Observation Psychogeography Sounds of Spaces and Places

(Always) Between Something and Nothing

The white centre … is both an emptiness and an energy generator. Your eye is continually drawn back to its white silence, its void-ness. Then your attention is propelled out again along the twisting road-ways. The eye cycles back and forth between “something” and “nothing”.

Robert Rauschenberg - Mother of God

First Rauschenberg laid down a base coat of white paint on a 48-by-32 inch piece of masonite. Then on the top four-fifths of this white ground, he pasted pieces of maps of American cities: Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, St Louis, New Orleans Boston, Denver…

The twisting spidery roadways – dark lines radiating across off-white backgrounds crackle with shivery linear energy. This frenetic activity is silenced at the pictures centre by a great white circular void that hovers like a pulsating energy field. This void isn’t empty. Literally it’s a layer of brushed white paint that laps over the cut edges of the maps. Visually, the painted surface dematerialises into a humming whiteness.

Kay Larson on Robert Rauschenberg’s Mother of God

I recently finished Kay Larson’s wonderful book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists.  I don’t particularly want to offer a review here but if you have any interest in John Cage then I guess that you will be well rewarded by reading it.

Like any great book, it’s the ideas that linger around afterwards that are of greatest value. They push, prod and poke. Unconscious spectres haunting the edges of conscious thought before demanding some form of engagement, application or reflection.  This perhaps explains why, for a few minutes last weekend I stood, in the dark, on a motorway bridge at Charing Cross, Glasgow.  A walk back to the station interrupted by thoughts about “something” and “nothing”. The traffic of the M8 motorway cascading underneath my feet and I’m recording it on my phone…

Charing Cross, Glasgow

Well clearly my silent piece…expresses the acceptance of whatever happens in that emptiness.  And the same thing was expressed by that empty painting, that white painting of Bob Rauschenberg.

John Cage

One of the most fascinating parts of Larson’s book deals with Cage’s conceptual evolution leading up to his (in)famous ‘silent’ piece 4’33”.  Larson makes the case that prior to 4’33”, Cage’s thinking was expressed in Either / Or dualities. His two lectures: Lecture on Something and Lecture on Nothing bookend this approach. Increasingly inspired by the Zen lectures of D. T.  Suzuki at Columbia University and the white paintings of Robert Rauschenberg, Cage moved towards the idea of the radical act that was required to detonate these dualisms.  His famous visit to the anechoic  (sound-proof) chamber at Harvard had shown Cage that ‘silence’ could never be an absolute absence of sound. Even in the scientifically quietest place on Earth he could still hear sounds. The high whine of his own nervous system and dull roar of his blood circulation. He heard the sound of his life in process and Cage concluded that there is no such thing as silence.

Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.

4’33” embodies the idea of life and art as a process.  As Larson says: “before anything else, it’s an experience.” It is a proposition that says, in notational shorthand: stop for a moment and look around you and listen; stop and look; stop and listen. “Something” and “Nothing” can never be divided.

Well I use it (4’33”) constantly in my life experience. No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work…I turn my attention towards it. I realize that it’s going on continuously…

Winter Trees, Kelvingrove Park


This may all sound pretty abstract but two events from a recent afternoon wander through Glasgow bring it all home. Heading back from the West End, the energetic bustle of Byers Road noticeably slips off the shoulders as you enter Kelvingrove Park. Welcomed into the crisp and brittle air by the bare winter trees, very few people are around and circumstances are conspiring to shift towards something approaching an urban ‘silence’. (The ubiquitous, low hum of traffic is always there, much like the sound of Cage’s blood circulation). Slipping into a kind of unconscious walking reverie, measured out in the rhythm of movement, I was brought completely into the moment by the spooling song of possibly a mistle thrush or song thrush high in a tree. What an enchanting experience to simply stop and listen to the cadences and Fi-ga-ro Fi-ga-ro refrains weaving a thread of song through the urban silence.  An oscillation between something and nothing. Lives in process. I managed to capture around 40 seconds on a pretty rough phone recording, by which time several people had gathered around wondering what I was looking at:







I wanted to be quiet in a nonquiet situation.

Later in the early evening, it is already dark and I’m walking back into the town centre . I stop on the motorway flyover bridge at Charing Cross. For a short time I just watch the traffic swoosh past underneath. Pools of light flooding the motorway and dispersing within seconds. The experience is strangely mesmerising and calming. The rhythms of sound vary depending on the sequence and number of cars across the three lanes. Like a childhood game, I start to guess which lane a car will appear in next. A chance operation in process. I then notice that occasionally there can be an almost complete drop out towards a momentary void of sound. For a few seconds no cars are in view in any of the lanes. Once again this is a rough recording but within this short clip it happens a couple of times:



After a few minutes of this hypnotic experience, I realise that I’ve been in the white centre of Rauschenberg’s painting.  The void. Quiet in a nonquiet situation. As I lift my head to look around, the roads and paths of the city spiral off in every direction. Energies of neon, arteries of possibility, encounters,  histories  and stories yet to come.

