Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

noise and silence / cage and fascism

I’m sitting waiting for the bus on a busy avenue. I’m in my head, working on papers for school that are due next week—one in about 3 days or so. I’m not sure why I’m always so resistant to sit down and start writing, because once I do start digging in to research, it’s fascinating, energizing, and on a good day, creative as well. I think it’s the difficulty of capturing the perfect sentence – the thought that forms in your head and lingers, hovers there, only to disappear as you dig for the paper, as you pull out the pen, as other thoughts, like scrambling starlets looking for their own exposure, their own moments of fame, come crowding out at you as well, stampeding their way onto the page, destroying, crowding out, the jewel you were trying to keep your eye on.

It’s an 80 degree day and speeding along come several motorcycles with very loud engines. Loud enough that my ear is still ringing from one of them, shattering my silence, scaring away all hovering thoughts, the superstars and understudies alike. And I start to think, as I always do, about motorcycles as a masculine form of transportation, as the one vehicle still allowed to make that level of noise, as men needing to make noise in the world. And then I think of Italian Futurism, the early 20th century avant garde with its love of noise and machine. Of course Futurism was a fascist movement as well in Italy. Pro-war, pro-nation, and overtly, not hyperbolically, aligned with fascism. So that begs the question—is noise pollution, noise that crowds out all other sounds, noise that invades your very mind, inherently fascist?

And then it begs the question of John Cage and 4:33, his piece that is comprised of silence. Of course we’ve talked about it as musical and as challenging the notions of what is or isn’t music, of allowing the environment into musicality, of a framing device that causes you to pay attention to the other noises around you in the moment. But could 4:33 also be anti-fascist? Consider that when he performed the piece in Italy there was a riot at the concert hall. Of course it’s been said that this is due to Italy’s classical musical tradition, its golden ages of art and music (including a long operatic tradition), and the expectations of Italians coming to a music recital. But it’s also worth asking—what does it mean to perform not only a silent piece, a non-musical piece in a recital, but an anti-noise piece 20-25 year after World War II, after the defeat of Fascism which was supported by an artistic movement that was at once patriotic, seeking to create a new modern glorious era of Italian art, jettisoning the classical, ancient, dead traditions, dead intellectual and artistic weight, and which championed noise and the machine as part of that new tradition. Bruitism, the art of noise to elicit a reaction, was a “musical” theory among Futurism and Dada alike. Was 4:33ism then the art of non-noise, the art of silence, to elicit a reaction as well?

Cage has described his own experiments in attempting to work in a “noiseless” chamber, but what he discovered is that there is no such thing as a lack of noise, ever. There is no such thing as complete silence. Even alone in a “sound proof” room, there is still the beating of your own heart, the blood inside your own eardrums. As long as there is life in a body, there is noise to be perceived.

Cage was initially performing this piece decades before this current zenith of our oversaturated, over mediatized, overly noisy world. But as Guy Debord anticipated the excessive mediatization of this world, as Andy Warhol foresaw the realization of our most narcissistic dreams, could Cage perhaps have also in some small way been reading the impending explosion of noisism of our culture (noisism also being a movement or tendency of its own) and proposing a “music” that would bring us back to ourselves, to the sound of our own heartbeats, the blood in our own ears, the silence that drowns out fascism.


Lyle Daggett said...

Silence, as such, does not drown out fascism. Silence is frequently an intended outcome of fascism. The noise of CNN and Fox "News," and the enforced silence (or suppressed sound) of voices of dissent, are both manifestations of fascism. (Or, anyway, of attempts or efforts toward fascism. I'm not suggesting that any of the above exists, or doesn't, only in absolute form.)

I haven't listened enough to John Cage (I can't specifically recall listening to anything of his) to have an opinion of his work as a whole. His experiment of "creating" or performing a piece made of several minutes of silence (which I've never listened to but am familiar with by reputation) strikes me as similar to other minimalist and rationalist avant-garde experiments of that type. I seem to recall (vaguely), for example, hearing about an artist who hung a blank canvas as part of an art exhibit. Such works are, it seems to me, intended mainly to provoke whatever discussion that follows; it's hard to imagine that a blank canvas or several minutes of silence were conceived by the artists for any intrinsic aesthetic qualities of the pieces.

I could easily imagine (and it may very well have been done by someone) having an art exhibit -- especially of "found" art or something of that kind -- that includes an area of blank wall space in the gallery, with a small sign identifying it as "Nothing, # 4" or some other conceptual title.

Personally I don't spend a lot of time with conceptual work of that kind (I'm not insisting on the label "conceptual," though it seems like one likely way of describing it, as I understand the term these days), because I've found that although such work can occasionally provoke interesting questions and discussion, the majority of the time the questions and discussion don't lead very far.

Fluffy Singler said...

Yes, but there's a big difference between "silencing" someone and creating spaces of silence, exploring a purposeful silence, which is the kind of silence I am talking about here as an alternative to Fascism, and specifically, to Futurism, which was a pro-fascist art of noise in love with the sounds of the machine.

Back to my paper on melodrama. Almost done.

Lyle Daggett said...

Even if the silence is created (rather than enforced), it's not necessarily an alternative to fascism. Created silence -- silence by choice -- can in fact be simply another manifestation of fascism, or a capitulation to it.

Consider the phenomenon of people who knew (or probably knew, or strongly suspected) the terrible truth of the holocaust, and who were in a position to speak up, but chose not to.

Again I'm not talking here specifically about John Cage, but about the notion of silence as necessarily an alternative to fascism.

All art exists in the context of other human activity. The collective accumulation of human activity, of human beings in interaction with each other through time, is history. In the context of the actual history that has transpired on the earth, choosing to be silent -- or "creating" silence, if you like -- has more often than not served as an act of complicity (at least passive complicity) with fascism.

I can't necessarily argue with your point about Futurism (if we're talking about Italian Futurism. (Russian Futurism, though initially borrowing elements from Italian Futurist art, soon set out on a more progressive ideological path, and was a precursor of the great revolutionary Constructivist movement in art and photography and architecture and writing.)

Futurism, as it was originally conceived, seems to me to have much in common with "Language" poetry of the late 20th century and some of its literary relatives. I'm certainly prepared describe "Language" poetry and its ilk as fascist or complicit with fascism. In any given political or historical context, the similarities between silence and gibberish are more significant than the differences.

Deliberate shattering and abandonment of functional syntax; the willed vacating of any semantic meaning from words, so that words become mere objects interchangeable with one another; poetry as a kind of hall-of-mirrors mind game in which the notion of meaning or communication looks continuously back on itself, without conclusion, so that the provisional and temporary become the predominant modes of thought: a speech by Ronald Reagan or George Bush -- or an average randomly chosen corporate memo, or a randomly chosen page of data printed from a computer screen -- almost *is* a "Language" poem.