Cage and Thoreau: chaos, nature and language



John Cage and Henry David Thoreau

Sometimes boredom can stimulate thought processes that eventually lead to profound insights. The American avant-garde composer John Cage’s most notorious  composition is a full orchestra “playing” 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence.  The audience for this piece is brought to the perception that “silence” is unattainable because in a silent concert hall our attention will be refocused on the ambient sounds we automatically filter out during a performance. In a wider sense he alerts us to the continuous unconscious process that essentially protects us from information overload that might make conscious thought impossible. Perhaps at a deeper level we sense that our perceptions are not a reflection of “reality” but a constructed truth that is formed from our own idiosyncratic fears and desires.

Experiencing  Cage’s sound installation Lecture on the Weather (1976) last December at Frith Street Gallery,  I was initially irritated by its banality but over a period of 50 minutes boredom was counteracted by a whirring of mental cogs  and eventually its (a?) meaning seemed to take shape.

On the sound track we get a contrast of Nature and  Civilisation: a cacophony of up to four speakers simultaneously reading extracts from the writings of the nineteenth century philosopher and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau and the recording of an approaching storm starting from gentle rainfall culminating in a shattering thunderstorm before subsiding. In a competition for which best exemplifies chaos most people would plump for Nature but Cage has bowled us a googly. His life long exploration of chance is expressed here in the random selection and overlaying of the Thoreau excerpts thus reducing its meaning to snatches of phrases that seem to float by on the wind. I felt that he was saying that we should accept that our much vaunted language ability is as much a part of nature as the weather. Natural forces have an inevitability about them that we try to contain with our thin veneer of human language and civilisation. That this is a futile  task is somehow comforting.


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