Thoughts on Listening, and on John Cage

By pcurchack on December 9, 2010

Thoughts on Listening, and John Cage

“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful is why do I think it’s not beautiful.  And very shortly you discover that there is no reason.”  (John Cage)


John Cage's "Experiments in Chance Operations"

Ever since I first came across John Cage’s notions of all sound being beautiful if you listened hard enough, I have wrestled with the question of what, in fact, music is, or isn’t, and what it means for a sound to be beautiful.  I suspect that all of us have notions of what is “music” or “musical” and what is “noise.”  Have you ever tried to listen totally actively to every single sound that is coming at you at one time?  While it takes a great deal of effort and concentration, it’s extremely interesting to “turn off” the filter that keeps us focused on the sounds we want to be hearing and exclude those that “interfere” with our focused listening.   With the filter off, one experiences actively — just as one does when actively listening to a live performance — an extremely wide range of sound, harmony, and rhythm that can help re-define our relationship to sound, and how we react to music.

In this season filled with music of all kinds — from the Salvation Army collector on the street with his or her bells, to carolers in your neighborhood, to stores with endlessly looping “holiday music” to spectacular performances of seasonally-appropriate classics — it’s fun to try listening a little differently, even for a short while.  By fully absorbing the enormous range of sounds we experience in our daily activity, we may ultimately broaden our notion of what “music” is.  And we can remember that once upon a time Beethoven’s compositional “noise” caused riots, Stravinsky was a heretic, and John Cage’s "4’33” changed the way we discuss music.