March 22, 2009

Nothing (but) silence (?)

Some months ago I published a short note about that annoying buzz in the internal ear called tinnitus. Tinnitus is the ability to listen the very mechanism of the ear, which otherwise we couldn't perceive. In other words, it is the noise of a sick ear which is a silence in a healthy ear. I remembered there also about the necessity of learning to "listen to the silence".

This week just came back from Paris, and I went to the Centre Pompidou to attend a lecture. In the Pompidou one can visit, till tomorrow, a retrospective about "Vides" (in plural!), about nothing but void. Void has been a topic in the last 150 years of art, they tell us. The first exhibition (La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l'état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée) was, of course, by Yves Klein. He also published in 1949 his "Monotone-Silence Symphony", which could be accompanied by women painting their bodies with yves-blue color. It is an orchestral 40-minute piece whose second and last movement is a 20-minute silence, the first movement being an unvarying 20-minute drone.

There is another impressive composition, this time by American composer John Cage, called 4'33''. Musicians play nothing and the public will be much more aware of the surrounding noises. There are two versions about the origin of the composition, and here I will just recollect one of them:

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. They are also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, "I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation."

There has been some skepticism about the accuracy of the engineer's explanation, especially as to being able to hear one's own nervous system. A mild case of tinnitus might cause one to hear a small, high-pitched sound. It has been asserted by acoustic scientists that, after a long time in such a quiet environment, air molecules can be heard bumping into one's eardrums in an elusive hiss (0 dB, or 20 micropascals). Whatever the truth of these explanations, Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music." The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.

The fact that matters here is that, of course, everything is well done and well thought: there is a paradoxical catalogue with 500-pages and 300 illustrations which costs almost 40€.

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