I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Sound??: Rahsaan Roland Kirk and John Cage

by Eric Magnuson
May 16, 2016

Three saxophones clutter the front of Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s chest. His jazz band crams onto a tight stage at Ronnie Scott’s in London. Before crashing headlong into “Here Comes the Whistleman,” he passes whistles out to every audience member willing to lend their breath to his band. “I’ve been put down by many critics for exploring what I call ‘sound,’” he narrates minutes before. “Sound is something like eyesight to me.” Blind since he was two years old, Kirk told interviewers that he tried taking the sounds that he heard in his head and reproducing them onstage. But what does he hear now? Kirk demands his audience members to “play in the key of W!” “W!” he roars. And the cacophony rises. Kirk madly blows into his saxophone. The upright bass and drums follow along. The crowd’s manic, untrained whistling squeals like a flock of strangled blue birds. But as Kirk leads the room along, pushing the energy higher and higher, the audience’s trilling coos mesh together and begin forming something coherent amidst the jazz. Kirk also said that he heard sirens in his head when he played. Does he hear them now? Goddamn, the whistles begin sounding like sirens. And the crowd, itself, takes this room’s energy higher and higher. Everything is euphoric. Everything is in tune. Then the scene cuts to the avant-garde composer and philosopher poet, John Cage, who professorially intones, “Would we ever be able to get so that we thought the ugly sounds were beautiful?” But holy shit, Kirk and the audience just did. They just turned this ugly dissonance into something that might actually be considered beautiful. Maybe even mercurial.

So go the wild juxtapositions between Cage and Kirk in Dick Fontaine’s 1967 short film “Sound??” The two iconoclasts didn’t have much in common composition wise. But they did share the optimistic view that music could be derived from just about anything that made a sound, whether it was a child’s toy, a passing truck or Cage’s musical bicycle. Throughout this 27-minute film, Fontaine mixes Cage’s philosophical questions on what constitutes music with live footage of Kirk playing a lively, experimental set at Ronnie Scott’s, deftly highlighting how each man’s credo can seamlessly bounce off the other. The whistle scene is especially enlightening.

A decade earlier, Cage became deeply inspired by the “I Ching,” the Chinese “book of changes” that readers use to answer questions after flipping a set of coins. Cage broadened the scope of the “I Ching” from creating chance answers for questions to chance soundscapes in music. An early example of Cage’s incorporation of the “I Ching” into his musical compositions was 1951’s “Imaginary Landscape 4,” which saw two performers playing a set of 12 radios. One performer spun the dial on the radios’ volume while the other changed the stations. While Cage precisely notated when the dials would be spun, what the audience heard wholly depended on what music, speech or static the radio stations happened to be playing at that moment. Similarly, Kirk sacrificed his own performance to chance when he handed out whistles to his audience members: an extremely bold move for a man who said he hoped to create the sounds he heard in his head. Perhaps miraculously, or perhaps Kirk was just an incredible band leader, he’s able to pull his band of novices from their discordant, dying-bird squall into a joyous siren call that lifts the room onto a whole other plane. Maybe the energy broke through because the audience was participating itself. Kirk probably knew. He said that he did everything for a reason. Unlike Cage, who near the end of his life said, “I don’t like meaningful sound. If sound is meaningless, I’m all for it.”

“In bringing Kirk and Cage into proximity with each another,” David P. Brown wrote, “Sound?? offers an opportunity to understand the implications of a variable, rather than fixed, subject, as well as the potential of those subjects in relation to the behaviors that may be embedded in objects.” While these implications are discernibly heard in the whistling experiment, Kirk takes it a step further when he’s seen playing his saxophone in a zoo, jamming with a subject far more “variable” than man: the caged, howling wolves. Soon after, when concluding the film, Cage takes this idea of variability into an entirely different and inward direction. “There is no such thing as silence,” he says, and then tries proving his hypothesis by entering an anechoic chamber, a room designed to produce no echoes.

Ten years before Sound?? was released, Cage wrote about entering one of these anechoic chambers at Harvard University. While the room was supposed to be completely silent, he said that he still heard two separate, distinct sounds---one was high and the other one low: “When I described them to the engineer in charge,” he wrote in 1957, “he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” In Cage’s definition, even the winding flow of blood from one point of the body to another constituted music. “Until I die,” he wrote, “there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” It’s optimistic but certainly not outlandish today when considering how innumerable artists incorporate far more than conventional instruments into their compositions---Happy Apple’s Dave King dragging toys across his snare drum; They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? smashing crutches onto the stage floor; megaphones, all over the place, really; Autotune! Dan Deacon! Today, it’s nearly universal that everything can be music one way or another. John Cage and Roland Kirk just paid the dues for everybody that followed.

Eric Magnuson is a freelance writer. His journalism has appeared in numerous publications, including Rolling StoneThe Nation, and Spin.com. His fiction has appeared in The Los Angeles Review.