Him. Him. Him. Him. Michelle measured her life in a string of Hims, Hims harmonizing, crescendoing and fading like they were strapped to a wheel, mowing her over. Him. The first, brown hair, blue eyes, first kiss, soft lips, on the stair after a middle school dance, ears ringing, heart beating, she could feel the imprint of his hand on her cheek for hours. Him. Black hair, dark eyes, red lines hashed into his wrists. Test cheater, weed smoker, sneaking joints from his older brother’s stash. Him. Second kiss, a week after her first. She never broke up with that first boy, he just faded away, like the cuts that barely broke her skin, she dragged the sharp paper clip edge into her forearm until it was pink, until specks of blood appeared, then stopped, pinching her arm, numb, is this right? Is this how they did it? First smoke. First time, shirt on, pants at her knees, in her second boyfriend’s older brother’s car. Then the older brother, about a month later, same spot. She still hasn’t broken up with anyone. Third boyfriend, three years older. Boyfriend? Strong word. They fumbled in the backseat of his car, parked behind the high school. High school, now, fourth, fifth, sixth. One week of being single between sixth and seventh, and she felt like she couldn’t breathe. Is this love? Is this sex? Should it hurt this much? Should I be so indifferent? Do I want this? Do I want you? Eight lasted weeks, then months, coming on a year when his best friend asked her if the rumors were true, if she did it at thirteen. Eight was still a virgin. Seventeen. She was fine with it. Best friend was not. Eight. Then the best friend. Then eight was done, so on to nine, or was it ten, now? Floating from man to man like a piece of pollen, like a dandelion wisp, like a ragdoll being tossed hand to hand across a playground. No, not tossed. She threw herself, she leapt from body to body. Ten, eleven…she just wanted to be happy. Twelve and thirteen at the same time, then thirteen and fourteen at the same time, then fourteen and fifteen at the same time. She would leave one house and drive to the other. Always looking for more. Always getting bored. Him. Him. Him. Her? First year of college, she started back at one. One girl, long blonde hair. Curly. Blue eyes, an All American girl. One cheated on her with who would become four. Michelle didn’t mind. This sort of thing happened. Two. Sixteen. Seventeen. Three. Then four, at a party. One was a bit angry. Michelle smoked a lot now, but didn’t bother counting her joints. Michelle burned through joints even faster than her lovers. She was in the dozens, then likely the hundreds by the time she was nineteen, always high, her thumb calloused from sparking the lighter, her lips dry, her eyes perpetually red. Eighteen boys, now, and only five girls. Now, a game. Six. Seven. Eight and nine, at the same time. Ten and nineteen at the same time. She grew her hair long, she worked out, she did poorly in class, she showered less. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Back to twelve. Fourteen. Fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen all in one night, and then eighteen, nineteen, and two twenties all in the same room. She had done it. Forty people, an even split. She bought herself an ice cream cone. She was happy with herself. She didn’t need love. She didn’t want to limit herself to one person. She was a giver. She was a lover. She liked doing things, she liked meeting people. She liked being an individual, even if she was always in at least one relationship. Summer. Long distance? No. Single…single…single…she had already burned through all the boys at home, and no girls were interested. Single…single…single…Michelle was going crazy. Withdrawal, from weed and people. Phone. Scrolling. Names, numbers. 1-20F, 1-20M, she lists them in her head as she reads their names. She needed someone to keep her busy. She hesitates on a few, then keeps scrolling past. Drying out, this summer, like a 12 week program. She laid on the couch with a headache, watching cartoons. Her parents worried. She didn’t bother to worry. Who is Michelle? What do I do, beyond other people? What do I want, beyond being Undeclared? There was no direction to go, so she laid still. There was no one to love, so she began, slowly, to find a way to love herself. Relapse, boy number twenty-one, she met at an ice cream shop. Disgust. Get over it, tell him you want to be alone. First break up…she felt good. Good. Single is good, I need to learn myself before I learn someone else. I don’t need someone else. Michelle went back to school determined to stay single. She would break her cycle. She had beaten her addiction. New boy, a freshman, down the hall, into skateboarding and theatre. New boy. Craig Wu. Twenty-two. Him…him…specifically him. She invited him to smoke, first smoke, first boy in months. I know myself enough now, I suppose.
A performance of 4’33”. If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen!:
4’33” by John Cage always brings up the question, “Is this music?” By definition, music means sound, right? How could four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence possibly count as music?
Let’s back up for a second. Before John Cage (1912-1992) was Charles Ives (1874-1954), an experimental musician who was one of the first American composers to achieve serious international renown—for a long time, American composers were not thought of as real musicians at all. Ives wrote pieces that pushed the boundaries of music, such as “The Concord Sonata” that requires tapping keys with a 14 ¾ inch block of wood to create tone clusters, and “The Unanswered Question” which features extremely long single notes. His pieces often sound like a bit of an unorganized mess, but as time went on he came to be recognized as a legitimate musician perhaps a bit ahead of his time.
If Charles Ives pushed the boundaries of music, John Cage smashed them with an iron rod, recorded said smashing, and sold it as a record. He composed by using charts, tossing coins, and using random geometric patterns. He would litter the strings of a piano with objects to change the sound. He would swish water around in a seashell. He wrote pieces called “A Collection of Rocks,” “Paragraphs of Fresh Air,” and “Water Music,” which was performed with a radio, bird whistles, and a deck of cards which the player would shuffle and then deal over the piano strings. His most famous piece, of course, is 4’33”, which is performed by a person sitting at a piano and making as little sound as possible for exactly 4’33”.
I’ve heard multiple interpretations of 4’33”. Some say that the music is the accidental sounds a room full of people make, such as coughing or dropping keys. Some say that it’s arguing that silence is music, just like scheduled rests and pregnant pauses in (to avoid the phrase “normal music”) musical pieces including sound. Some say John Cage was plain crazy, like all the other Andy Warhol’s and Yoko Ono’s that dare defy convention.
Is John Cage the “Emperor’s New Clothes” of music–something people pour meaning and relevance into when really there’s nothing there? Or is it taking the easy way out to wave experimental art off with a dismissive hand and call it pretentious?
My favorite theory—plausible, since John Cage was interested in Buddhism—is that 4’33” was a sort of surprise meditation. In concert, the audience is captivated by the performer. In an anticipation-riddled song like 4’33”, they are focused intently, waiting for something to “happen.” This singular focus, all in silence, makes the audience unknowingly meditate, in a way. Their mind is clear, they are focused, and they are silent. Perhaps John Cage felt we all needed a meditation break now and then, and what better way to ensure people were getting one than putting one right in the middle of his concert? Then again, this doesn’t explain his other experimental music, so who knows?
Of course, we’ll never know, and that’s a good thing. What’s the point of art if there’s nothing to interpret? Then again, with 4’33”, there is literally nothing to interpret except the concept itself: silence as music. Perhaps the question isn’t whether or not it “counts” as music, but the message of the song. The method in the madness. The sound of silence.