To Stave Off Silence

By Brandon Kennedy

Writer Brandon Kennedy winds through a landscape of fractured silence in scores by John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, and Dick Higgins. 

You could feel the stuttering, semi-halt slowly rolling across the surface of our now somewhat realigned planet. The unknown, the uncertainty, the slow quiet expanse that pushed doggedly through the lines of standard operation, bringing every thought-to-be-comforting sound to an end amid the ponderously looming question of “when can it all begin again?” Not anew—mind you—but just begin, again ...

When in doubt, I found myself walking, thinking, listening. More of the same, mostly alone, sometimes on nearby sidewalks, though more and more frequently seeking solace in nature—in civic pockets or just beyond—pondering its rhythms and finding a constant, readymade answer in my breath, footsteps, and surroundings.

I thought about sound within the expanse of the experience of amorphous “pandemic time” while pondering exactly what the score for John Cage’s ambient masterpiece 4’33” looked like for the musician(s) not playing it. How did an attempt at not exactly silence play out on paper? Was there conventional notation or a lack thereof? An instructional sentence or an opening directive? Well, it seems, varied: yes and no/perhaps, and that depends.

On August 29, 1952, musician David Tudor performed 4’33” for the first time in Woodstock, New York. Tudor sat down at the piano and preceded to perform the composition by opening the keyboard lid to mark the beginning of the first movement—of which there were three in total. Fittingly, the keyboard lid was also closed at the end of each movement, marking time, and relegating the ambient sound from the audience (and the environments and noises just beyond) as the performative elements of the work as a whole. A composition enclosed within the mirrored gestures of preparing an instrument to be played, then closing it again upon completion. Audience members stirred at the notion of measured chance as composition while they were—some perhaps unwilling—participants in this initial, simple but grand gesture.

As the original notational score was lost (by some accounts even before the initial performance), the exact components of Cage’s conventional scoring are not known. However, a year later, the composer decided to make a graphical score of the work, using vertical lines to demarcate the passage of time, i.e., “1 page = 7 inches = 56 seconds.” These thin, ink lines drift upward on the folded onionskin paper replicating the passage of movements of time initiated by Tudor a year earlier, yet they also visually mimic the seams between the white monochromes of Rauschenberg (a noted influence on the work). The line ends when the desired length of time is reached and is capped with a numerical clarifier of the elapsed moment. 30”; 2’23”; 1’40”.

On the cover of the folded composition—which also serves as the title page—Cage directs: “FOR ANY INST[R]UMENTS OR COMBINATION OF INSTRUMENTS.” (A tongue-in-cheek rejoinder from the sly wizard of chance.) Nevertheless, 4’33” is not held steadfast to its titular time-elapsed directive either; the work can be performed with movements of any particular length (or none), allowing for an expanded idea of what the title of the composition holds, as it may not even contain the exact amount of time that has just passed during its performance.

From what I currently understand, there are at least three definitive versions and yet another that exists as a variation of the reproduced typed version with annotations below in Cage’s Zen architect’s CAPS. In it, he recalls the second performance and its particulars while the typed text block above recalled the same of the first. Three movements demarcated above by I, II and III with a (line break) / TACET / (line break) following each roman numeral. “Tacet” simply means “in silence” and can either be an adverb or adjective, directive, or qualifier. This score can be readily purchased today, if so desired or even needed.

In a New York bookstore where I was employed almost two decades ago, I coveted a bound item of graphical notation before knowing what it even was, or what it is “exactly” (or even could be): TREATISE by Cornelius Cardew, published in an oblong folio format with a white comb plastic spine and glossy printed cardstock covers. It had 193 pages, no instrumentation or directions for performance, just the bibliographical info, “… The Gallery Upstairs Press, Buffalo, New York, 1967. …”

Cardew—trained formally as a draftsman and graphic designer—worked on the meticulous, complex construction from 1963 to 1967, presenting the score as an evolving, left-to-right progression of shapes, symbols, numbers, and linear elements.

brandon kennedy photos of the sky, trees, and cardew's notational books

The key rules of the composition’s design are laid out plainly on the score’s cover, allocating a bold horizontal line at center (separating title and composer) and two staves at bottom with a margin below (between which is the publisher’s info). These two components ground the notation, as the midline is the point from which all “action” evolves, and the two blank staves below propel the score along, pushing the traditional containers of notation as timekeepers, the only constant in a forthcoming sea of interpretation and improvisation.

As the cover design lines bleed into the beginnings of Cardew’s actual score, inexplicable numbers and figures sometimes arrive just above, and circles cluster off the center line, with all matter of swoops, slides and pockets, enclosing opportunities for the interpreting musicians to carve out their responses and establish motifs to be picked up or riffed upon further downfield.

