One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man
Of moral evil and of good
Than all the sages can.
Click each image to enlarge
The New Forest (situated mostly in S W Hampshire) comprises approximately 150 square miles of heathland and ancient woodland. It has changed little since the Bronze Age. The fact that the soils are largely infertile and unsuitable for serious cultivation has contributed to the Forest’s unaltered appearance. The area was a favourite hunting ground for King William I (the ‘Conqueror’) and acquired the name of New Forest by royal charter in 1079.
There will be more to follow.
On 29th August 1952 at Woodstock, New York, there took place the most revolutionary event in the history of music. It was a performance by the pianist, David Tudor, of a work by the American composer John Cage, titled 4’33” (four minutes, thirty-three seconds).
It was revolutionary because the music score contained not a single note. Instead it carried the instruction that at no time during the duration of the piece must the instrument be played. The work was divided into three movements, comprising 30 seconds, 2 minutes 23 seconds and 1 minute 40 seconds. The beginning of each movement was indicated by the pianist closing the lid of the piano and at the end of the movement the lid was raised. In between there was silence. Or was there?
What was the audience’s reaction? For the most part they seemed perplexed. They were unsure whether it was a piece of theatre, an experiment, a hoax or what? There was increased muttering as the work progressed and a few walked out, but there was polite applause at the end. There was nothing to match the riots that accompanied the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
So what was Cage trying to achieve? The work is underpinned by two propositions. The first is that the primary act of musical performance is not making music but listening. The second is that we are surrounded by sounds of many kinds and we should not be constrained by that which we can control.
In 4’33” Cage takes this thinking to its logical conclusion. The piece consists of the sounds of the environment that the listener hears while it is being performed. The composer has no way of controlling the ambient sounds that will be heard by different audiences.
In his book No Such Thing as Silence, the American music scholar Kyle Grant says of 4’33”, ‘Really it is an act of framing,of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention.’ And, of course, the purpose of framing anything is to focus the attention on what the frame contains; to separate it. Brian Dillon, the critic for the Irish Times, wrote, ‘It’s a work that makes audiences listen and alters forever their understanding of silence.’
Not all listeners have not been persuaded. In 2004 the BBC broadcast a ‘performance’ of 4’33” by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A work of silence on the radio! Listeners complained that it was ‘absolutely ridiculous’, ‘clearly a gimmick’, ‘patronising and disturbing’ and ‘smacking of arrogance and self-importance’.
Before you form a judgement, listen to one or more of the performances on YouTube (and they are, of course, all different). Does the experience cause you to rethink what we mean by silence? Is it likely to influence how you listen in future?
We have a friend – an attractive, intelligent, caring, fun person. But she has one ‘fault’ I find irritating – and I’m not alone, I’ve seen other raised eyebrows – she cannot cope with silence. The slightest gap in a conversation has to be filled – not necessarily meaningfully, just filled.
What is it about silence that many people seem to find threatening? Do they feel lonely? Unwanted? Detached from the world? Are they afraid of being invaded by their own uncontrollable thoughts? Are they fearful of other people’s silence – what are ‘they’ thinking?
It is true that the world generally is becoming increasingly noisy. Research carried out at Sheffield Hallam University revealed that the noise level in Sheffield city centre had doubled between 1991 and 2001. Advances in technology have exacerbated the problem. In 2010 there were 130 working mobiles for every 100 people in the UK. It is virtually impossible to escape Muzac in shops, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. Whether in the town or a country lane we are bombarded by the loud, throbbing bass emanating from a passing car.
Even in supposedly quiet places, silence is broken by the intrusive text message alert and one-sided mobile phone conversations. The stifled jangles of pop music escape from MP3 earpieces. The noise threshhold has risen insidiously.
Of course, there are orchestrated public periods of silence from time to time – notably on Remembrance Sunday and at sporting events as a mark of respect for some famous sports personality who has died. The silence of such large gatherings is often dramatic and moving and one marvels at the unified self-discipline and control of so many people. But silence is never a vacuum and it would be interesting to be privy to the thoughts and feelings of the individuals within the mass.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the first industrial revolution, the poet Wordsworth wrote:
‘The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.’
His words are just as apt for the beginning of the twenty-first century. We would do well to identify an oasis of silence in our daily routines; a brief period when we can be alone with ourselves.
Let us try an experiment. For just one minute, close your eyes so that you are relying only on what you hear. Sit perfectly still and remain totally silent. Try to remember any sound you hear – however quiet or however loud the sound may be – but remain perfectly still with your eyes closed. When the minute is up, open your eyes and try to recall all the different sounds you heard. Decide their source of origin – natural, manufactured, caused by people etc.
Repeat the experiment but this time recall the thoughts that passed through your mind during the silence.
There, now! That wasn’t at all frightening, was it? And maybe you enjoyed an experience you don’t regularly find time for.
See also The quiet moment