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← What silence can teach you about sound

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Showing Revision 9 created 08/12/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. For many of us right now,
    our lives are quieter than normal.
  2. And quiet can be unnerving.
  3. It can make you feel lonely,
  4. or just all too aware
    of the things you're missing out on.
  5. I think about sound all the time.

  6. I'm a sound designer,
  7. and I host the podcast
    "Twenty Thousand Hertz."
  8. It's all about the world's most
    recognizable and interesting sounds.
  9. But I think this is the perfect time
    to talk about silence.
  10. Because what I've come to understand
  11. is that there is no such thing as silence.
  12. And the person who opened
    my mind to this idea
  13. is one of the most influential
    composers in history.
  14. (Piano music)

  15. John Cage has made an impact
    on artists in many genres,

  16. from avant-garde musicians,
    to modern dance, to pop music.
  17. Right now, we're listening
    to his 1948 piece
  18. called "In a Landscape."
  19. This version was recorded in 1994
    by Stephen Drury.
  20. (Piano music)

  21. This piece is actually not very typical
    of John Cage's writing.

  22. He's more known for his innovations
    and avant-garde techniques.
  23. But despite his reputation,
  24. no one was prepared
    for what he did in 1952,
  25. when he created the most daring
    piece of his career.
  26. It was called "4'33'',"
  27. and it was a piece that some critics
    even refused to call "music,"
  28. because for the entire
    duration of the piece,
  29. the performer plays
  30. nothing at all.
  31. Well, to be technical,
    the performer is actually playing rest.
  32. But to the audience,
    it looks like nothing is happening.
  33. John Cage's "4'33''"
    was performed for the first time

  34. in the summer of 1952,
  35. by renowned pianist David Tudor.
  36. It was at the Maverick Concert hall
    in Woodstock, New York.
  37. This is a beautiful wooden building
    with huge openings to the outdoors.
  38. So, David Tudor walked out on stage,
  39. sat down at the piano,
  40. then closed the piano lid.
  41. He then sat in silence,
  42. only moving to open
    and close the piano lid
  43. between each of the three movements.
  44. After the time was up,
  45. he got up
  46. and walked off the stage.
  47. (Piano music)

  48. The audience had no idea what to think.

  49. It made people wonder if Cage
    is even taking his career seriously.
  50. A close friend even wrote to him,
  51. begging that he not turn
    his career into a joke.
  52. John Cage had, well, if you could call it,
  53. composed a piece of music
  54. that really challenged
    some very established ideas
  55. about music composition.
  56. It's something that musicians
    still debate today.
  57. To understand just what
    John Cage was thinking,

  58. let's back up to the 1940s.
  59. Back then,
  60. John Cage was making a name for himself
    composing for the prepared piano.
  61. (Piano music)

  62. To make music like this,

  63. John Cage would put objects
    inside the piano,
  64. between the strings.
  65. Things you just find lying around,
  66. like screws, tape and rubber erasers.
  67. So now, you've transformed the piano
  68. from a tonal instrument
    with high and low pitches
  69. into a collection of unique sounds.
  70. The music you're hearing
    is Cage's "Sonata V,"
  71. from "Sonatas and Interludes
    for Prepared Piano."
  72. Probably his most famous work
    outside of "4'33''."
  73. This version was performed
    by Boris Berman.
  74. John Cage wrote incredibly
    detailed instructions
  75. about where to place
    each object in the piano.
  76. But it's impossible for every performer
    to get the exact same objects,
  77. so the sound you get is always different.
  78. Basically, it comes down to random chance.
  79. This was pretty bananas and pretty alien
  80. to the way most composers and musicians
    are taught to do things.
  81. John Cage was becoming
    increasingly interested

  82. in chance and randomness
  83. and letting the universe
    provide the answer to the question
  84. "What note should I play next?"
  85. But to hear the answer to the question,
  86. first, you have to listen.
  87. And in the 1940s,
  88. listening to the universe
    was getting harder to do.
  89. (Elevator music)

