Hearing John Cage

I was listening to John Cage’s string quartets as performed by The Arditti Quartet on Mode records.  The configuration of my stereo is such that I can not see the CD player or its display while I am listening. As a result, in pieces with protracted silences, I can not, at first listening, be certain when a particular record has ended. I have no visual clues.

The house was quiet. I had not heard a violin for a while. Some of John Cage’s music contains long pauses and it can also be remarkably quiet. Gradually, I became aware of the sounds of my house: The low hum of the refrigerator, the fluorescent kitchen light and then, listening outward, the sounds from Highway 36  and, finally very faintly, the ocean beyond. It occurs to me  these sounds flowed from the music, and  this expanded awareness of sound  was what John Cage intended.


Here is one of Kafka’s favorite parables. It is also one of mine. I don’t have Kafka’s version in front of me, but it goes something like this:

A group is sitting together in an inn. They are all friends, except for a beggar who is a stranger. The three friends describe what they would be if they each were given the chance to live another life. The first friend wishes for money, the second for a new tool bench, and the third for a better son-in-law to replace the loser he now has. Then the beggar says, “I wish I were a king living in a castle, until one day the castle is attacked by revolutionaries and I am forced to escape in just my pajamas and leave all me possessions behind. I run for miles and miles, sneak across the border, and keep on running until I get to this inn.

“What’s the point of that wish?” asks one of the friends.

“I’d have pajamas,” says the beggar.