John Cage and the Anechoic Chamber

John Cage composed music which revolved around silence. Other than his well-known 4’33”, which features a pianist playing nothing for that duration, he was fascinated by silence, as well as sound.

Cage famously recounted a story about his visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is one that is designed to trap all sounds made inside it; it is, essentially, the quietest place on earth.

As Cage said in his work Indeterminacy:

Cage anechoic chamber

I’d never seen this story challenged before, but I was reading a biography of Cage, The Roaring Silence (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), where the author does question this tale. Author David Revill explains that:

It is possible to call into question the strict factuality of the comments attributed to the engineer, Peter Gena [in A John Cage Reader] has confirmed with several doctors that no-one can hear the operation of his or her own nervous system; the circulation of one’s blood remains inaudible unless there is some incipient cardiovascular blockage. Possibly, Cage was hearing tinnitus.

There is another type of structure that approaches the level of silence of an anechoic chamber: an isolation tank. I spent many hours “floating” in an isolation tank back in the 1980s, and you don’t hear anything other than your breathing (especially if you are wearing earplugs), and, perhaps, your heartbeat, if you are not yet relaxed.

Cage clearly did not hear his “nervous system in operation;” he most likely had tinnitus, which can express as a very high sound. It may not have been strong enough to notice in a normal environment, but in the silence of an anechoic room, it would be noticeable. And the low one, of blood in circulation? Perhaps he had some sort of circulatory problem, particularly near one or both of his ears. (There are certainly times when you hear your heart beating, but I think if that was what Cage heard, he would have said so, because he would have recognized the sound.)

I’ve read several books about Cage, and I find it interesting that no one seems to have questioned this experience, at least not in the biographies I’ve read. This is a foundational story about Cage, which explains how he found that absolute silence does not exist. Yet it suffers from the observer’s paradox; without his presence, there would be (nearly) absolute silence, but what Cage found is that humans – other than the deaf – cannot hear total silence.

It’s worth noting that Pauline Olivero’s in Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) gives a different angle on this story:

John Cage died of a massive stroke just before his 80th birthday. A physician has said that you wouldn’t hear blood pressure the way he described it. There was plaque in the arteries building up and that if someone had taken heed of what he had said, they would have known it was building toward a stroke. That was one thing. The other – the nervous system does not make a twang that you can hear like that either – it was also part of the condition that led to John Cage’s stroke.

This is a bit tenuous. Cage went into that anechoic chamber in 1951, and he died in 1992. So it’s unlikely that the causes of his stroke were audible 40 years before his death. But it does confirm that you simply don’t hear your nervous system and blood as Cage described.

Of course, Cage doesn’t mention that he heard his own breathing, which he also certainly did. He just filtered that out. So, to him, there were actually at least three sounds. Here’s Cage describing his experience:

18 thoughts on “John Cage and the Anechoic Chamber

  1. It appears that the human brain doesn’t like total silence and will manufacture sound if deprived of the external stimuli for long enough. See “Musicophilia”, a really excellent book from the late Dr. Oliver Sacks (still very sad to write that phrase), which devotes some words to that topic. Don’t know if this explains Cage’s observations though.

    As an aside, I’ve generally been disappointed by popular science books about how the brain perceives music, but “Musicophilia” engaged me much more and disappointed me much less than, say, Dan Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain on Music”. Well worth the time.

    • Dear cthulhu,
      I have the book and haven’t found where Sacks says that. Do you have the reference? chapter? pages?
      Thank you so much

  2. It appears that the human brain doesn’t like total silence and will manufacture sound if deprived of the external stimuli for long enough. See “Musicophilia”, a really excellent book from the late Dr. Oliver Sacks (still very sad to write that phrase), which devotes some words to that topic. Don’t know if this explains Cage’s observations though.

    As an aside, I’ve generally been disappointed by popular science books about how the brain perceives music, but “Musicophilia” engaged me much more and disappointed me much less than, say, Dan Levitin’s “This Is Your Brain on Music”. Well worth the time.

    • Dear cthulhu,
      I have the book and haven’t found where Sacks says that. Do you have the reference? chapter? pages?
      Thank you so much

  3. I worked at a facility when I was in my 20s that had an anechoic chamber and YES you can hear your blood flowing and everything else working ng in your body. While you can’t hear you nerves, the feeling is very very eery and unnerving!

    • Do you hear your blood flowing, or just your heartbeat? And what is the sound like? Cage described it as a low sound; I would imagine it was more of a whoosh, which wouldn’t sound low to me.

  4. I worked at a facility when I was in my 20s that had an anechoic chamber and YES you can hear your blood flowing and everything else working ng in your body. While you can’t hear you nerves, the feeling is very very eery and unnerving!

    • Do you hear your blood flowing, or just your heartbeat? And what is the sound like? Cage described it as a low sound; I would imagine it was more of a whoosh, which wouldn’t sound low to me.

  5. I think you are missing the point. It was the engineer who defined the sources of the high and low sounds, not Cage. Questioning if he was right about something someone else said is inappropriate.
    What interested Cage, profoundly, was the lack of silence. The source of those sounds (no matter what they were like, or the exact reason for them) was his own body.
    For humans, there is no silence. For Cage, the composer devoted to silence (in a addition to sound), there is no silence.
    This meant that he had to find a devotion that was not sound, yet still sounded. He came up with intention vs non-intention. Intentionally composed sound vs non-intentionally composed sound.
    When you comprehend that, you comprehend John, and, the meaning of the anechoic chamber story.