  90. The Muzak company was founded in the '30s.

  91. It really took off,
  92. and soon, there was constant
    background music nearly everywhere.
  93. It was almost impossible to escape.
  94. John Cage realized
    that people were losing the option
  95. to shut out the background
    music of the world.
  96. He worried that Muzak would prevent people
    from hearing silence altogether.
  97. In 1948,

  98. four years before he wrote "4'33'',"
  99. John Cage mentioned
    that he wanted to write
  100. a four-and-a-half-minute-long
    piece of silence
  101. and sell it to the Muzak company.
  102. It started as something
    of a political statement
  103. or an offhand comment,
  104. but this idea struck a nerve
    and quickly evolved.
  105. John Cage was starting to think
    deeply about silence.
  106. And when he visited a truly quiet place,
  107. he made a startling discovery.
  108. John Cage visited an anechoic chamber
    at Harvard University.

  109. Anechoic chambers are rooms
    that are acoustically treated
  110. to minimize sound to almost zero.
  111. There are no sounds in these rooms,
  112. so John Cage didn't expect
    to hear anything at all.
  113. But he actually heard
    his own blood circulating.
  114. (Pulse)

  115. I've personally experienced
    an anechoic chamber,

  116. and it's a really wild experience
  117. that can completely change
    your perceptions
  118. about sound and silence.
  119. It really felt like my brain
    just turning up an amplifier,
  120. grasping for anything to hear.
  121. Just like John Cage,
  122. I could very clearly hear my blood
    pushing through my body.
  123. John Cage realized, in that moment,

  124. that no matter where we are,
    even our bodies are making sound.
  125. There's basically no such thing
    as true silence.
  126. As long as you are in your body,
  127. you're always hearing something.
  128. This is where John Cage's interest
    in chance and randomness

  129. met his interest in silence.
  130. He realized that creating an environment
    with no distractions
  131. wasn't about creating silence.
  132. It wasn't even about controlling noise.
  133. It was about the sounds
    that were already there,
  134. but you suddenly hear for the first time
  135. when you're really ready to listen.
  136. That's what's so often
    misunderstood about "4'33''."

  137. People assume it's a joke,
  138. but that couldn't be further
    from the truth.
  139. It sounds different
    everywhere you play it.
  140. And that's the point.
  141. What John Cage really wanted us to hear
  142. is the beauty of the sonic
    world around us.
  143. (Birds chirping)

  144. (Overlapping voices)

  145. (Church bell ringing)

  146. (Crickets chirping and owl hooting)

  147. "4'33''" should be a mindful experience

  148. that helps you focus on accepting things
    just the way they are.
  149. It's not something that anyone else
    can tell you how you're supposed to feel.
  150. It's deeply personal.
  151. It also brings up
    some pretty big questions
  152. about our sonic world.
  153. Is "4'33''" music, is it sound,
  154. is sound music?
  155. Is there even a difference?
  156. John Cage reminds us
  157. that music isn't the only kind of sound
    worth listening to.
  158. All sounds are worth thinking about.
  159. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

  160. to reset our ears.
  161. And if we become more conscious
    of what we hear,
  162. we'll inherently make
    our world sound better.
  163. Quietness is not when we turn off
    our minds to sound,
  164. but when we can really start to listen
  165. and hear the world
    in all of its sonic beauty.
  166. So in this spirit,

  167. let's perform "4'33''" together,
  168. wherever you are.
  169. It's three movements,
  170. and I'll let you know when they start.
  171. Listen to the texture and rhythm
    of the sounds around you right now.
  172. Listen for the loud and soft,
  173. the harmonic, the dissonant,
  174. and all the small details
    that make every sound unique.
  175. Spend this time as mindful and focused
    in this real-life sonic moment.
  176. Enjoy the magnificence
    of hearing and listening.
  177. So here comes the first movement.
  178. Starting ...
  179. now.
  180. [I. Tacet]

  181. (No audio)

  182. And here's movement two.

  183. It will be two minutes and 23 seconds.
  184. [II. Tacet]

  185. (No audio)

  186. And here is the final movement.

  187. It will be one minute and 40 seconds.
  188. [III. Tacet]

  189. (No audio)

  190. And that's it.

  191. We did it.
  192. Thanks for listening.