Can be completely silent music

Can the silence also be heard in music, without which music would not be what it is? Does the silence become audible in the silence of the music? Does the complete silence of the music, as exemplified by John Cage's piece “4'33 ′ ′”, point to utter nothingness?

In a certain sense the most radical piece of music in music history refutes the prejudice that music must be audible and tied to tones. John Cage is the “inaudible” composer of the piece. It says «4'33 ′ ′». It consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. It is the paradox of composed silence - total silence. It is the material and at the same time the form of the piece, its theme and at the same time the development - one could say if this formal distinction from the non-subject matter of silence were not taken ad absurdum. “4'33 ′ ′” has become downright popular in the musical avant-garde. The tendency of artistic modernism to position itself on the edge of the speechless, imagery, soundless, and even beyond this limit, finds its most consistent expression in Cage.

Yves Klein, Anton Webern

On August 29, 1952, the "play" premiered in Woodstock, New York State, seventeen years later the location of the blissful musical hippie mega-commune. Five years earlier, in 1947, Yves Klein had already had the idea for his symphony “Monoton - Silence”, which consisted of a single long-lasting sound followed by a fixed, absolute silence.

Again two years earlier, tragically and ironically, the composer of all people who fell victim to the mistaken shot of an American occupation soldier, who paradigmatically stands for the path of musical modernity into silence, was a little too loud: Anton Webern. The symphony op. 21 composed in 1928, for example, intersperses the music with pauses in such a way that the tones shrink to punctual events. The fourth piece of the "Five Movements for String Quartet" op. 5, even more the fourth piece of the "Five Pieces for Orchestra" op. 10, which is limited to six bars, is already a piece of music on the way to extinction, on the edge, with its only fifteen seconds in diminuendo of falling silent. The lecture titles take the sounds back until they fade away: musical aesthetics of disappearing.

Seventy years later, Luigi Nono was able to join Webern. His string quartet “Fragments - Stille, An Diotima”, premiered in 1980 by the La Salle Quartet, is not just at the limit of perception with its speechless Hölderlin chants up to fivefold pianissimo - it revolutionizes the relationship between music and silence itself. Silence is no longer a break in the music. It becomes an equally weighty, constitutive element in a reciprocal relationship. The long, tense pauses between the sound fragments, expressly specified by Nono, notated in the score with raised fermatas over the pause symbols and precise time indications for the duration of the pauses, create a sound space from which the sounds emerge and in which they fade away again. The sound itself is the other form of silence - the silence the other form of sound. The silence turns every tone into a fragment, in that no tone is the whole - every tone becomes completely itself by being in the silence. At the end of the fragments, the sound fades away, barely audible, in a silence in which all difference is canceled: "coincidencia oppositorum", the coincidence of the previous opposites.

John Cage, of course, subverts the apparent opposition between music and silence from the outset. “4'33 ′ ′” comprises three individual sentences, each of which is headed “Tacet, Tacet, Tacet” with the usual Latin instruction for an instrument or a group of instruments to pause, to be silent - only that here the composer is informed by the pianist, for whom he wrote the piece that demands complete silence. The lengths of the individual sentences of thirty-three seconds, two minutes and forty seconds and one minute and twenty seconds, determined by Cage in “aleatoric”, random operations according to the early Chinese oracle book “I Ching”, add up to the eponymous duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds or, converted to the total number of seconds, 273 seconds.

Absolute minus

This number, of course, is not as random as John Cage believed. His composer colleague Dieter Schnebel was able to draw his attention to the fact that in molecular physics the absolute zero point is minus 273 degrees, at which the molecular movement ceases completely and thus, according to Schnebel's interpretation, "all life". In this respect, “4'33 ′ ′” is a musical nothing that is laden with meaning. In addition, the sentence division breaks down the otherwise unstructured silence. At the beginning of each movement, the pianist closes the lid over the keys of the grand piano, at the end he opens it again - reversing the usual musical logic. Something happens, but nothing can be heard, except for a possible clatter and the movement of the - of course highly virtuoso - pianist, which you can at least see during a live performance.

With his own wit, John Cage even allowed some leeway for further performances, despite the specific numbers given: “The title of this work is the total length in minutes and seconds of its performance. At Woodstock, N.Y., August 29, 1952, the title was <4′33 ′ ′> and the three parts were 33 ′ ′, 2′40 ′ ′, and 1′20 ′ ′. It was performed by David Tudor, pianist, where indicated the beginnings of parts by closing, the endings by opening, the keyboard lid. However, the work may be performed by an instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time. "

The line-up, particularly important in a piece that consists of sheer silence, can also change, the overall length as well as the individual movements diverge, everything can also be given slower or faster, the “silentium” accelerated or retarded, so to speak. It is just as consistent as it is significant for the paradoxical “theme” that Cage, in a “composition” created ten years after “4'33 ′ ′”, was entitled “0′00 ′ ′” with the addition “4′33 ′ ′ No. 2 ”, the complete“ zero time ”, notated for the piece. The only question is how “0'00 ′ ′”, the pure non-time of undivided, complete silence, can be realized in concert.

To take the obvious joke on this topic to the extreme, the British composer Mike Batt was recently accused of a copyright infringement for inserting a one-minute break in one of his own compositions in honor of Cage and releasing it as a single CD. His mother understood the point of the matter even better when she asked him: "Which minute of the four minutes and thirty-three seconds are you supposed to have stolen?" Indeed, it is difficult to say when the stolen property is indiscriminate silence. It doesn’t work without paradoxes. Apparently the piece not only has a punch line, it is one.

