Another Thought on Music

Posted by on 12.09.09 | 7 Comments
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John Cage was a 20th Century American composer whose work exhilarated, enraged and even befuddled audiences for more than half a century. His definition of music as “the organization of sound” led him to experimental constructs of all kinds, and his style influenced not only the symphonic composers of the era, but also people like Frank Zappa, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. His most controversial work was 4’33”, a composition in three movements lasting four minutes, thirty three seconds, during which the artist would sit at a piano in utter silence, playing not a single note. Some “interpreters” would close the keyboard to signify the beginning of the piece, then open and close it again after each of the three movements.

The belief that inspired Cage to “write” 4’33” was that there is truly no such thing as utter silence. Sound, and therefore music, is all around us all the time; the world – creation itself with us in it – is an instrument constantly, eternally, producing music. The music of 4’33” was therefore what happened in the audience, the rustling of a program, the shifting in the seats, a cough here and there, perhaps even the low, nearly inaudible hum of the air conditioning or heating unit. Not the piano on stage, but the audience in their seats together with the building they are in is the instrument playing the composition. Cage’s conviction was that what is true in a concert hall for four minutes, thirty three seconds, is true everywhere; we collectively are an instrument, and we are always making music.

That is a wonderful thought; the earth is always creating sound, so the earth is always making music. You are always creating sound, so the you are always making music. When you walk down the street the sound your shoes make on the sidewalk, or your barenaked (I do consider that one word, no typo there)feet make on the grass is music. When you sit quietly in your home, meditating or just being, the sound your heart makes is music, the sound your breathing makes is music, the sound of your eyelids blinking is music. And more, because you are a music maker just by being, you are an instrument, not just the musician, but the medium the musician uses.

And together we are one great giant instrument, always, eternally making music. So the question is never, ever do we want to make music? The question is always and only what sort of music are we making, and in what way are we making it? We can make that music with F-16 fighters and M-16 rifles. We can make music that way, and quite often we do. We can also make it with different sounds, with the sound of forgiveness, of ourselves and others, with a sigh that lets go of an ancient grudge or an equally ancient grief. We can make it with a great loud shout of joy or with the sound of lips turned up in the very faintest smile.

To be makers of music – musician and instrument all at once – is not just our destiny, it is our freedom, for when we become conscious of this truth we gain the freedom to choose at least some of the music we will make. Robert Hunter, in one of his more brilliant moments of lyrical insight, wrote “You are the eyes of the world.” True enough, and its music, and the instrument upon which that music is played.

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