    • He repeated this story many times, both publicly and privately, and he clearly believed it. He even used it in Indeterminacy.

      Cage was not “devoted to silence.” He understood how there was no true silence, and how music could be any sound. You might want to listen to this podcast episode: https://www.thenexttrack.com/126

      • Thank you for the link.

        I listened to the podcast, and it seems to me that in it you and Kyle echo what I said above. It looks like we are on the same page about the engineer’s opinion not being the point, so why dwell on it?

        Maybe “devoted to silence” is a strange phrase for me to use, but in my years with him I saw that to be true. The oft repeated phrase “The sound of traffic”, for example — which is not silence according to a decibel meter, but which is silence according to Cage’s preference. There was a lot of traffic sound outside the windows at 18th and Sixth Avenue, which never ceased, and John often referred to it with a degree of reverence.

        “The sound experience which I prefer to all others, is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic.”

        http://www.futureacoustic.com/silence/

        Regarding your podcast series, which is about “how people listen to music today”, it seems to me that exploring Cage’s sound/silence dichotomy is highly relevant, and I applaud you for tackling it.

        I do caution though against the overly broad idea that for Cage, music could be any sound. That phrase invites misinterpretation, in the direction of the old “any goes” criticisms hurled his way.

        Cage was very open-eared about sounds, far more than most composers, but very opinionated about how those sounds were best put together. His use of chance operations was a highly disciplined and exhaustive effort to be intentionally non-intentional in his method of composing sounds, and it precludes a whole range of musical uses of sound that remain the norm in music today.

        In fact (now my opinions raise up) the way in which Cage’s music differs from the norm has changed since he died.

        It used to be a question of what sounds/instruments/structures were acceptable, and also about the perceived attack on art posed by the use of chance. I believe that battle is pretty much over, and Cage delivered a victory to musicians and listeners today.

        But now, there is another way his ideas challenge. It has to do with post-modernism, and people’s idea of their own identity. There is no fundamentalism in Cage’s aesthetics — no confusing the real and the imagined. That, unfortunately, places him, once again, in opposition to the norm. Unfortunate for those of us alive today.

        [I am going to cross-post this to the podcast website https://www.thenexttrack.com/126%5D

        • I don’t see how I’m dwelling on it, I’m simply pointing out that Cage was mistaken. He believed what the engineer said, and, in some ways, it had a profound influence on him. It was important enough for him to mention it in Indeterminacy, and it has been repeated in countless books about Cage’s life as being an important event for him.

  6. I think you are missing the point. It was the engineer who defined the sources of the high and low sounds, not Cage. Questioning if he was right about something someone else said is inappropriate.
    What interested Cage, profoundly, was the lack of silence. The source of those sounds (no matter what they were like, or the exact reason for them) was his own body.
    For humans, there is no silence. For Cage, the composer devoted to silence (in a addition to sound), there is no silence.
    This meant that he had to find a devotion that was not sound, yet still sounded. He came up with intention vs non-intention. Intentionally composed sound vs non-intentionally composed sound.
    When you comprehend that, you comprehend John, and, the meaning of the anechoic chamber story.

    • He repeated this story many times, both publicly and privately, and he clearly believed it. He even used it in Indeterminacy.

      Cage was not “devoted to silence.” He understood how there was no true silence, and how music could be any sound. You might want to listen to this podcast episode: https://www.thenexttrack.com/126

      • Thank you for the link.

        I listened to the podcast, and it seems to me that in it you and Kyle echo what I said above. It looks like we are on the same page about the engineer’s opinion not being the point, so why dwell on it?

        Maybe “devoted to silence” is a strange phrase for me to use, but in my years with him I saw that to be true. The oft repeated phrase “The sound of traffic”, for example — which is not silence according to a decibel meter, but which is silence according to Cage’s preference. There was a lot of traffic sound outside the windows at 18th and Sixth Avenue, which never ceased, and John often referred to it with a degree of reverence.

        “The sound experience which I prefer to all others, is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic.”

        http://www.futureacoustic.com/silence/

        Regarding your podcast series, which is about “how people listen to music today”, it seems to me that exploring Cage’s sound/silence dichotomy is highly relevant, and I applaud you for tackling it.

        I do caution though against the overly broad idea that for Cage, music could be any sound. That phrase invites misinterpretation, in the direction of the old “any goes” criticisms hurled his way.

        Cage was very open-eared about sounds, far more than most composers, but very opinionated about how those sounds were best put together. His use of chance operations was a highly disciplined and exhaustive effort to be intentionally non-intentional in his method of composing sounds, and it precludes a whole range of musical uses of sound that remain the norm in music today.

        In fact (now my opinions raise up) the way in which Cage’s music differs from the norm has changed since he died.

        It used to be a question of what sounds/instruments/structures were acceptable, and also about the perceived attack on art posed by the use of chance. I believe that battle is pretty much over, and Cage delivered a victory to musicians and listeners today.

        But now, there is another way his ideas challenge. It has to do with post-modernism, and people’s idea of their own identity. There is no fundamentalism in Cage’s aesthetics — no confusing the real and the imagined. That, unfortunately, places him, once again, in opposition to the norm. Unfortunate for those of us alive today.

        [I am going to cross-post this to the podcast website https://www.thenexttrack.com/126%5D

        • I don’t see how I’m dwelling on it, I’m simply pointing out that Cage was mistaken. He believed what the engineer said, and, in some ways, it had a profound influence on him. It was important enough for him to mention it in Indeterminacy, and it has been repeated in countless books about Cage’s life as being an important event for him.

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