Brain Pickings

A Lesson in Listening from John Cage

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A simple and beautiful reminder that we only hear what we listen to.

“Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around,” the legendary avant-garde composer, artist, and Zen Buddhist scholar John Cage once remarked. But even though life began with a Big Bang that was actually silent, our civilization has evolved away from silence, rendering true listening an art reserved for the eccentric few. Still: “How lovely this world is, really: one simply has to look,” Joyce Carol Oates wrote in her diary. Or listen.

In “At the Microphone,” one of the shortest and most wonderful essays in the altogether fantastic collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (public library) — which also gave us the celebrated author on what to say when people ask you why you write or make art — Tillman describes a 1975 conference called “Schizo-Culture” held at Columbia University for an audience of 300 or so grad students, where a roster of “magnetic and illustrious” speakers discussed such subjects as the structure of the unconscious. Among them was John Cage — perhaps humanity’s greatest champion of the beauty and transcendence of silence as medium of art and life. Tillman captures the essence of his character and credo in a short fable-like anecdote with exquisite, subject-appropriate economy of words:

All day, men — no women — took the microphone and spoke. There was always a buzz in the audience, whispers, an audible hum of excitement. Then it was time for John Cage. He walked onto the stage and began to speak, without the microphone. He stood at the center of the small stage and addressed the crowd. He talked, without amplification, and soon people in the audience shouted, “We can’t hear you, use the mic. We can’t hear you.” John Cage said, “You can, if you listen.” Everyone settled down, there was no more buzz, hum or rustling, there was silence, and John Cage spoke again, without the microphone, and everyone listened and heard perfectly.

In 1962, in Japan for the first time, Cage visits his Zen Buddhist master, D.T. Suzuki, who had shown him the heart of silence.

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust

What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, which goes on to explore everything from Kafka to Gertrude Stein to the poetics of downtown, is a dimensional and pause-giving read in its entirety. Complement this particular meditation with Kay Larsen’s breathtaking Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists.

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