Thursday, May 3, 2012

Silent Play

4'33", John Cage's famous "silent piece", is a kind of aestheticized proof of the non-existence of silence. The performer is asked to play through three movements, each with one instruction: "tacet" (meaning "remain silent"). At this point, the sounds in the environment become the focus of our attention-- these sounds will always be present, there is no silence. More than an ordinary piece of music, it resembles a ritual, a spiritual exercise in self-restraint and openness to the external world. Cage always talked about the piece as something he played regularly, in all kinds of different situations-- in the city, on the beach, wherever. Perhaps more than a "piece," it's a whole-- a way of being. 

I've had some of my own powerful experiences with it. I remember sitting in my backyard a few summers ago, listening to all the traffic go by. I'd recently been reading a lot of Cage's writings, and I was listening to all of this as I would listen to music. I was just becoming interested in response structures, cybernetic relationships of a kind in all sorts of music-- call and response, chain reactions, loose pulse, etc. This kind of systemic thinking had a profound effect on me, and my experience of the traffic system's dense counterpoint heightened my sense of presence in the environment-- in a way, an awareness of myself as a subject in an endless participatory system, an identity with external forces that behaved the way they did precisely because of my own action (or inaction). If I'd felt the nihilistic urge, I could have gone into the middle of the street to cause an accident (/death) and all the rhythmic and textural changes in the music that would come with that. Cars crashing, bodies squishing, sirens arriving, etc. Xenakis' Formalized Music describes a similar situation..

So, in the right state of mind, the silent piece, which is really a kind of play tactic, can help us uncover new dimensions of this fundamental ludic (playful) message: non-action as action. Contemplation as play. It's a way of being that's rarely encouraged (or even allowed, thanks to time limits and other deadly forces) in videogames, games in general, and maybe this is unfortunate. Still, to be silent (still)-- it's a freedom we can never really be denied. It's an often ignored outer bound of our inner/psychological possibility space deserving of serious exploration. If a reason we play is to seek a kind of identity between ourselves and the materials we're engaged with (and this is a necessary precondition of any spiritual play process), silent play is a way of letting the space be itself on its own terms before engaging with it. Confucius said something along these lines.. "if I am going to play music with another person, first I will sit in silence, and listen to them playing by themselves. Then I will join in."


Now, to respond to the above video, a performance of 4'33" in Level 1-2 of Super Mario Bros. (SNES All-Star version) -- Imagine the game is now more aware of our silence. How long it's been since we last pushed a button, and what that button was. If the button was "A", the room gradually begins to grow when we release it. If it was B, the hue of everything on the screen shifts, cycles. The speeds of these processes are determined by how long the button was held. The goombas, too-- if the last button was A, they'll jump in a rhythm based on the time relation between that pressing  and the previous pressing. If the button was B, they'll turn into fish, and suffocate-- the speed of their death is determined by the size of the room.  The lights grow brighter as they die. If the last button we pressed was the down arrow, water will begin to rise (and again, its speed is variable). The color of the room determines the speed at which which we move through the water, it's resistance, or "feel". And in the water, when the feel is right, we too might become a fish.

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