Aside from the performers’ interpretation, the question here is time. Does the entire ensemble move along at the same pace from page to page? If so, how? (Absence of a conductor seems to be an unwritten—yet mostly adhered to—rule.)

Quite often, the score is displayed sewn together as a moving image—page-edge to page-edge—forming a graphic video scroll that rolls out as a projected score for both the musicians and viewer to keep time, interpretation, and visual relativity consistent. No tempo markings are given, but the consensus seems to land at an andante, “a moderately, slow pace,” walking slowly enough to have a conversation perhaps.

As the score animates and expands, it can be read as a utopian landscape revealing a poignant, visual lyricism and a curious, inner logic that sometimes recalls the playfulness of a Paul Klee drawing or a blackboard equation being rendered in real time by Saul Steinberg. Visual graphical motifs expand and contract as the composition evolves, allowing for translation and reintroduction as the musicians have opportunities to build and expand upon an aural vocabulary befitting Cardew’s wondrous narrative of lines and shapes.

At the close of a recent sojourn westward, I dropped into a bookstore on the way to the airport. After I had handled a good half dozen of collectible volumes, asking for items tucked behind the counter or inquiring about pricing, I saw a page of the grail of Fluxus scores above my head and to the left. Just above the bookcases, slightly beyond my gaze, a reflection of several bullet holes puncturing a large, printed sheet of musical staves for full orchestra reckoned quietly with the violence of such a gesture secured behind glass.

A cornerstone of performative documentation, Dick Higgins’s politically potent, yet still somewhat irreverent The Thousand Symphonies (1968) is a work emanating from the violence and consternation in the heady days of the Vietnam War and social upheaval and unrest of the era.

Handwritten across the top, “1 - Allegro Vivace / Symphony No. 464 462 / by Dick Higgins / Page 1/4,” the folio page ran from piccolo at top to contrabass at bottom and included a vocal component—solos and chorus—tucked in just before the strings rounded down. Nevertheless, the blank composing page had been riddled with entrance wounds, about two dozen, somewhat randomly distributed by the discharge of a police captain’s 9 mm submachine gun in a college town on the East Coast.

Higgins was invited to participate in Gun Show at Douglass College in 1968 by curator John Goodyear, and decided to participate by activating one of his earlier—and most ambitious—works from his Danger Music Fluxus performance directives, No. 12, “Write a Thousand Symphonies” (March 1962). Gathering up a sizable quantity of blank orchestral scores, Higgins enlisted the expertise of Captain Toby of the South Brunswick police force to effectively score the work, as he “decided it could be more worthy if one could set all the policemen in the USA to composing symphonies …” as it seemed they “… have nothing better to do than to chase down teenagers and for possessing miniscule amounts of marijuana and throwing them in jail, thus ruining their lives.”

This was a violent act, with repercussions felt at every level of conception, actualization, interpretation, listening (one would imagine) and the documents themselves, as they rest on the stands of the orchestral members, and even on the walls of museums (and bookstores) today. A conductor hands out the scores to the appointed musicians as they deem appropriate and necessary to the given performance. Higgins’s instructions dictate that the performers play in typical fashion—left to right—and can “repeat any fragment, any rip of paper crossing their parts indicates the shape of the musical event as well as they may play. The lack of a rip means that they are silent during the movement.” Not only do these gunned-down orchestral scores bear the marks of their making, but occasionally spray paint spreads shadows through the holes, or mud from the shooting range scores a palimpsestic echo of the wrought destruction.

The ways in which we mark time: to make peace with the spaceless chaos of random noise, or to improvise ambient sounds led by the ledger of the line. An extension of the point to another, itself a marker of place. Now extended—length—by means vertical or baseline, allowing for the reception of near silence enclosed within the timed envelope of chance; an interpretation of a graphical model provided by the composer; or even yet, the body of the composition itself riddled with holes of lethal intent, to be interpreted by eyes echoing the voids in the notational structure itself, opening the wounds again through performative interpretation and giving them the recall of loss in real time.

We begin as we end, by being open to the act of listening itself. Allowing for a variety of interpretations, we choose what to hear and identify as part of a greater whole. How we interpret another’s set of directives or visual cues presents an opportunity to further the definition of exactly what the composition can encapsulate within its score, its performance, and the concept of silence itself.

It rests between us, and the concepts rendered by Cage, Cardew and Higgins in their compositions wrestling with the notion of interrupting silence with a certain quality of line. A proposition that propels this listener to begin an amble anew, ears open and a mind full of possibilities as to what the future could hold—and sound like—that is, if we’re truly open to listening to it. 

Brandon Kennedy is an occasional artist, book scout/collector, freelance curator, and writer currently based in Dallas. For several years, Kennedy was the director of exhibitor relations at the Dallas Art Fair. He regularly covers North Texas artists for Patron magazine and occasionally contributes to Fine Books & Collections magazine.

All images courtesy of the author. 

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