Unknown photographer, Dymaxion House (Rose Hill, Kansas Circa 1949); 8 x 10 inches

Silence and Void: Cage, Fuller, and Urban Space

Ben Judson

In 1948, John Cage staged a play at Black Mountain College. The production, The Ruse of Medusa, was an early bit of surrealism written by Erik Satie in 1913. Buckminster Fuller was enlisted to play the lead, Willem and Elaine de Kooning designed the sets and Merce Cunningham served as choreographer (and also played the part of a monkey, with a tail designed by Richard Lippold). This one-act play was part of a larger festival of Satie’s work that Cage organized while teaching at Black Mountain. During the festival he also gave a lecture, later published under the title “Defense of Satie,” in which he criticized the compositional approach of Beethoven and his followers:

With Beethoven the parts of a composition were defined by means of harmony. With Satie and [Anton] Webern they were defined by means of time lengths. The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement about it, that one might ask: Was Beethoven right or are Webern and Satie right? I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been as extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music. 1

Cage’s championing of Satie—and his criticism of previous compositional techniques—was controversial. This critique also encompassed the work of his former mentor Arnold Schoenberg, associated with the Bauhaus School. Buckminster Fuller, likewise, was highly critical of Bauhaus principles, which he viewed as merely concerned with aesthetics, and Fuller felt a revolutionary approach to the materials and principles of industrial design and architecture was imperative. He later took Bauhaus architects to task in Ideas and Integrities (1963), claiming that they “did not inquire into the economic patterns governing research, production, tooling, airframe and power plant, and distribution. In short, they only looked at the problems of modification of the surface of end products, which end products were inherently subfunctions of a technically obsolete world.” 2

Cage and Fuller both felt that a rethinking of aesthetics (whether musical or architectural) was an inadequate way to address the pressing problems facing mankind, which they saw as essentially structural. They took aim at emotionally driven aesthetic values, hoping to replace them with an emphasis on aleatory composition (in Cage’s case) and material efficiency (in Fuller’s case). Traditional music theory stipulated that a piece of music should be built around harmonic structures, which engender emotional responses in the listener. Thus, the composer’s job was to lead the audience through a series of premeditated emotional states. Cage’s shift of focus from harmonic structures to the duration of sounds allowed him to treat not only nonharmonics but silence itself as an integral part of his compositions. In this sense, Cage’s 4’33” is not nonmusical at all since it presents a musical element (silence) for a specific duration (roughly four and a half minutes): the standard length of a piece of canned Muzak. The point here was not to take listeners on an emotional journey but to guide them to an appreciation of sound and silence, without formal structure or prescribed message.

Fuller’s iconic contribution to the world, the geodesic dome, also resolves problems of structural integrity, conservation of materials and a weight-to-area ratio by discarding the notion of starting with a model based on aesthetic concerns and working backwards to create a supporting structure. Unlike most architects before him, Fuller focused not on the emotional reaction a space could provoke but on the weight of the materials and aerodynamics of the outer shell. To address these concerns, his dome is a series of interlocking lines organized around geometric space wherein space becomes as important as the material structure. Thus, while the works of Cage and Fuller had important aesthetic implications, more importantly, these men reversed the process of architectural realization: they began by rethinking the relationship between sound and silence, material and space, form and formlessness. Formal aesthetics became a secondary concern.

However, it should be noted that Fuller’s direct influence on the fields of architecture and engineering was minimal (even leaving aside the fact that the geodesic dome was originally developed not by Fuller but by Walther Bauersfeld in the early 1920s). And although Fuller’s dome became iconic, its uses were—and remain—fairly limited. The form proved to be impractical due in part to the problems of working with curved wall space, which drives up construction costs considerably and makes subsequent modification of the building much more difficult. Similarly, Fuller’s Dymaxion house—a prefabricated metal home—was never put into commercial production, nor was his Dymaxion car, an automobile with three wheels. Fuller’s influence, therefore, was felt primarily through his extensive writing and lectures in which the marriage of transcendentalism and technology offered a compellingly optimistic alternative to the dystopian visions of, say, George Orwell. (Ironically, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949, the same year that Fuller built his first successful geodesic dome at Black Mountain College.)

Fuller’s attraction to the individualism of American transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau was at odds with his vision of a scientifically ordered future. His Dymaxion house would theoretically allow its owner to move at will all over the world, to “drop it there in the wilderness and live the way an American should, in a little house in the wilderness,” as architect Philip Johnson wryly put it. 3 But this vision of an “Instant Walden” belied a society of prefabricated cookie-cutter homes and a vast bureaucracy to oversee their constant movement and upkeep:

you will notify the Service that you wish to move at such and such a time to this or that spot, and will be advised promptly whether the spot is already busy and, if not, for how long you may engage it and what the rate differential above local zone service will be, if any, as predicated on zoning distances from service centrals. 4

This vision of a global village represents a sort of merger between New York City and Lake Eden—the bustling urban environment and the rural utopian community. At Black Mountain, teachers and students sacrificed the cultural access and variegation of New York for the deep intimacy of a small, self-governed artistic community. In Fuller’s future, a person might have access to all the cultural and technological benefits of urban life without sacrificing intimacy and natural space, in large part because they would be able to move at will between these environments. For Fuller, freedom of movement and material efficiency replaced stable, harmonious space as overriding architectural concerns.

