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October 4, 2010 / scherstuhl

The silence of sound: OR, Merle Haggard stomps John Cage in Bakersfield, CA

Uncertain silences. Growls and gasses. The full symphony of digestion. That’s what we’ve been spared thanks to music’s descent, in just over a century, from a vital artform into the careless background thump that has come to score our lives.

It urges us through stores and highways, syncs its rhythms with our own as we dance or run or love or shop, guides and shapes our minds something like a current must guide and shape a fish’s.

In public it relieves us not just of the human hubbub but of even having to think of things to say.  “Oh, I love this song,” you can gush when conversation lapses. Of course, the song has quite likely been on a full minute before you’ve noticed it, and you will forget it’s on before it finishes.

At bars, it relieves you of having to talk altogether, and even of having to figure out what to do with your body if you suffer a rush of self-consciousness: just bob a little.

Has any artform’s function ever changed so much, so quickly?  First, came millennia of performances. You want music? Make it! Or, if you can’t, develop agriculture and commerce and then an artisanal class to do it for you.

Then came Edison and “records,” by which I mean a performance captured and eventually reproducible in – to borrow the space-tyrant language of major label contracts – any format, known or unknown, in perpetuity, all throughout the universe.  The weirdest thing about that talk of interstellar manifest-destiny: it’s less an if than a promise. In 2008, NASA beamed the Beatles’ “Across the Universe” into deep space.

Anyway, we developed commerce and musicians and leisure time to enjoy both. And to worry about them, which is why I suppose in his curmudgeonly years ‘ol John Cage said things like this on the topic of 4’33, his silent composition/party trick: “I think what we need in the field of music is a very long performance of that work.”

Yes, the beat beneath our lives is a distraction and an irritant. It blots out conversation and birdsong. It diminishes the likelihood that we’ll have the patience to attend closely to music not like it. It cues us to perform, as if it is a soundtrack and we are film characters. It buffers us from the sound of other people.

Since silence can’t shut out the world’s din, it’s no surprise, than, that we now use earbuds and the like to exercise some control – to buffer ourselves from the buffer. This, too, bugged Cage, who, almost prescribed “4’33” to an entire population. “Most people in our society now go around the streets and in buses and so forth playing radios with earphones on and they don’t hear the world around them,” he carped. “They hear only what they have chosen to hear. I can’t understand why they cut themselves off from that rich experience which is free.”

To give the man his due, I recently attempted to pass 24 hours without access to recorded music.  In isolated environments, like a bedroom, this proved a simple and edifying experiment. I certainly wrote with greater concentration. But out in the world, this proved impossible: everywhere I went, music blasted. Whether piped-in, or bumping from cars, or hissing thinly from someone else’s IPod, or tugging at the edge of my consciousness from somewhere beyond my walls.

Riding a bus from San Francisco to Bakersfield, I heard young woman play a John Mayer song on her phone’s tinny speaker, a rather rude imposition of  her personal taste on other people’s. By the second chorus, a young man two seats away had responded with Lil Wayne’s “Gonorrhea,” which came out meager, strained of its power by his device. Mayer girl turned hers up, so that it pierced; “Gonorrhea” boy did the same, distorting it worse.

The quality of this sound didn’t matter. What mattered was the sound itself: their sounds, in their space, shielding them from each other. My sound just then, which is Cage’s, didn’t have a chance.

At midnight in Bakersfield I chucked Cage myself, but just for three songs: Merle Haggard’s “Tulare Dust” and “California Cottonfields,” songs shaped by the places I happened to be and the lives of the passengers around me.

Even though I had chosen the songs, they seemed, like Cage’s found-sound happenings, to rise from the world around me.

Then I played “4’33.” It sounded like wheels, road, and faint headphone-hiphop, but it didn’t sound at all like Bakersfield.


1. I got no problem with Beatles, but NASA chose “Across the Universe” as the first song to be sent into “deep space”? That’s a crime.  It should have been something by James Brown, the inventor of the endless pop-rhythmic loop, the man whose family should get a royalty check every time a store’s bumpbumpbumpbump makes you feel that you’re too sexy for clothes you already own.)

2. Yes, I have “4’33” on my IPod. Maybe I would like it more if the bitrate were higher.

3. Even gonorrhea can’t stop John Mayer.

4. Merle Haggard’s best California/Bakersfield song has nothing to do with fieldhands:

— Alan Scherstuhl

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