bans or prohibits subversive noises. It silences people. But it also makes silence impossible. Many thinkers on music deem silence disturbing and connected to speechlessness, impotence, an inward escape, and the refusal to assign meaning (cf. Schlünz in Nauck, p.31). Silence is 'what frightens us the minute we find it. Fear of the fact that nothing is happening, of emptiness, of a confrontation with oneself, of death and of life' (Schlünz in Nauck, p.32, my translation). According to Walter Zimmermann, the experience of listening to a piece of music that can be intellectually understood differs from the experience of listening to silence and noise (in music) in that the latter forces the listener to rely upon his own resources because a basis for any other possible orientation is missing. Zimmermann mentions the silent pieces as well as the intense stratification and almost unidentifiable digressions in the music of John Cage as examples of music that has no univocal line that a listener can detect. The emptiness or chaos that the listener then experiences can leave him in absolute despair (cf. Zimmermann in Nauck, p.5). At the same time, however, Zimmermann and other authors make different associations with silence: carefulness, tolerance, and meditation (Schlunz), a space for reflection (Zenck), and inner concentration (Zimmermann). Perhaps, the musicalization of culture protects us against all sorts of negative experiences that silence may unleash in us. Apparently, however, it also deprives us of the opportunity to contemplate and to accept.

[4] How can one escape the imposition of silence through music?
Attali strongly advocates the practice of making music (just for) oneself, especially a music that can dissociate itself from existing rules, codes, and limitations. The silencing of people is prevented when they participate in the practice of music making and particularly a music making that requires their own creativity instead of repeating already existing compositions (cf. Music and/as (Dis)Order and Teaching a Supplement).
Walter Zimmermann identifies another escape: 'silent music'. He refers to some works by John Cage as examples. According to Zimmermann, the sound of structured music that completely absorbs time and space produces passivity in the listener and disables him from hearing other sounds (random noise). John Cage's 4'33'' (Play music), three tacet movements totaling 4 minutes and 33 seconds, allows these sounds to (re-)enter the domain of music (in the form of silence) and instills an awareness into the listener's mind of already existing sounds. (Zimmermann thus talks about a noise-making music that leads to silence, and a silent music that permits noise.) He 'reads' Cage's music as an ethical-political battle against a music that leaves one passive and dependent, that obstructs thinking and offers no opportunity for reflection; in short, against a silencing of people. Cage, in speech and in practice, admits silence (and with that, noise: cf. Cage and Silence) as a trace of the other of music into the musical domain. Therefore, his music may be called 'pre-eminently political' (ethical perhaps?) (cf. Zimmermann in Nauck, p.4-5).

[5] Silence/noise as the other of music. How to think through the opening towards this other, the admission of the other of music within music? How to think through this form of hospitality? (According to Derrida, ethics coincides with the experience of hospitality.) Could we think of Cage's music as an example of an ethics of deconstruction in music? In Music, Deconstruction, and Ethics, I state that recognition of the other opens the ethical dimension of deconstruction. 'To get ready for this coming of the other is what I call deconstruction', says Derrida in 'Psyche: Inventions of the Other' (Waters and Godzich, p.56). Deconstruction acknowledges traces of the other without absorbing, assimilating or reducing it to the order of the same, the order of the calculable and the familiar.
Is Cage, by integrating noise and silence within music or the musical, reducing the other to the same? We arrive at a paradox. A 'double bind'. Cage can only focus attention on the other of music by admitting the other to the very domain of music. This is the precarious balance between recognition and appropriation of otherness: a full assimilation will deny the other while a full affirmation of the differences will preclude every contact with the other. Even if the other resides outside of music in the traditional sense (but it is not at all clear that it does), it cannot dispense with the concept of music if we want to give attention to it. Noise and silence, while escaping the musical, can only be experienced through the musical. This is why Derrida does not wish to think of the invention of the other and the invention of the same as binary opposites. 'The invention of the other is not opposed to that of the same, it's difference beckons toward another coming about ... the invention of the entirely other, the one that allows the coming of a still unanticipatable alterity and for which no horizon of waiting as yet seems ready, in place, available' (Waters and Godzich, p.55). An unanticipatable alterity. Could we think of the random sounds that are allowed to enter 4'33'' (Play music) and Waiting (Play music), that form an integral part of these compositions, as a receptivity to the advent of an unanticipatable alterity?

