So many words have the word EAR in them: HEAR, FEAR, TEAR, CLEAR, DEAR …many more and also YEAR.
This might suggest that our ears are very important.
A game for the new year: Close your eyes, sharpen your ears and listen. Don’t stop before noticing at least 10 different sounds. We need to listen for fair-politics, for learning, for music-making, for communicating. In 2017, I wish for myself to be a better listener, which is why today’s post is mostly about John Cage.
I used to have great difficulties with Cage, so much that I even rolled my eyes occasionally when having to perform one of his pieces or be audience to one. This changed immediately once I began listening to his ideas, more than to his music – since then, Cage is a compass for my ears. A couple of days ago I was traveling by train, practicing one of his wise advises:
“There is no such thing as silence” said Cage.
He expressed this claim with several conceptual works, most famously with “4’33”, where the absence of music is all but silence. It allows performers and listeners to notice and appreciate the existing, natural sounds of a given space, while they become the actual composition. The piece calls for an equality of sounds – all sounds are equally meaningful (or equally meaningless), all sounds are music. Cage’s demand for a non judgmental, non artistic listening, as the quote in the above video so accurately pronounces, allowed his music to become a new form of art: music which is made with non-musical materials. In Cage’s world, music can be paint, it can be a film or a sculpture. His materials were everything he could lay his hands on, simply because his unique way of listening made him hear music in everything.
The acclaimed music critic and blogger Alex Ross so truthfully wrote:
“[…] since the Middle Ages, even the most adventurous composers had labored within a craftsmanlike tradition. Cage held that an artist can work as freely with sound as with paint: he changed what it meant to be a composer, and every kid manipulating music on a laptop is in his debt”. [Searching for Silence / Alex Ross on The New Yorker]
I’m also a kid who manipulates music on a laptop, and I agree that it isn’t much different than composing music for telephones, voices or orchestras. In all cases sounds are put together to create a composition.
“And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life-not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.” [Experimental Music / John Cage]
I wrote above that “Cage is a compass for my ears”. Why compass? Because I feel that he encourages me to observe my surroundings in a conscious way, with awareness, and I consider this a moral decision. He taught me not to ignore sounds, not to judge what I can’t really understand, never to let my ego define my taste. These guidelines go far beyond art or music.
I wish the readers of MOUNT DELA a year of listening. Open your mind and your ears to noises as well as to melodies; observe your environment as if it was a treasure box filled with art supplies. I wish you all a very Happy New Year!