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The Art of Silence

John Cage, artist, composer, and pioneer of avant grade musical forms, may perhaps be one of the most zealous protectors of sound. Cage’s compositions range from strange and unconventionally formed soundscapes to thorough and elaborate works that attempt to consider, or even undermine, how music is defined. His most famous and groundbreaking work is often considered the composition 4’33.”

The piece, running four minutes and thirty-three seconds, has been composed, scored, and performed by solo pianists and instrumentalists but is found most compelling when witnessed live with a full orchestra. There is only one catch to 4’33”, for those who are hard of hearing or simply have their volume turned down on the stereo; the piece is completely silent.

Cage explores an important aspect of sound that is often overlooked; silence. His music could be compared to the stealth mastery of Dutch painters who emphasize shadow, and objects concealed, in order to reveal the minute radiance and beauty of a face focused in light.

For John Cage, his light is sound, or what one hears, and his shadow is silence. Consider the absence of sound, the lead-like weight of a measure of rest, the seconds before maestro drops his baton, the atom bomb, all essential to music’s beauty.


A Room Without Sound

In order to find where silence is perhaps held most sacred, holy, and immaculately pure you need not look further than the anechoic chamber. The chamber, which absorbs all sound rather than reflecting it, calls Orfield Laboratories in Southern Minnesota its home.

Since all of the sound in the anechoic chamber is absorbed. A person inside the chamber might find him or herself completely disoriented, and even ill, hearing an amplification of blood rushing through veins, feeling with intensity the beating heart. Time spent in the chamber, often limited to well under 45 minutes, might be cut short once nausea or hallucinations kick in.

While sitting in this record breaking room might seem intolerable, and even strange for anyone who has perfect hearing, the room does provide hopeful advantages and advances in technology for those with hearing loss. The room’s ability to absorb sound allows for Orfield Laboratories to acutely measure sound. Sound’s power and purity can be measured, uninhibited, when ran through a receiver, like a hearing device or microphone. Sound aficionados, scientists, and professionals at Orfield Labs have this incredible control over their own measuring devices, allowing for potentially large advancements in understanding and harnessing sound. Analyzing sound becomes increasingly important for Orfield Labs, whose business relies on how products perform when they emit sound just as much as how “people perform” when they use those products.

The Chamber’s Relationship to Hearing Aids

When hearing loss becomes an issue for an individual and he or she would like to use hearing devices to strengthen hearing, accurate and thorough investigation of how sound is amplified seems rather important. The anechoic chamber truly can be viewed as more of a professional sound lab than an anomaly, even though it largely functions as both. An investigation of decibels, the figure with which sound is measured may help put into perspective how soundless, or quiet, the room. After walking through vaulted doors and veils of mesh and foam one may discover the room to be at minus nine decibels. A room with minimal talking or background noise, perceived as quiet, measures 30 or 60 decibels. The spread seems immense and perhaps even impossible. The room’s decibel measurement is much like having the sound turned off in spite of the expectation of hearing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony live, in concert.

If you want to truly hear silence, stepping into the chamber might be best when you can tolerate the soundlessness. Another option: you could listen, or not listen, to John Cage’s 4’33”. Of course, you could turn and take off your hearing device and glide into the silence of your own thoughts without running the risk of anechoic hallucinations. Orfield Laboratories and John Cage commonly explore the absence of sound in order to affirm how wonderful it might be to actually hear silence, rather than being unable to process the noises around you. So, implore yourself to take another look at our hearing devices, turn them on, recline and listen to nothing.

By: Michael Strauss