yesterday #4

On migraines, John Cage, and antiphony

C F Prior

Yesterday I woke straight into either a pro- or postdrome and spent the day doing nothing besides slope from room to room, bed to sofa to bath feeling ill and distant and recently heartbroken which I suppose, to a more abstracted degree than I’m accustomed to, I am.

Sometimes I choose to have these days and when I do I can revel in the inaction. I can enjoy the sound of a neighbour scraping moss from where the brick wall of his yard meets the paving slabs. I can imagine the shelves going up and what they might hold when I hear next door’s bank holiday DIY. Instead, I’m irritated by it all, want to banish sound from my world completely.

An anechoic chamber is a room that’s designed to be free from sound. Their walls are usually padded with fibreglass wedges that absorb the sound within and exclude the sound outwith. The first anechoic chambers were constructed for the US military in order to investigate sound in combat vehicles and to find ways of preventing auditory fatigue in pilots. They’re still used by the military, but today have civilian uses too. Amongst other things, they’re used in the fields of telecommunications, architectural acoustics, and entertainment. Think microphones, earplugs, antennae. 

In 1951, John Cage visited Leo Beranek and Harvey Sleeper’s anechoic chamber at Harvard. Cushioned within Beranek’s Box, Cage encountered not the soundless space he had anticipated, but two sounds whose source was the body. ‘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. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death’. While the sounds he heard were more likely to be his breath, his heartbeat, or tinnitus than the sound of a nervous system in action, the experience revealed to Cage that physiological, circulatory, metabolic, interpretive, and philosophic processes are all constitutive elements of sound. That, in short, for hearing people there is no such thing as silence.

The primacy of his experience in the anechoic chamber in the formation of his musical aesthetic has been, through telling and retelling (not least by Cage himself), much exaggerated. By the time he visited the chamber at Harvard, Cage had already spent much of the late 40’s employing extended periods of silence as significant structuring devices in his compositions. But it wasn’t until 1952 that the ‘silent’ composition 4’33” was realised. In that piece, the performer or performers sit in silence, never touching their fingers to the keys or their mouths to the lip plates of their instruments. By silencing the instruments, the composition invites listeners to attune to their surroundings: the restless audience’s subtle movements or murmurs, someone shifting their weight in a creaking chair, or the sound of a siren out on the street coming in through an open window—not, I’d imagine, all too dissimilar from the sound of a dreaded exam hall or a Quaker meeting for worship.

Like Cage, I’ve often sought out silence of both the solitary and shared variety. A few years ago I started attending Quaker meetings where worship is, for the most part, comprised of an hour of shared silence. And last year, in the midst of a catatonic depression that nothing I tried lifted, I collected a handful of deals at flotation tanks around London and forlornly floated my way through the summer in pitch dark pods half full of warm, salty water. What drew me to the tanks wasn't so much that I wanted to sift out, sanitise, or still the sound of urban life—though that is what the flotation tank marketing materials proposed and what most anyone I spoke to about it assumed—but that I wanted to find out what it was that was holding me under and figure out how to get out from beneath it. I thought then that the best way I could do it was on my own, to turn myself inwards. What better place to do that than from within a giant plastic embryo? Of course, that wasn’t true, like Hugh Grant in About a Boy, I eventually realised—for the one hundredth time—that no man is an island. I needed everyone I had.

Over the weekend, via someone on twitter, I encountered a project to record the complete Gregorian chant. Neumz is the result of a three year collaboration between the community of Benedictine nuns of the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Fidélité of Jouques and US musician John Anderson, whose aunt joined the order while he was at university. Because of current legislation preventing mass gathering, the order was unable this year to welcome their usual congregation during Holy Week. In lieu of their normal easter services, the nuns and Anderson released a week’s worth of chants, a fraction of the 7,000 hours the project has so far collected. In the recordings, interspersed with the unaccompanied voices are those familiar sounds: the creak of a bench, a nun clearing her throat, a prayer book accidentally jettisoned. Many of the released songs are examples of antiphony: chants performed by two groups singing alternate musical phrases. The phrases are often psalms, as in the case of the nuns at Jouques or Gaelic psalmody. But, antiphony can also take the form of sea shanties or work songs. Whatever the form their organisational method is dialogic—two sets of voices calling out to each other, signifying one another, responding in kind—like balance scales. They need each other. Responding to what he thought the project might offer, Anderson said ‘In these days of remote work and online social activity, we hope that listening to the chants of holy week can help bring people together, religious and non-, sharing in a sense of peace and enjoying their timeless beauty’. 

It is true that urban spaces are noisy and that, in these times of social distancing, more and more of us find ourselves furloughed, unemployed, or working remotely and so are adjusting to a different kind of shared sonic space. In the heat of the long weekend, like everyone on our estate and the block of flats opposite, we had our front door open. I could hear my young neighbour Raoul and his father communicating at the speed and volume of a jet plane taking off. Another neighbour, Tom, from the ground floor flat across the way was singing enthusiastically, loudly, and tunelessly a song that Klaus recognised from the 90s but I didn’t. Caroline, directly opposite played several hours of jazz. Klaus and I respond in kind, of course, lately Phoebe Bridges, Empress Of, Jorja Smith but on Easter Sunday a few hours of Neumz. Together, amidst the sound of helicopters en route to Kings and the sirens at street level, through our windows, our own antiphony on and of the estate.


Image: Interruption #1 by Klaus