Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Philosophical Approach to Silence

I wrote the following text as a public note in my concert program of my compositions at Kid Ailack Hall in Tokyo the other day. I did not add any modifications since then. I wrote the note rather in a hurry, so there might be some parts that are difficult to understand or were not quite written with the right words. As for these issues, I would like to write more to explain better in the future.

In general, I probably prefer to raise an issue rather than trying to find the answer to the solution. I am not a kind of person who likes to deepen a thought based on some particular idea or system. If you read my note, you may have an impression that I simply arranged casual thoughts that I hit on. That is understandable. To be honest, I would like to leave in-depth discussions to other people.

- Taku Sugimoto (November 11, 2005)


About Philosophy of Silence

I often hear people saying that my music that is full of intervals and gaps of silence must be just an adaptation of John Cage's works. If I composed my works with more normal musical notes instead of so much silence (that is exactly the thing most composers are doing - rehashing of predecessors' old ideas), then people may not say that. Since there is a rest in a series of musical notes, some people may say that I could simply use the rests instead of silence. But that is a different issue. If there is a long series of hundreds or thousands of rests without musical notes, the part will be considered as a silence in most cases. And if the silence part lasts for hundreds or thousands of measures, the part will be torn off from the structure of music consequently, and the listeners' ears could be shifted to focus on the environmental sounds naturally. But this is just the natural sequence of events, and was not what John Cage had in his mind.

Then, what was silence to Cage? To put it simply, I guess it was 'unintentional sound'. Then, what is unintentional sound? This question seems to be quite contemporary, because I think that the current situation in the music tends to involve sounds that are hard to tell whether they're intentional or unintentional just from listening to the sound itself. 

As Radu Malfatti also mentioned before, the idea of 'Silence = Unintentional Sound' had existed even before Cage started to give meaning to it, and the idea still exists now. However, the concept of 'silence' that had already existed before Cage clearly started to change in a particular field of music. How it has changed is the very interesting issue concerning the contemporary sense of 'silence' that we are facing now.

From the present point of view, if a performer does not play his/her instrument for a certain duration in a certain situation, that can be considered to be his/her intention to let the listeners start to listen to the environmental sounds (or to make the situation where environmental sounds can be heard naturally). If the performer plays 4'33" and the audience knows the concept of the piece, there will be a consensual situation where people listen to unintentional sounds in silence. But in this situation, the 'unintentional sounds' are actually intended by incorporating the silent space into the music intentionally.

Spaces are controlled by performers to some extent. Otherwise, (it may sound odd but) the piece will not come into existence. In fact, when a performer is going to play this kind of music, he/she has to consider the environmental sounds and the noises from the audience (today's definition of 'silence' must be this) as predictable factors to some extent. Normally, silent music is performed in this way on the premise I mentioned above. The situation might not be perfectly controlled, but genuine 'unintentional sound' does not exist in this situation either. How about in a different situation? Would it be possible to play 4'33" on a stage where musicians are playing some other music? If a musician plays 4'33" in the middle of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra playing Beethoven, I guess that the part might be still considered nothing but a part of Beethoven's piece even if the musician insists that it was 4'33". However, this resembles in the above-mentioned case, in the sense that the originally so-called 'unintentional sound' was already included within a predictable range of events to some extent. That is, there are so many ways to play Beethoven, and these different ways are all considered to be within a predictable range. Conversely, to play 4'33" in the middle of Beethoven can be considered to be the similar event as the environmental sounds in a point where the event was not controlled with100% confidence. This consequence would also be inevitable when a performer is playing sounds using an instrument. It is just a matter of degree. Whether it is the sound of Beethoven's piece, or the environmental sounds, or the sound of an instrument, there is no big difference in the point that the performer has a rough sketch (plan) in mind in advance. (If so, isn't it possible to consider that Beethoven's music has the silence - although we will face an obstacle in this idea to overcome.) And will the unintentional listening become possible if we get rid of the sketch/plan from our minds?

When we are listening to a particular piece, the only thing that could determine whether it is 4'33", or Beethoven's music, or some simple daily life sounds is the title of the music. However, I doubt that it was just due to an ideological difference. If the concept of 'unintentional listening' can only function relatively, and if the concept is related to all the complicated processes of recognition, everything can be regarded as a silence, and vice versa.

