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John Cage composing Beethoven silence
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silenceAll my life I have been searching for something that is rapidly becoming a scarce item: silence. You could say this yearning is job-related. A composer is constantly engaging with sound as he practices his profession, therefore he longs for an absence of noise when he is not working.

In any case, composers are extremely aware of sound, and coming into contact with John Cage heightens your sense of sound even further. Cage forces you to listen very intensively, not least to sounds that are normally irrelevant to music. As a result your ears become, if possible, even more sensitive. I now feel that the world is one big infernal din and I want it to be quiet.

Of course, quality is an issue. These day some kids walk around using their mobile phones as mini-ghetto blasters. The sound they produce is so tinny you can hardly hear what it is supposed to be. Apparently, they are not that worried about sound quality. It is more like a demarcation line, putting two fingers up at someone without actually doing so. I recently visited the Iguaçú Falls in Brazil. The thunderous noise of falling water is deafening — under extreme conditions, about 12 million litres per second cascade downwards — and you can no longer hear yourself talking. Nevertheless, it does not really sound like a racket, probably because the sound is so natural.

No, silence is not central to my music. And in contrast with what is sometimes being said about Morton Feldman’s work, his music cannot be considered silent either. Not until the last note that is. Why is soft music so often put on a par with silence? My former teacher Brian Ferneyhough once discussed two different types of silence. The first as in, for example, Trans by Stockhausen, before the loom sets everything in motion again with brute force. I asked him, what is the other type of silence? Ferneyhough replied that this was the Richard Strauss type of silence. In the final scene of Salome there is an enormous orchestral eruption. Subsequently (mark 354, bar 8) the strings play a soft tremolo that lingers on for minutes in combination with tremolos in flute and clarinet. I would not call that ‘silence’, would you?

As to the intention of some composers to give voice to silence, it could be said that this is true of my microtonal Stanza. And of acqua alta, although I believe that piece is more about ‘waiting’. One the other hand, waiting is associated with silence. One of my lesser vices is that I enjoy waiting. This is something that Cage taught me, to accept things as they are. Something will happen eventually. Or perhaps not. That’s fine, too. As long as it occurs in silence. Ha ha ha!