“To Raise Our Eyes”: Traffic, Beethoven, and Habit

“The sound experience which i prefer to all others, is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different.”

-John Cage

Cage is keying in on the order of sound – the place of sonority within a span of time. If that is the case, Beethoven is repetitious. A symphony will follow the same path it does today as it did in 1899. Both performances have an identical road map. Not traffic. 5 o’clock rush hour will be different on Tuesday and Thursday: honking will happen at varying durations, people will scream at one moment as opposed to another, braking sounds abrasive one day and subtle the next. Each variable is not pre-ordained.

In a way Cage is correct. There is no order from which traffic derives from. Any semblance of it is contingency. Traffic makes up a non-repeatable experience. The road map acts like a palimpsest, erasing itself after each performance.

But is it that simple?

What if one is not familiar with the road map of a Beethoven symphony? Justin Davidson mentions this in his article “Beethoven’s Kapow”. “Classical music neophytes”, he explains, “often worry that they don’t have enough background to appreciate a performance, but the opposite is often true: They’re the ones who listen without preconceptions and who are primed for danger and unpredictability.” A Beethoven symphony can surprise us as much as an unsuspected honk. 

One could also argue that traffic has its own redundancies. Its ensemble is usually made up of car horns, brakes, chatter of people, etc. Traffic and a Beethoven symphony share in possessing a select assortment of sounds. Within these assortments variation will occur. But to say that it is more so with traffic is a stretch. There are different cars that pass through as there are violin models within every orchestra.

Then there is the listener. Where you are perched to listen to traffic is like a seat in a concert hall. It could be from your window or the bus stop on your commute. Going back there again and again, like the same seat, puts one in a familiar listening environment each time. The sound could be different every day, traffic or another Beethoven symphony, but your seat is constant. Sameness sets in.

The French philosopher Michel de Montaigne, not familiar with either modern traffic or Beethoven, reflected on how force of habit can create this sameness. “Shoesmiths, millers, and armourers could not live in the din that strikes their ears,” he says in an essay, “if they were stunned by it as we are.” Neither could a resident of a city bustling with traffic. She grows familiar to it, drowning it. The same could be said for a classical music concertgoer. A Beethoven symphony will become a habit after many listens. This familiarity allows for a memory of its contents for deeper contemplation and conversation.

“Stealthily and little by little”, Montaigne writes further, habit “sets the foot of her authority upon us but having, by this meek and humble beginning, fixed and planted it with the aid of time, she presently uncovers a furious and tyrannical countenance, to which we are no more at liberty even to raise our eyes.”

Habit governs our daily countenance and how we listen. To upend it would leave us in a state of turmoil, an anxiety ridden life in the present. Instead, we have to find ways we can raise our eyes from time to time. This is what Cage meant in his comment about traffic. His aside on Beethoven makes Cage as much a victim of habit. It is commonality that takes away from Beethoven and traffic’s wonder and strangeness.

If we can relieve ourselves from habit often, who knows how that might inform or alter our listening. Maybe raising our eyes can become its own kind of habit.

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