Well, after writing the preface like this, I would like to add my tentative conclusion below. After that, I will just continue to write with vigor.

First of all, as long as any kind of sound could be intentional or unintentional, it will differ depending on the context whether it should be regarded as a silence or not. I think that the sound itself does not contain the information to be judged (if it is regarded as a silence or not) any more.

Next, there is another issue: "Is it really necessary for us to analyze whether a particular sound could be a silence or not when listening to music or thinking about music?" I would like to express my standpoint on this question as clear as I can.

There is of course a legitimate opinion that whether the sound should be regarded as a silence or not, and whether it is intentional or unintentional, are not big issues. The only thing that would matter is 'sound' when we appreciate music, and how it should be recognized is not important. Well, that might be true. It is hard to argue with it, but as my simple question, is it really possible for a listener to 'just listen to the sound as a simple sound'? If that is possible, that means this way of listening is exactly the unintentional relation to the sound in a true sense. If so, every sound could be regarded as something not worth bothering about (or a trivial matter). Can music exist if this is the case? Music has been developed as a complex relationship of sounds and something besides sounds. That is how music should be. It is clearly a different issue whether a sound can exist just as a sound or not, and whether we can recognize it as a sound or not.

I doubt if we could simply say that one particular sound is more significant than other sounds. Is an E note more special than a D note? Is the start-up sound of a computer more interesting than the sound of rain? If it were possible for us to hear sound in such a simple manner, any of these sounds would not be more than any other sound. When we listen to a series of sounds, aren't we evaluating the information each sound delivers in relation with other elements? I think that every sound - like an E note, the start-up sound of a computer or the sound of rain - obtains a nature as a unique sound by its relations with each other. The identity of the sound must be formed on the basis of the common understanding of the sound to some extent. 

If we define a particular sound that has a particular pitch as the sound that contains a corresponding frequency, we can mathematically prove the fact that (for example) a C note can be in harmony with an E note and a G note by comparing the frequencies of the three. This data can be trusted in regard to the consonance of sounds, but when perceiving consonance phenomena as sensuous impressions, can this sensuous value be absolute? Conceivably, the fact that the notes C, E and G are consonant with each other could be an incidental event. There might have been a chance that these three notes would not be regarded as the consonant sounds or a chord or the sounds with pitches. There might also have been a possible chance that some completely different set of notes - whatever it was - became the consonant sounds, which could have been proved to be consonant mathematically by means of some different method (or could be the same method in a narrow sense) of reading the frequencies. If that had happened, the music would be a completely different form as it is now. Perhaps within the possibilities, some new form of expression that is not regarded as music today could be included, and it might not be impossible to perform a stunt to aggressively insist that this is music. But in order to justify this statement, we need a common concept on what can be defined as music as an initial  premise. In fact, the notes C, E and G are considered to be consonant sounds in the premise we share today, and the other sets of notes that have no relation with each other do not gain important positions in today's world of consonant sounds. That is because any thought experiment regarding music has to be carried out using the foundation of the present situation of music. On the other hand, the aggressive statement, to insist that some form of expression can be regarded as music even when it seems far away from the conventional form of music, naturally derives from the current situation surrounding the music. It should be possible enough to recognize a particular sound as something different from how it was identified in the past.   

However, if some particular sound - whatever it is, like the start-up sound of a computer or the sound of rain, anything can be substituted for that - can be perceived as something different from how it used to be identified, what does that mean? If a particular sound can be something else while holding its original identity, we could simply give a new name to it. For example, we could say, 'The sound of rain is the C note'. This is not so absurd.

I am fascinated with the idea that the context of a sound can be displaceable with different contexts, while the sound keeps its original identity. It is not quite the same meaning as the diversity of interpretation, as it's often referred to.

