John Cage: Echoes of the Anechoic

April 28, 2023 | 0:26:17

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Today we explore the mythology around John Cage’s visit to the anechoic chamber. The chamber was designed to completely eliminate echoes. Ironically, the tale of Cage’s experience in that space has echoed through history, affecting our understanding of silence, sound, and the self. But what do we really know about what happened there? And what could we ever know about such an event? In this audio essay, based on a piece that first appeared in the Australian Humanities Review, Mack Hagood explores the relationship between sound, self, and meaning-making. To use a term Cage loved, the truth is indeterminate. 

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Writing and media content featured in this episode: 

Today’s show was written and edited by Mack Hagood. 

Original music and sound design by Mack Hagood. 

Special thanks to Monique Rooney and Australian Humanities Review


[5:19]: Cages Echoes Of The Anechoic by Mack Hagood

Ethereal Voice: This is Phantom Power.

[ Voice Generator]

Mack: Welcome to another episode of Phantom Power, a show about sound in the arts and humanities. I’m Mack Hagood. 

And what you just heard are the words of John Cage, the legendary composer, performer, and theorist of music and sound and silence. But what you did not hear was John Cage’s voice. Instead, I typed his words into a machine learning text to speech generator called

It’s a website where users have modeled hundreds and hundreds of famous and semi-famous voices. I looked for John Cage. He was not on the menu, so I looked for the closest matches to his voice that I could find, and I settled on horror movie legend Vincent Price. 

That was the creepy voice panned a little bit to the left, and Hal 9000, the talking computer from 2001, A Space Odyssey, voiced by Canadian actor Douglas Rain. I also tried Boo Boo Bear from the old Hanna-Barbera Yogi Bear cartoons, but Boo Boo did not make a convincing Cage. 

Of course, the ethics of using the modeled voices in the way that I did well, those ethics are not great. Whether or not the law provides any protection for voices, voices do not fall under copyright law as it is currently conceived. But this is the time for scholars to be playing with these things, getting to understand them, and figuring out precisely what those ethics are. 

And one of the most fascinating parts of my little experiment for me was how quickly these models went off the rails. All of the nonsense utterances that you heard, the sort of stuttering and so on. All of that was spontaneously generated by Uberduck. 

So we’ve been hearing about how so-called AI hallucinates with those large language models. I guess it mutters and babbles too.

But our show today is not about AI, although our last episode was about AI and sound and music and voices, so if you missed that, check that one out. 

Today’s show is about John Cage. I recently had the pleasure of contributing a piece to a special issue of the Australian Humanities Review. It was a celebration of the 70th anniversary of John Cage’s piece: 4’33. 

That is the famed 1952 performance where pianist David Tudor sat at the piano, closed the lid, looked at a stopwatch, and then sat at the piano in silence, quietly turning the pages of Cage’s blank score until it was time for him to rise and take a bow. 

Editor Monique Rooney assembled a great collection of sound and music scholars to reflect on Cage’s legacy, including names you might know, like Shelly Trower, Douglas Kahn, and David Toop (link in the show notes to see all of the original essays.)

But today, I’m gonna share a revised audio version of my essay. It’s called Cage’s Echoes of the Anechoic.


[Robotic Transition Music]

John Cage: It was after I got to Boston that I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Anybody who knows me knows this story. I am constantly telling it. 

Anyway in that silent room. I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward, I asked the engineer in charge, “Why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds?”

He said, “Describe them.” I did. 

He said, “The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.”

Mack: It’s among the most legendary tales in the lore that surrounds John Cage. Alongside 4’33 and his use of the I Ching to create indeterminate music, there is Cage’s visit to the anechoic chamber at Harvard. 

The anechoic chamber was housed in the acoustical laboratory on Harvard’s campus. It was a completely echoless room. Acoustically isolated from the outside world. The walls were made of concrete, a foot thick, and there were these acoustic wedges that protruded at all angles from the floor and ceiling. Suspended from the ceiling. There was a grated metal gangway, and I suppose that’s where Cage stood, or sat, and listened to the silence.

On his 1959 album with David Tudor, Indeterminacy, Cage told the story with a koan like lack of embellishment, while Tudor in another room played random selections from Cages compositions and taped music.

[Snippet from Indeterminacy]

Mack: Cage and Tudor can’t hear one another. They’re occupying different sonic spaces and different sonic practices. One is telling stories, the other is making music. 

There’s a purposeful non relation to their collaboration. But, nevertheless, in the perception of the listener, the sounds they make are brought into relation.

Tudor so happens to generate a high whistling sound and a low scratchy rumbling sound just as Cage begins the tale.

