John Cage explores the aesthetics of silence and sound. Silence is the touchstone of his writing and the meaning frame is intimately connected I believe with his connection and study of the Zen form of Buddhism. From his writings and his performance I suggest we encounter paradox which blows away literalism and the attempt at exact definition. This coheres with my own lived experience of meditation where an experience of sound becomes separated from the habit of clothing that sound, or sensory experience with a naming, a patterning, a framing. The sound is there and noted as such but since in this meditation there is no consciousness of past and future, just the ticking over of moments as sound or lack of sound is transcended. Of course deeply practiced meditators could not stay on track given a blast of extreme noise but there might for a brief time be a cushioning affect.
It is recorded (no metaphor intended) that John Cage spent time in Harvard University's anechoic chamber and discovered that absolute silence is impossible since in the absence of external sound we hear the noise generated by our own body, the beat of the heart, the sound of the nervous system is picked up by our ears. A meditator also notes these experiences and its surely an invitation to care and appreciate the body. At least, that's my experience of meditation. Lets come back to John Cage and my suggestion that this is a zen type of statement. Human beings after all exist within a 'window' of sound. Some frequencies are beyond our hearing and after a certain decibel rate our auditory system becomes damaged. High rates of noise disrupt our bodies and cause disease. Enough noise directed at us and our hearts would stop. As so many writers have commented its not just our mental and spiritual health that suffers from levels of continual noise but our bodies suffer too. As a philosopher of silence I note how silence, noise and power are linked and often lead to violence.
Back to Cage again and his observation that silence is not possible. Well to take a metaphysical and platonic viewpoint the One, the Centre, the God is truly the origin of silence and in that One beyond all definition is the true presence of absolute silence from which the redemptive Word calls human beings not only to discover that sound has the possibility of beauty in speech, music and many sounds in nature but the very pattern of harmony as Pythagoras discovered is built into the universe and is discovered by us. Cage is setting up a paradox through which we may converse and discuss the context and the meaning of silence and sound.
Cage's work 4"33 begins with the pianist coming to the piano but no music is played. The musician remains at the instrument while all may listen to whatever sound scape happens to be present. The work is a window but also like all art a demonstration and an exploration, an invitation to reflexivity about performance, our subjective experience and our expectations about expectations. It seems like the kind of subversive koan shared by a zen master. Zen monasteries after all are 'emptiness' surrounded by ritual, by art and by performance and speech, a series of paradoxes.
Whatever the intention of Cage, for me, having never witnessed his art, silence is neither possible nor impossible, its a subjective lived experience as well as a measurable level of presence or absence of sound. Yet behind it the metaphysical objectification of silence and sound takes the discussion deeply into the realm of philosophy, religion, spirituality and of course all forms of artistic expression.