Crowded Air in the Church of John Cage
This morning I attended my first Quaker meeting, the 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. I’ve been drawn to the idea of Friends’ worship for several years. Last week at a dinner party, I met law professor, blogger, and violist, Susan Crawford. She is a dear friend of several of mine, and when she said she’d been raised Quaker, plans for this morning quickly took shape. We were joined by our mutual friend, Bejun Mehta, who, like me was making his first visit to a Friends’ meeting. Helicon Member and Quaker, Sarah O. H. Johnson was there, as well.
As a touring chamber musician, I often play concerts in old New England churches. Beautiful examples in Blue Hill, ME and Shelter Island, NY come right to mind. Entering them empty before a concert, their silent, expectant acoustic makes me want to Jackson Pollack the air with scales and arpeggios. The 15th Street Meeting House, I noticed, did not have that affect on me. We were gathering for silence.
At first all I perceived was a general, indistinct lack of purposeful sound. Shortly it sorted itself into its various components, all pleasurable in this cool early summer New York Sunday morning. The soft whoosh of passing cars, squeaking benches and complaining floor boards as the assembled assembled, coughs, a sneeze, and the unconcerned prattling of birds, all wove the tapestry of silence. I couldn’t help but think of John Cage's 4’33” which my friend, Pedja Muzijevic is playing at Maverick Concerts this summer. What makes a performance of that piece by Pedja apposite, as opposed to, say, my performance of it, is the withholding of one thing to make room for another. Were I, who cannot play the piano, to sit unplaying before one, it would be to the general relief of anyone in ear shot. Pedja—with his life of stored musical art in his finger tips—brings the silence into special relief by not crowding it with notes. So, this morning, a group of New Yorkers who in their everyday lives may very well speak fast, loud, and with authority, sat together in a room and withheld speech.
In this special quiet waiting, other liturgies seemed all gaudy baubles and clangorous songs. The experience of this corporate silence was deeply meaningful. In the way a day at the contemporary art galleries in Chelsea makes everything looks like art on the way home, today, every quiet moment gave opportunity for a deeper silence. At intermission in the orchestra lounge of the State Theater, I didn’t read the paper or check my messages, nor did I on the M7 bus going home after the matinee. Instead I sat and tried to find the feeling of stillness I had with the Quakers.
The air is crowded. We who make our life’s work the art of sound crowd it daily in pursuit of our voice, our technique, our expression of music’s beauty. Maybe we musicians especially need the nourishment of the silent moment. Many thanks to Dan Coleman for introducing me to the Emily Dickinson poem, below. This morning, it sang its silent accord with the Quakers' quiet waiting.
Musicians wrestle everywhere —
All day — among the crowded air
I hear the silver strife —
And - waking - long before the morn —
Such transport breaks upon the town
I think it that “New Life”!
It is not Bird — it has no nest —
Nor “Band” — in brass and scarlet — drest —
Nor Tamborin — nor Man —
It is not Hymn from pulpit read —
The “Morning Stars” the Treble led
On Time’s first Afternoon!
Some — say — it is “the Spheres” — at play!
Some say that bright Majority
Of vanished Dames — and Men!
Some — think it service in the place
Where we — with late — celestial face —
Please God — shall Ascertain!