Trucks passing by music

Barbara Perea

Is a truck passing by music?

QUESTION: I have noticed that you write durations that are beyond the possibility of performance.
ANSWER: Composing's one thing, performing's another, listening's a third. What can they have to do with one another? John Cage, "Experimental Music: Doctrine" (1955), in Silence: Lectures and Writing (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961). All quotes come from this book, and are from here identified solely by chapter title.

If I can see it, do I have to hear it too?

As I see it, poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way or another formalized. It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced into the world of words.1

If I don't hear it, does it still communicate?


Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them not as sound effects but as musical instruments.2

If while I see it I can't hear it, but hear something else, say an egg-beater, because I'm inside looking out, does the truck communicate or the egg-beater, which communicates?

If this word "music" is sacred and reserved for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.3

Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?


Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?

New music: new listening. Not an attempt to understand something that is being said, for, if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. Just an attention to the activity of sounds.5

What if the ones inside can't hear very well, would that change my question?

Dad says he does his best work when he is sound asleep. I was explaining at the New School that the way to get ideas is to do something boring. For instance, composing in such a way that the process of composing is boring induces ideas. They fly into one's head like birds. Is that what Dad meant?6

Do you know what I mean when I say inside the school?

A sound accomplishes nothing; without it life would not last out the instant.7

Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?


I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.8

People aren't sounds, are they?

Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing. Anything therefore is a delight (since we do not possess it) and thus need not fear its loss. We need not destroy the past: it is gone; at any moment it might reappear and seem to be and be the present. Would it be a repetition? Only if we thought we owned it, but since we don't, it is free and so are we.9

Is there such a thing as silence?

I remember loving sound before I ever took a music lesson.10

Even if I get away from people, do I still have to listen to something?

Tonality. I never liked tonality. I worked at it. Studied it. But I never had any feeling for it.11

Say I'm off in the woods, do I have to listen to a stream babbling?

More and more I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere. Slowly, as the talk goes on, we are getting nowhere and that is a pleasure.12

Is there always something to hear, never any peace and quiet?

When Schoenberg asked me whether I would devote my life to music, I said, "Of course." After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, "In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony." I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, "In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.13

If my head is full of harmony, melody, and rhythm, what happens to me when the telephone rings, to my peace and quiet, I mean?

Betty Isaacs went shopping at Altman's. She spent all her money except her last dime, which she kept in her hand so that she'd have it ready when she got on the bus to go home and wouldn't have to fumble around in her purse since her arms were full of parcels and she was also carrying a shopping bag. Waiting for the bus, she decided to make sure she still had the coin. When she opened her hand, there was nothing there. She mentally retraced her steps trying to figure out where she'd lost the dime. Her mind made up, she went straight to the glove department, and sure enough there it was on the floor where she'd been standing. As she stooped to pick it up, another shopper said, "I wish I knew where to go to pick money up off the floor." Relieved, Betty Isaacs took the bus home to the Village. Unpacking her parcels, she discovered the dime in the bottom of the shopping bag.14

And if it was European harmony, melody, and rhythm in my head, what has happened to the history of, say, Javanese music, with respect, that is to say, to my head?15

This article is part of "Unsound,” edited by Barbara Perea. Other parts of this project include:

As Slow as (Inhumanly) Possible: Meditations on Time by Barbara Perea 
Unsound, an online exhibition curated by Barbara Perea 
Two Ships Passing: Barbara Perea in conversation with Nick Hennies 
Everyday Algorithms by Ben Judson      
and our editor’s statement

  • 1. "Foreword to Silence"
  • 2. "The Future of Music: Credo"
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. "Experimental Music"
  • 6. Ibid.
  • 7. "Experimental Music: Doctrine"
  • 8. "Lecture on Nothing"
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid.
  • 11. Ibid.
  • 12. Ibid.
  • 13. "Indeterminacy"
  • 14. Ibid.
  • 15. "Communication"
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