A Different Kind of Listening: John Cage on 45th Street

city heights up close…The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs, buses launching down avenues, the symphony

of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways, the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,

or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, …

from One Sun Rose on Us Today by Richard Blanco, Inaugural Poem 1/21/13

It is only half past January and I have had it up to here, estoy harta, with the right wing rage and whining that followed the election; enough, basta already, to the manufactured misery of the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling threats that immediately shut out the voices of citizens who made their intentions and desires known in the November election. There is a ringing in my ears from the dreadful noise, and I worry about my ability to hear what is really important and stay focused.

When the La Jolla Symphony and Chorus presented their first program of the new season,  John Cage’s composition 4’33” was on the program.  The symphony did not play a piece of music; rather, they observed Cage’s direction to not play their instruments.  This composition is often erroneously described as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence. It is instead an exercise in not only listening, but hearing.

After director Steven Schick introduced the piece, the orchestra remained still while the doors of the concert hall were opened to the afternoon sunlight outside.  Something remarkable happened over the allotted moments.  We heard the sounds of silence-  of our fellow concert goers changing position in their seats, purses opening and closing with a zip or a snap; bird song entered through the open door, throats were cleared.  And then, instruments were positioned, Beethoven’s Eroica began and we were suddenly caught in the act of listening, deeply listening.

I am not someone who can envision world peace, although I’ve tried on numerous occasions, but a four minute thirty three second exercise in listening and hearing is much more in tune with both my attention span and visualizing capabilities. So with an increased frequency I have been closing the lid on the laptop, putting the phone on do not disturb, turning off the music and opening the door to 45th Street– and listening.

There are times when it is remarkably quiet, until a car passes by. A car will always pass by, sometimes with the distinct sounds of a loose belt, and sometimes emitting a deep bass beat that rattles the windows and sets off the car alarms. In the early morning I can often hear the constant white noise of car traffic rise wraith-like from the freeways, the insistent beep of garbage trucks backing up, the procession of shufflers and stompers on the sidewalk, the syncopated conversations and laughter of kids on their way to school.

Sometimes I hear a murder of crows chuckle  as they brazenly strut down the middle of the street, other times it is the bright chatter of sparrows or the crowing of some hidden rooster close by.  At this moment the paletero is ringing the little bell on his push cart.

If I walk through the open door to the sidewalk gate, I hear stories.  One neighbor was laid off in October and can’t look for work until her leg heals from a work injury.  Unaccustomed to not working, she struggles psychologically and financially with long days of restricted activity.  For the first time since she and her husband bought their house it was a struggle to pay the property taxes in December.

I find out that a family moved into the corner apartment three months ago and exchange names with their young daughter and make friends with the dog.  I learn that a window is missing in an upstairs bedroom, the manager has not installed a replacement despite repeated calls.  The nights have turned bitter cold.  The whole family is now sick with the flu and the mother has been too sick to go to work.  When people on 45th Street miss work, most of them don’t get paid for the missed time.

So many stories on 45th Street.  I am asked to write a letter of support on behalf of a DREAMer. I was present at her quince, her marriage, the celebration of the birth of her son.  San Diego is the only home she has known or can remember.

I hear about loss, but not some drummed up collective loss over an imagined past that can be counted on to generate blind rage.  Loss is the death of a 45 year old primo to cancer, the aching loneliness and clouded future of a widow and two young children.  Loss is pure unadulterated sorrow that spurs a blind faith that somehow we shall carry on.

There is no mention of fiscal cliffs and debt ceilings, only the lack of jobs, the desire to work, to be able to pay bills and raise families in comfort and security.  To be healthy.  To stay united with family in this country, which is home.

When the instruments of power, amplification and endless commentary remain unplayed, for just a few moments,  it is possible to hear in the silence of 45th Street clear voices with shared, immediate concerns that provided an equally clear shared message when we cast our vote in November.

As John Cage reminds us–there is no such thing as silence, only an inability or unwillingness to listen.





Anna Daniels

I left a moribund Western Pennsylvania mill town the year that Richard M. Nixon was not impeached for crimes against the American people, and set off in search of truth, beauty, justice and a beat I could dance to. Here I am.


  1. avatar says

    The halls of Congress are so far removed from the lives of ordinary people, the hoi polloi, that they can’t hear, when the American people are 92% in favor of some measure to be taken, some piece of legislation to be passed, they not only can’t hear, they could care less, because it is not their legislation, it does not serve their interest or that of the diminishing horde of people that they represent. They are a cabal, a vested interest holding undemocratic, gerrymandered and juryrigged power, determined to make the most of their power, and the American people almost in unanimity, be damned.

    Obama’s sparkling words, his vision of the future, his path not yet completed, none of this matters to those who only hear the siren song of wealth accumulation if only they do not listen, if only they stay true to their mundane cause of serving their small minority of self-serving, noise loving conservative entertainment devouring devotees who are also far removed from the everyday concerns of those struggling against the odds to provide a halfway decent life for themselves and their families.