Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Sound of Silence

'If we had any sense in our heads,' composer John Cage asks in Dick Fontaine's 1967 documentary, 'wouldn't we know the truth, instead of going around looking for it?' The truth, according to this great little film, which pitches Rahsaan Roland Kirk's experimental jazz up against Cage's philosophical questioning to explore the nature of sound, is that we don't need to go looking for it at all. It's all around us. Music is just a part of a greater entity called sound. Or all sound is music if we listen right. You might not agree with everything Cage says but it can only be good to have someone questioning received wisdom so vigourously. It begins with Kirk coming over the horizon, people looking over their shoulders at this blind jazz man with his shades and sax walking through a London park in the mid-60s. We see Cage loitering in a children's playground, asking questions: 'Is it a sound? If so, is it music?Is music music?Is sound enough? What more do I need?' Kirk tells us 'sound is something like eyesight to me' before playing not one, not two, but three saxes at once, switching between them, harmonising with himself, then playing flute while images of London traffic flash by. 'Is the truck passing music?' Cage asks. 'Why is it so difficult for so many people to listen?'' We see Kirk using tape-manipulated musique concrète and primitive electronic sounds. It was Pierre Schaeffer who developed musique concrète in the early 1940s, emphasising the use of sound and the importance of play in creating music. Kirk throws whistles to his audience for 'a blues in the key of doubleya.' The resulting song is charmingly wonky, an infectious groove carrying the pleasingly ramshackle sound of whistling. He gives out more whistles to children in the park and they follow him like he's the pied piper. Then it's back to Cage on a slide, a rocking horse. 'Could we ever get to when we thought the ugly sounds were beautiful?' Kirk improvising with zoo animals, the wild yell of a wolf, using his flute to provoke a duet. Cage preparing a work for musical bicycle at the Saville Theatre. 'What is the purpose of this experimental music? No purposes. Sound!' Finally Cage listens to Kirk's music in an echo chamber, a cacophonous crescendo. It ends with this final credo: 'There is no such thing as silence' just 'thy nervous system in operation, thy blood in circulation.'

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