[6] Cage's music gives both silence and noise a voice by supplying them with a context. (They cannot exist without a context.) His work turns silence and noise into experience, into something we can come to, surrender to, lose ourselves in; it re-shapes our attitude towards silence and noise. Cage re-writes the cont(r)acts between music, silence and noise so that we can experience the relations between them differently and thus 'think' them otherwise. His work is ethical because it offers hospitality, hospitality to the stranger that does not speak the language of music, to a hostis called silence or noise. (In Latin, 'hostis' means both stranger and enemy but it can refer to 'host' or 'guest' as well.) But this hospitality cannot exist without borders, without a certain sovereignty. Cage (Cage's music) can offer hospitality because (his) music has a house of its own, its own domain, although its borders are undecidable, insecure, shifting. ('Deconstruction must neither reframe nor dream of the pure and simple absence of the frame', Derrida writes in The Truth In Painting.)
Perhaps music has become a phantom name for Cage. Remnants of the old concept of music live on, but its contours have faded; its meaning has changed. And right there, in that flexible, fluent environment, the other appears. Or rather, the concept of music changes because the other appears. Cage invites the other into the house of the same, the domain of music. His music is once more an 'invention of the other', an openness to the call of the other. ('To invent would then be to 'know' how to say 'come' and to answer the 'come' of the other', says Derrida in 'Psyche: Inventions of the Other'.) Through this, the music of Cage permanently disrupts our habits of listening. In its encounter with the accidental, the unmanageable, the unintended, his music keeps referring to what is and what remains intangible.

[7] Cage does not merely introduce new sounds or noises to the domain of music. His compositions demand attention to noises that are always already present in music, that reside and resonate in the margins of the music, but that have been disavowed or suppressed. Cage points us to the other of music within music. 4'33'' (Play music) draws explicit attention to unintentional sounds that music can never exclude, and that are always already part of every composition. The other does not reside outside the same, but is an inextricable part of it. The hostis was always already inside the house of the host, the uncanny already part of the familiar. Noise as an inextricable part of music. This implies the possibility of a reversal of the relationship between noise and music. Cage's Waiting (Play music) is an exemplary instance of this reversal. Where musical tones were once the norm, in Waiting (Play music) they appear in a context that is dominated by random noises. Cage's written notes seem to be deviations within an enormous diversity of possible sounds. This heterogeneity has no order in itself, but is revealed only by virtue of its break from the conventions of musical order, and therefore remains connected to it. It is the music, the musical frame, or perhaps the expectation of music that turns noise (and silence) into experience, into objects of attention. Context. Demarcation. No hospitality without exclusion.

[8] According to Derrida, the 'invention of the other' cannot be compared with a traditional notion of 'capacity to invent'. Contrary to the capacity to invent, the invention of the other withdraws from every plan or conceptualization. Any conceptual meaning should be abandoned as much as possible, or at least delayed. An encounter with the otherness of the other can only occur in a state of passivity or susceptibility. Cage recognizes and admires this susceptibility in the work of Morton Feldman, composer of many pieces that are extremely long and contain hushed volumes and slow tempos, that seem to arise hesitantly from a silent ground. 'He has changed the responsibility of the composer from making to accepting. To accept whatever comes, regardless of the consequences' (Cage, 1966, p.129).
No planning. Susceptibility. But does this mean no activity? Derrida says it is necessary to prepare for the coming of the other, which indicates a conscious and deliberate effort to arrive at this passivity. Response-ability. Inert passivity does not promote a relationship with the other. It leads instead to indifference. An active will to engage with whatever escapes any anticipating apperception is required to move into this susceptibility, a responsiveness and alertness to the possibilities that we randomly encounter, a combined play of improvisation and strategy. 'Letting the other come is not inertia open to anything whatever ... I still call it invention because one gets ready for it, one makes this step to let the other come, come in' (Derrida in Waters and Godzich, p.55-6).
Do Cage's unconditional acceptance and Derrida's active passivity drift apart here? Let's see what Cage has to say about the role of the listener with regard to 4'33'' (Play music). 'The performance ought to make clear to the listener that the hearing of the piece is his own action - that the music, so to speak, is his rather than the composer's' (Cage in Gena and Brent, p.22). With this comment, Cage gives more freedom to the listener, but also more responsibility. In its non-articulatedness 4'33'' (Play music) provides the listener (and the performer as well) with the freedom to add value and meaning (or none at all!) to the piece. It is the responsibility (response-ability) of the listener to assign meaning and sense to this music. Even though it no longer has the same provocative effect it had back in 1951, 4'33'' (Play music) still demands a willingness of the listener and prompts him to think and reflect. Additionally, it also has the virtue of installing a way of listening that does not allow for jumping to conclusions, but that demands a quiet and simple listening to sounds. Could this way of listening be described as a susceptibility to the other, passive in its dedication to the sounds that present themselves, and active in its alertness to and preparedness for a diversity of acoustic events?