I will give a specific example, my album 'Live in Australia'. This is supposed to be my music recorded at my concert. The reason why this album is considered to be so is because I claimed so, and a certain system accepted that. But in a different context, it can be perceived as something else while holding the same contents of the sounds. For example, this concert was recorded by an Australian musician, Matthew Earle, so this album could be regarded as his field recording work that he has recorded in a certain situation. For him, my concert could have possibly been a performed 'silence' in my concert situation, and he could have possibly released the recording of the silence under the title of 4'33". Or it might have also been possible that some composer gave him a score on which the composer's direction was written as "Record a certain situation". Or there might have been a musician (or it could have been me) who plays a CD at his concert, and this was a record of him playing the full-length version of my album 'Live in Australia'. These examples show that it would be almost impossible for the listener to judge whose music it is - or what it is - from simply listening to the sounds whatever the music is.

Furthermore, the issue whether some recorded material has strictly held to the original sounds or not should depend on the context. For example, the claim that the sound quality of a MP3 file is bad should be made on the presupposition that it is reproduced sound of a recording. But if the same MP3 file was played as a part of some musician's performance, it is not right to criticize the bad sound quality of the MP3 file (which contains the same content as the previous case) recorded at the live concert. In these cases, both MP3 files have exactly the same sound quality. When people hear some sound and judge that it has poor sound quality, the judgment must only derive from the listener's experience of listening to the same music with a different context in a superior condition surrounding the music.

Some music is closely connected to a certain context. The reason why Beethoven's pieces sound like Beethoven, or the environmental noises sound like nothing but environmental noises, may be related to this fact. This makes it possible for us to appreciate music naturally. We can say the same thing as to silence. But isn't it too easy for us to regard contemporary silence as the currently generalized idea of  silence? Isn't it too simple to determine that 'silence' is equal to 'unintentional sounds'? Perhaps the silence in Cage's time might have been unintentional, but in this present time, I think that the silence can be also regarded as something intentional. More likely, the silence has been used easily with some intention these days. 

To go back to the initial subject, I would like to think about silence and the musical rest in sheet music. When we listen to music in a normal situation, we do not regard the rest as silence when the rest appears in a certain pattern between the notes. For example, when quarter notes and quarter rests alternate in the music, or when a whole note rest is repeated for a rather long time, these rests will be recognized as a part of a certain pattern. In both cases, or in most conventional music, the rests are necessary materials in the structure of the music. But when we feel we are experiencing a certain pattern in the music, the experience is restricted within a range in which the notes and the rests are associated with each other in certain patterns. Logically, the length of a quarter note can be one second or even one hour, so we could claim and understand the music has a certain pattern, even in an extreme situation where a one-hour rest follows a one-hour continuous note. However, is the silence during the one-hour rest always the same? Of course, nothing is different in an audio point of view. But when a certain context is predominant, if we replace it with some other context, there will be some change in our recognition. This change of our recognition must influence at least somewhat how we listen to the music.

What if a long rest part is actually not a rest? If a long continuous note is supposed to be a rest (for example, if the continuous noises are coming from the refrigerator in the room), and if a long rest that is regarded as a rest with no sound is filled with almost inaudible sounds that a musician plays in a certain musical rhythm (in this case, if the sounds are almost inaudible, it would not matter if the musician is playing some sounds or not), our listening attitudes will be different. Whether we listen to the rest or the silence assuming that it is the rest or the silence will definitely change our mental attitude toward the music. It will differ depending on whether it is a rest or silence. With this theory, there might be a chance that the sound will stop being the same or stop holding its identity (this may be in contradiction with what I wrote before, but if the identity of the sound itself is formed on our recognition, it would be possible.)

The various issues I raised here may show that the concept of silence needs to be revised (reconsidered) in this contemporary time. In the shadow of the long path since Cage, there have been countless trials and experiments and debates, all of which led us to new findings and new possibilities in the history of music. For this reason, it is necessary to practice some actual music in which one-hour notes alternate with one-hour rests with various viewpoints. After this point, a new issue will emerge naturally. This does not mean that there should not be an old concept of the silence. There will still be the situation where the usual operations of the most notes (or directly dealing with some sounds) including the rests are sufficient enough to compose music. Of course there will be unusual attempts to make music from now on, too. But beyond that, I think it is now about time to bring a reinvention to our ways of recognition. This reinvention will come from the issue of how to face the silence in this contemporary time. It is a result from Cage's idea of silence, which has developed more intricately than his original contemplation - which should be a blessing to us.

(Translation by Yuko Zama, July 2015)

(originally posted on the Improvised Music from Japan site in Japanese in December 2005:

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