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Surround Sound

By Alec Shellinx

On a cloudy day in May, I sat silently for three hours, 17 minutes and 10 seconds in a room on the second floor of the Tate Modern in London. Just enough time to hear about 43.3 different variations of 4’33”, the seminal silent composition of the late American experimental composer John Cage. The title corresponds to the total length in minutes and seconds of the piece’s three soundless movements – 33”, 2’40” and 1’20”, respectively – when it was first performed in 1952.

I did not sit in just any room of the art gallery, but rather the one displaying Cage (1)-(6) by German visual artist Gerhard Richter. Six monumental abstract compositions painted in 2006, are on a long-term loan to the museum. Richter, the story goes, had not yet decided on a title for his series when Swiss art critic Hans Ulrich Olbrich visited his studio in 2007. Olbrich asked what music the artist had been listening to while painting, to which Richter replied: ‘Cage.’ The rest is history.

It is a fitting title, seeing as both men – though they never met – shared an affinity for randomness and indeterminacy. Cage explored new approaches to music composition using ancient Chinese divination practices from the Book of Changes and various other chance processes. Richter developed an idiosyncratic painting technique using large acrylic squeegees to smear oil paint randomly across the canvas. American art critic and curator Robert Storr once commented that the men both had ‘a willingness to let go of certain kinds of control in order that other things happen’.

One could perhaps go further in linking the artists by stressing that Richter’s abstraction is most attuned with Cage’s philosophy of silence. In the first of three lectures on ‘composition as a process’, the composer observed that when silence does not serve a purpose – when it is not used to distinguish elements, mark diverging relationships, or achieve some other musical objective – it becomes something else altogether. No longer the opposite of sound, silence becomes sounds – plural. That is, it becomes ambient, continuously changing and inherently unpredictable; it invites the listener to partake in an endless process of hearing. The visual equivalent to Cagean silence is not, then, a blank canvas, but rather the abstract, with its inexhaustible protean textuality. Richter’s abstraction echoes Cage’s use of silence in that it explores the creative potential of erasure – the power of silencing, or adding by subtraction. Each new layer of paint applied with the squeegee both erases the paint below it and creates something new in the process, as the wet colours merge in arbitrary ways. After the paint has settled and solidified, the complex patterns on the canvas accommodate infinite ways of looking; each interaction with the paintings brings something new for the eyes to see.

For three hours, 17 minutes and 10 seconds I thus contemplated the intricate layering of Richter’s abstract compositions. Through the silence, I listened to the symphony of ambient sounds. In the background, the deep and whistling noise of ventilation – a continuous breath, monotonous – echoed the dominant grey hues of the Cage paintings. Loud choirs of teenagers ebbed and flowed, their sneakers dragging over the museum floor, scraping its surface like the scratches and indentations texturing the upper layers of Cage (3). Their phones, firmly grasped in their hands, released a continuous flow of notification ‘pings’ and ‘pops’ like small bits of colour: lime green, red and blue. Passionate conversations in Mediterranean tongues overpowered the muffled sound of hesitation at which painting to photograph. I heard the sensual walk of a young man sporting cowboy boots coming from the other room. The proud clatter of his heels hitting the wooden floor in rhythmic tunes rose above the inarticulate creaking and squeaking of cheap leather shoes, which heightened the optical amplitude of the bright yellow marks of Cage (2) on which I had, by then, become fixated.

A pair of dilettante photographers – husband and wife – came to my attention. The ostentatious clicking of his reflex camera dominated the sound of her phone’s built-in device. I traced the duet back to a grey corner of Cage (2). On the canvas, two uneven scarlet dots stood next to one another – one large and mighty, the other petite and shy. Before long, the couple disappeared. In their stead, I overhear a myriad of voices: ‘I really like this one’; ‘I prefer that one, there.’ They are sharp and distinct, subduing the inarticulate whispers and fleeting footsteps. In this very moment, red, yellow and green patches popped out in front of my eyes from the middle of Cage (5). The voices passed, and the hushed rustling of synthetic fabrics came to dominate the soundscape.

That is, until a woman moved into the centre stage, lifting her trench coat towards a spotlight, inspecting it carefully, and then, without warning, slapping it twice: ‘SLAP! SLAP!’ Alarmed, I turned around to find the gritty textures of Cage (5) revealing the crimson layer that was once painted below. Her cleaning operation finished, the slapper left. Suddenly, a new melody arose: a pencil leaving its carbon imprint on a blank sheet of paper. A man sat next to me, incessantly drawing horizontal lines on his notepad, interrupted only by the flutter of a turning page. My ears rejoiced at the soothing sound produced by his exercise, while my eyes followed the wide, bottle-green stroke cutting through the upper part of Cage (1). Punctuating this melody, the ephemeral smack of a kiss: ‘MUAH!’

It was roughly 3.30pm when the gallery was at its fullest. The deformed voices blasting from walkie-talkies carried by passing museum guards set the tempo. A ballet of trolleys released a continuous stream of vociferous children into the room. Friends, couples and families engaged in lively discussions; various languages smeared together in a polyphonous ensemble. Groups of American girls giggled, while a Flemish boy performed a sarcastic monologue to his friends in a pompous tone about the ‘mysterious aura’ emanating from Cage (2). A young French man explained to his friend that Cage was a cheat: ‘Il triche!’ he said, and his companion concurred. I could not make out the rest of his argument over the ambient noise.

Movements in and out of the room continued at a furious pace. I heard sighs of relief as visitors took their seats around me, and, amidst the cacophony, a man nervously drummed his finger on the bench. A woman entered, out of breath, and sat behind me, her movement scored by the loud noise of water gulped from a plastic bottle. ‘Are you alright?’ asked the museum guard. The alarm rang repeatedly as fingers brushed too close to the canvases. The raucous clamour of the audience echoed in my mind as I tried to make sense of the baffling complexity of Cage (6), the loudest of the paintings. Before I knew it, as my eyes flitted back and forth over the canvas, the uproar had passed. It was just past five; the museum would close in less than an hour.

In an interview given a few years before his passing, Cage looked back at his four-and-a-half-minute composition as the single most important source of enjoyment in his life. Not a day went by that he did not use it both in his work and in his life. By then, the piece had become continuous, an ever-present part of his existence. Beyond the eloquent silence of Cage’s composition, I heard the familiar ringtone of my timer. My time at the museum was up: it was the moment for me to leave. But as I exited the room, I could still hear 4’33” playing in the distance and I knew that it always would.

ALEC SHELLINX reads for a DPhil in Information, Communication and the Social Sciences at the Oxford Internet Institute but does not use ‘IG’ and will not let you ‘slide into his DMs’. He prefers emails and handwritten correspondence.

Art by Cleo Scott


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