I recently wrote a catalogue essay for Lawrence English’s event “Dead Silence”, the gorgeous edition of which you can get here, although whilst you’re at it you should do your ears a favour and get yourself some sounds too.
For those of you not fortunate enough to have this yet who might have interest in the essay, here it is. Although again. Buy it, it’s super pretty.
So glad I managed to use this quotation from my Dad in something (he had an eardrum blown out in the war, which might explain the inscription a little).
Unlocking the Cage with/in the Key of Silence.
When I can’t hear anything, I try to be a good listener.
–James Hainge, my Father.
Silence. Or almost silence. We are talking of course of the latter, can only talk of the latter if the many following the one are to be believed. Silence is of course impossible for John Cage. Because of his blood and his nervous system. In a story that is now well-known and does not need to be heard again here for already it will never fade into silence. And yet perhaps we cannot merely let it become the sonorous background upon which all expressions approaching silence are left to resonate. Because what if, like the Œdipal system in Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of the latter (1984), Cage’s nervous system is in fact our névrose, which is to say precisely that which stops us understanding what we think we know we are talking about and absolutely not, then, the key to understanding this system which for some reason requires only four minutes and thirty-three seconds of our time. If this is to be the sonic background upon which all silence must be founded, then silence can produce only lines of abolition, for it can only ever be deployed into a space in which it cannot exist. Unable to operate within the sphere into which it must be projected, able only to work against itself, counteracting its own processes at every turn until it grinds to a halt and becomes capable of nothing, this is silence as pathology, silence locked up in a cage, prevented from going anywhere, from following its own lines of flight.
And yet, surely, silence is not this, cannot be this, cannot be nothing for it is the very ground of possibility of all sonic expression. This is to say that silence is really no different from white noise, or rather white noise — in which all possible sonic frequencies are present cosimultaneously and which contains within it all possible sonic expressions, expressions which come into being through the contraction of various zones of its plane — is merely silence at a different level of intensity. White noise is an absolute point of plenitude, and silence is this plenitude reduced to a point at which its intensity = 0. But it is no less full for this, it is not sucked dry and left an empty hollow shell destined for petrification or consecration as a new paradigmatic point in time, cryogenically fixed as proof of a supposed truth. No. Silence is full, it is a singularity outside of time, or rather, it is the event from which the difference of time flows as it enters into perception or expression.
Claire Colebrook in her book on Deleuze asks her reader to
imagine walking into a room you know to be an art-gallery, but the lights are off. Your eye anticipates the vision of colour that is not yet possible; without any colour, you already have a sense of colour to be seen or the potential for colour’(2002: 127).
And so with sound. Imagine putting on a pair of headphones and pressing play on your CD player. Your ear anticipates sound for this is always what you have known. But you hear only silence, which is to say that you hear a sound which cannot yet be heard, the potential for sound. Silence as singularity. As Colebrook explains with regards to her own example,
certain works of art can present this potential […] through singularity. Singularities are not images within time — not perceptions organised into a coherent and ordered world — they are the events from which the difference of time flows. Time, or the flow of life, is just this pulsation of sensible events or singularities, which we then experience and perceive as an actual world (2002: 127).
To present a singularity, then, is to deploy a becoming-imperceptible for it is to deploy an event pre-perception, pre-contraction into a fixed and perceptible form. It is with this idea that works approaching silence play, for works that teeter on the liminal threshold between silence and almost silence know that you, dear listener, are hearing even when you are not. Such works then truly deploy a singularity, for a singularity is a singular event waiting to be contracted into an actualised form that is never pre-determined but arrived at only through conjugation with the immanent terms of the system it enters: here, you. You who hears, who hears what cannot be heard. You here who hears hearing then? Precisely. Then…?
For silence is intensity = 0 which is to say that it is always going somewhere. Silence itself unlocks the cage that had imprisoned it and takes off on lines of flight. It is always already full and is not then filled and hence destroyed by sound, compositional or incidental, for it will always return. How could we destroy it? We cannot even say what it is for every artist hears it differently, deploys it differently. And even when we listen to one singular deployment of silence, you do not hear the same as me. You object, of course, that this is the nature of all sound and not just silence. But we both know that this is not really so for we both, as sensory biological forms infolded according to roughly the same blueprint, hear in most perceptible sounds the sounds’ own form: trumpet, timpani, cough.
But silence? Never. For you, like me, can only hear what you sense is coming, and when it comes but remains almost silence you will still hear it but never know if it is really there in actuality or just in virtuality, in time or as an event. This can never be so for as long as we remain in a cage, for even though we hear it said that to equate silence with sound is to allow the fixed form of the work to be dismantled by an unprecedented incidence of chance within the creation of the form, in calling these chance forms silence we forget that silence is always without form. If silence is not impossible nor truly imperceptible, then, it is a becoming-imperceptible, which is to say that it is something that it is always undoing, it is the very undoing of itself and everything else, undoing not in order to abolish, however, but always to take us somewhere new. Silence, like thought, can only be limited if framed, imprisoned, caged, contained within time, 4’33”. Silence does not have a limit, it is the potential that is always there, the potential for you to hear only what you hear. And hear this as you will too, for if from within silence (as we always are) we wish to unlock silence’s cage with its own key, we must sing in the key of silence, and the words on this page before you must then tend always towards their own becoming-imperceptible, must fall silent and allow you to listen… … …
Colebrook, Clare (2002). Gilles Deleuze. London: Routledge.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (1984). Anti-Œdipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia 1. London: The Athlone Press.