I walk towards Sauchiehall Street, always poised between something and nothing.

Now playing: Kevin Drumm – Tannenbaum


Richard Konstelanetz (ed), Conversing with Cage (London: Omnibus Press, 1989).

Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists,  (New York: The Penguin Press. 2012).

Robert Rauschenberg,  Mother of God,  1950. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Special thanks to Fraser Macdonald and Louise Arber for offering suggestions as to the identity of the singing bird. The wonder of Twitter.

13 replies on “(Always) Between Something and Nothing”

The greatest books and artworks are those that filter into everyday life and affect one’s perception of the world. This is a very good example of that, and a beautifully put together piece. I love the recordings adding so much more. I did some textile pieces when I was at Chelsea influenced by Rauschenberg but haven’t really looked at his work in relation to Cage before. The exhibition about to start at the Barbican in London is going to bring all this together, with lots of events – maybe worth you getting to it if you can! I’m looking forward to it and that book sounds a must too. Having just finished another Gary Snyder book I am feeling quite Zen at present!

Thanks for the comments Diana. It was only after I finally got around to reading Saturday’s paper that I found out about the Barbican exhibition. Looks really interesting, especially bringing in Duchamp as well. It’s on for some time so I may get the chance to see it. If not I’ll rely on you for a review! I really enjoyed the Larson book and I imagine that it will overlap with a lot of the content of the exhibition. Ah Gary Snyder! I have a collection of his poetry and essays which is never to far away. One of the ‘core’ collection. Thanks again.

What a great post. Cliche-d but, I couldn’t help thinking of Ballard and all those emptied out motorways and massive buildings. Eerie silence rather than living silence there.

Thanks for the comment Ann. Glad you liked it. I hadn’t actually thought of Ballard but now you come to mention it does add another dimension. Especially those commercial parts of cities which only seem to be inhabited during the day and most people disperse in the evening. The monolithic shells of invariably tall buildings and an eerie absence. May try to visit one of these places at night to see what can be seen/heard!

Thanks for this Fifepsy. It made me think about how background and foreground depend on each other. Like a page – the text only shows if there’s a contrasting background. There’s something similar with sound and other perception/aesthetics. There has to be that shunting between on and off for anything to step forward and be noticed, otherwise whatever is there as a constant becomes invisible background through habituation. So, I liked the way that you were stepping (travelling) between different site and sound states – feeling the urge to move on before the foreground slipped into that background state through familiarity.

As Trevor Paglen notes, blank spaces on maps often betray the presence of secret/hidden installations. A sort of un-empty emptyness, begging for attention. Stare at it long enough and something reveals (or your eyes go squiffy).

All the best.

Thanks Luke. Yes that shunting of attention between on/off is what I found fascinating about the Larson quote at the beginning regarding the Rauschenberg painting. There is no actual reproduction of the painting in the book so when I looked it up it just hit me immediately. The city maps with all the energy of the streets and this large white sphere right in the centre. Very subjective but it struck me like a visual representation of the experience of walking through a city. The hustle and bustle and noise of the cityscape interspersed with moments of calm and reflection if we turn our attention to notice. Your last comment also reminded of another famous Cage quote:

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” — John Cage.

All the best.

Good God, they really do sound like a tiny chorus of ‘Figaros’. Just last weekend I paused beneath a tree to listen to a group of birds – their singing was positively liquid; as if a river was flowing from branch to branch. It too was a dose of ‘urban silence’, I think, as I was standing in the middle of the parking lot at the Rose Bowl. Boyfriend frankly wanted to know what the devil I was on about.

Thanks Aubrey. I listened for around a couple of minutes before attempting the recording and there were many more ‘Figaros’ sung but glad to have captured a few. Just the act of standing, looking and listening also caused a few people to stop and see what I was doing/looking at.

Love this post, as a big fan of minimalist and ambient music too, I adore what people try and do with as little output as possible, just silence, breathing and the occasional tone. Last night I caught the first of BBC4’s new series The Sound and the Fury, it was interesting to see how composers slowly began to strip out the gloss in everyday music, that dead centre you mark out is clearly at some point a stark destination for them all and perhaps the true representation of the modern city? I never did get around to buying some Buddha machines though…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s