Cage adopted a different but roughly compatible Zen Buddhist outlook, which deeply informed his artistic and philosophical approach to compositional structure. To Zen practitioners, artistic activity is integral to spiritual development. At the same time the lectures of D.T. Suzuki were introducing Cage to such ideas, new technology was opening up a range of artistic possibilities. Cage, like Fuller, embraced technology, if not as the savior of human society then certainly as a means to a richer artistic (and thus spiritual) practice. He saw in artists such as Duchamp (and perhaps Satie) the expression of a similar outlook. In an essay on Buddhism, Cage explains how Duchamp helped him develop a greater appreciation for pure sound by suggesting that loud, repetitive noises such as alarm systems could be viewed as sound sculptures. 5

Cage also shared Marshall McLuhan’s understanding of the significance of technology—a vision influenced by Fuller as well. As McLuhan wrote in The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects, “Most often the few seconds sandwiched between the hours of viewing—the ‘commercials’—reflect a truer understanding of the medium. There simply is no time for the narrative form, borrowed from earlier print technology. The story line must be abandoned.” 6 Traditional narrative is based on a conflict-resolution model analogous to the harmonic structures Cage criticized in Beethoven’s compositions. In McLuhan’s thought, the medium of television and the side effects of technological innovation would lead to a destructuring (or restructuring) of art, not unlike what Cage saw in the works of Satie. Thus the chaos of contemporary society, for Cage, was far from being at odds with spirituality. It could actually open the door to new spiritual experiences; as Cage follower and collaborator Nam June Paik put it, “Cybernetics, the art of pure relations, has its origins in karma.” 7

Many of the ideas Fuller and McLuhan and even Cage put forth seem naive from a contemporary vantage point. While our relationship to information has undoubtedly changed, the narrative form has not been abandoned, and our society has not been decentralized in the sense that Fuller and McLuhan predicted. After a period of urban decline in developed countries (as they moved into a postindustrial configuration), we have seen a resurgence of various kinds of urbanization. And despite the vast sea of information, ideas and viewpoints available on the Internet, a growing body of research points to the urban environment as a key driver of creativity in contemporary culture.

In 1997, preeminent scholars Ash Amin and Stephen Graham published an overview of recent academic research on the role of the city in contemporary society. They found that a renewed focus on the importance of face-to-face interactions, shared public space and interlocking social economies by a number of researchers have led to a sort of “rediscovery of the city.” 8 One implication of this study is that the development of new communications and travel technologies, rather than encouraging us to spread physically apart, are actually drawing people closer together and encouraging a richer appreciation of urban spaces.

In 1963, Cage was interviewed by a young man named Jonathan Cott. Cott asked the composer how we can “qualitatively even begin to compare your concerto to Schoenberg’s magnificent work in the same genre.” Cage responded by saying that his work should not be compared with Schoenberg’s:

think that we gain in awareness by seeing each thing in its own terms.... The reason it would be almost pointless to compare my work to that of Schoenberg is that we are working in—the works are made in entirely different ways. As I see it, Schoenberg was still involved in the making of an object, in time, with relationships within that object, so that there is a whole, and that whole has parts, and they are subjected to organization. I’m not working with that problem. In those terms I’m working with disorganization. I’m not making objects. I’m involved with showing processes. 9

The approach and attitude Cage espoused in this interview could not be more distant from the youthful Cage who asked whether Beethoven or Webern and Satie were right in 1948. He had come to believe that harmonically structured, emotionally fraught music could live alongside formless, chance-based compositions. Meanwhile, at the time that Cage gave this interview, Fuller was still railing against the failings of Bauhaus architects. With this in mind, we can see why Fuller’s vision of the future, in some ways, missed the mark. While the increasing availability of inexpensive travel and communication has certainly changed the way our society functions, it has not changed the human need for shared social space. Fuller’s Dymaxion house disregarded the socioeconomic and emotional aspects of urban architecture in favor of lightness, portability and conservation of materials. The idea of rootedness might have had little interest to a man who constantly moved about the world. But the ability to move freely and communicate over long distances has never displaced our need for stable social space any more than the ability to appreciate chance sounds has diminished the enjoyment of structured music.

1. John Cage, “Defense of Satie,” John Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970), 81.
2. Buckminster Fuller, Ideas and Integrities (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 33.
3. Philip Johnson, interview for the TV program “Buckminster Fuller: Thinking Out Loud” (Arlington, VA: PBS, 1995). Text of interview available at http://www. thirteen.org/bucky/johnson.html.
4. Buckminster Fuller, Ideas and Integrities (New York: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 111.
5. John Cage, Inquiring Mind: The Journal of the Vipassana Community (Berkeley) 3, no. 2 (1986).
6. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 1967).
7. Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1970), 302.
8. Ash Amin and Stephen Graham, “The Ordinary City,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (London), volume 22, number 4 (December 1997), 41–429. PDF available for download at http://www.geography.dur.ac.uk/information/staff/personal/graham/pdf_files/42.pdf.
9. John Cage, Interview with Jonathan Cott (1963). Full recording available at http://radiom.org/detail.php?et=interview&omid=C.1963.XX.XX.

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