By non-music, not only the everyday noise that accompanies music performances - the movements of the pianist, the obligatory coughing, rustling and sneezing of the audience - should be made aware with unusual emphasis, but also the hearing of the hearing itself and, above all, the absent present music of silence. According to Karlheinz Stockhausen, the piece is "negative music", intentional tonelessness. It is not simply silent, but rather demonstrative to a certain extent. The musical nothing that it is says and means something by abstaining from all tones. The silence offered by the threefold "tacet", which does not lead to nothing but rather is "in nothing" from beginning to end of the piece - this silence is the paradoxical musical, the phonetic, ascetic form of nothing.

From Parmenides and Plato to Augustine and Thomas from Aquin to Kant, Hegel and Schopenhauer, the philosophical tradition has repeatedly differentiated between two concepts of nothingness: that of a merely relative and that of an absolutely absolute and total nothing, which tradition calls the "nihil negativum" is called. Whether the latter can and actually exist is controversial. But what does “actually” and “there is” mean when it comes to nothing? The debate about the legitimacy of the term also has its pitfalls. Which is already evident from the fact that all thinking and speaking, even the most philosophically reflective, becomes entangled in contradictions when it thinks and speaks about nothing or even the "absolute nothing", because every thinking and speaking already makes it something.

The pounding of the heartbeat

Analogously, with a music-philosophical distinction between relative and absolute, absolute and total silence, the latter such as the philosophical "nihil negativum" can only be experienced and represented approximately and at the price of inevitable paradoxes. Even in an absolutely soundproof room, as John Cage experienced in his own body, in his own hearing, you can still hear the pounding of the heartbeat and the rustling in the ears. And even if one abstracts from all contingent ambient noise, absolute silence becomes relative at the moment when it is realized as such by a hearing non-listener or non-hearing listener who focuses his attention on it. As total silence, it is only accessible intentionally. It is dematerialized, as it were, into an "idea".

But these paradoxes do not devalue listening to silence, on the contrary: it is precisely in its contradictions that the approach has expressiveness, as is shown by the witty paradox of John Cage's «4'33 ′ ′», his «petit rien». Because with its total silence it is on the one hand an absolute musical nothing, "nihil negativum" in the strict sense.But as a composition that has a title that has a duration, a limit and a set of sentences that is performed, which perhaps symbolically refers to the zero point of life at 273 degrees below zero, “4'33 ′ ′” is only relative, but all the more significant nothing. "About what one", with the final sentence of Ludwig Wittgenstein's "Tractatus logico-philosophicus" said, "not speaking", not singing, what one cannot compose, "one must be silent about it".

Silentium phobia

But how can one remain silent about what one cannot speak of, if this silence is not supposed to be completely meaningless and irrelevant? By making something of the total silence, which as such is inaudible and unrepresentable, audible in the relative silence of the music. John Cage's “Silence” is the way to make audible the unheard, acoustically absent and at the same time as such present in one with what has been heard, even as a condition of the possibility of hearing in general.

The Zen Buddhist Cage has the western phobics of silence, who mistake noise for life and seek their self-assertion in making them loud, this now globally ruling caste of silent phobics, as we do by analogy with the agora phobics People of horror vacui, who try to bring silence closer not only in terms of composition but also existentially: “Enduring silence without fear is a piece of utopia realized. We don't have to fear this silence - we may love it. " Cage's artistic self-image just needs to be understood literally enough: "I have nothing to say, and I will say it."

One of the congenial ancestors of Cage, the Japanese master Ike-no Taiga, asked in the 18th century: "What is the most difficult thing to paint?" His answer: "To paint a white room where nothing is drawn - that is the most difficult task in painting." The «white painting», inspired by Taoteking and Zen Buddhism, has drawn the necessary conclusions. She not only «killed the colors», practiced the mastery of reduction, of omission - whereby, unlike in European aesthetics, it is precisely what is left out that is essential, not what is emphasized by omission. Rather, “white painting” literally showed nothing at all in order to perceive the absolute emptiness. This painting commits artistic suicide, as it were, in order to correspond to its "subject", which contradicts all representability. In doing so, she refutes a hypothesis of the philosopher Günther Anders, which he formulated for the visual arts, but which also applies to music: that painting - like music - "is condemned to positivity in the face of the absolute transcendence of the negative" - ​​unlike Language and literature which, according to Anders, can at least deny facts "or even speak of nothing".

To be without contradiction

In order to completely avoid this forced positivity, the “white painting” would of course have to leave the piece of silk or paper empty - just as Cage does not note his score of silence. But how can the blank sheet of paper be distinguished from insignificantly blank paper? The "white painting" responded to this problem with the "inscription-on-white-paper", which linguistically gives the empty surface its meaning - John Cage with the title "4'33", the sentence names and the requirement of silence the triple "Tacet, Tacet, Tacet". Both answers cannot entirely escape the dilemma of not being allowed to “speak” about what they want to remain silent about. That could only be done by those who no longer cared about the empty sheets and their differences and refrained from creating, painting or composing anything at all.

Cage comes closest to this when he himself reduces “4'33 ′ ′” to the “zero time” of “0′00 ′ ′”, typically in the second version made in Japan. But that too is an indication of the time and the untitled title of a composed zero composition. Only those who don't even mumble with Buddhism “Om” or “Mu” or with the German mysticism “nihtes niht”, who neither wrote “4'33 ′ ′” nor “0′00 ′ ′” would be free of contradictions. The "white painting" like John Cage's composition of silence are the paradoxically coherent way of saying nothing and saying nothing at all.