[Snippet from Indeterminacy]

As a listener, I find it impossible not to hear these as foreshadowing representations of Cage’s nervous system and circulatory system, even though they are plainly not so, or at least not intentionally so. 

This phenomenon happens repeatedly on the album, as in the previous story to the anechoic chamber one, where there’s an utterance, “The pen was tearing the paper to shreds,” and then that’s immediately punctuated by a dissonant piano chord. 

[Snippet from Indeterminacy]

Interestingly, the more I listen to Indeterminacy, the more wedded these sounds and their so-called meanings seem to become

[Snippet from Indeterminacy]

This is a perplexing and delightful aspect of Cage’s provocations. The listener’s oscillation between the ontological and the representational. The concrete and the socially constructed. The random and the intentional. 

In his book, Silence, Cage undermines such dualities with characteristic pith.

[Snippet from rendition of Silence by John Cage]

The coincidences of the nineties stories and the electronically and acoustically generated sounds on Indeterminacy, allow me to observe my own mind as a fabrication plant. 

Like the Zen practice that inspired Cage, Indeterminacy shines a light on the contingent and insubstantial nature of our coming to believe in something.

This enlightening potential of the album is dependent on the acousmatic distance that sonic mediation provides. That’s the non-hearing, non-seeing space that separates Cage and Tudor, as well as the time, distance, and physical distance that prevents me from seeing the pair. 

The distance, paired with my knowledge of the distance, allows me to glimpse the stochastic aspect of knowing anything at all.

[Snippet from Indeterminacy]

The meaning of Tudor’s, whistling and rumbling wasn’t there. 

[Snippet from Indeterminacy]

But now it’s here. 

[Snippet from Indeterminacy]

 And I can’t un unhear it.

Tempered in the furnace of the mind, a contingent association between sense and sense making becomes an alloy harder and sharper than anything one might call the world itself.

[Robotic Music]

Which brings me back to the anechoic chamber. Built at Harvard’s Electro-Acoustic Laboratory for the purpose of taming noise and enhancing communication and combat during World War II, the chamber was a 50 foot room built of sound deadening concrete and fiberglass. 

Since its construction in 1943, a number of other anechoic chambers have been built for research purposes and a certain amount of lore has developed around them.

In the popular imagination, these are haunted spaces, places individuals enter alone to encounter the phantoms that haunt their minds and auditory systems. Places where people would go mad if left there alone long enough. 

[People Talking About The Anechoic Chamber]

But like Cage’s 4’33, the anechoic chamber tempts us with the novelty of silence, but immediately our attention is drawn away. First to the sounds that come to fill the silence, then to the meanings we inevitably make of these sounds, and then to the thoughts, feelings, and desires generated by those meanings.

This is precisely what happens to Cage himself. He enters the chamber to hear silence, but instead hears the two sounds high and low. He then wants to know the meaning of these sounds, which the engineer is only too happy to supply. 

Cage is highly receptive to the engineer’s interpretation as it reinforces certain intellectual and effective investments that he has already made.

He becomes attached to this sound-meaning relationship, incorporating it not only into his sense of silence, but also into his sense of self as made clear by one disquietingly, all caps pronouncement in his book, Silence.  

[Snippet from rendition of Silence by John Cage]

Cage hears the phantom self noise of the nervous system, the very ground for any possibility of silence, and it’s speaking for itself. Superseding the primacy of the agentive rational subject, it leaves Cage himself speechless, yet nevertheless speaking,

The true silence of the circulatory system could only mean death. In this understanding, sentient life is necessarily haunted by its own noisy silence

Transmitted to others via Cage’s many spoken, written, and recorded tellings of this story, th phantom cluster of sound, self and meaning exercises, its own agency, inserting itself into the nervous and circulatory systems of others, influencing their senses of sound and self. 

Some writers have passed along the anechoic hamber story, basically uncritically. Still, others have claimed to debunk the physiology described in the process of constructing their own alternate senses of sound and self, which have nevertheless been influenced by Cage’s story. 

To trace all the discursive ripple effects and effective attachments set in motion by Cage’s one brief stay in the chamber would be impossible. As anyone who has tried to sit Zazen can tell you, silence spawns an incredible amount of babble. 

It seems unlikely that these ironic echoes of the anechoic will cease anytime soon.

[Robotic Music]

In his recent book, Echo, Amit Pinchevski notes that echoes differ from reverberation and resonance because their sound is both temporaly distinct and qualitatively different from the sound that produces them. In an echo one hears the past made strangely present. 

When it comes to both sound and meaning, echoes express the unavoidable influence of time and space. The inherent relationality of everything that we mistakenly label information as if it could exist in the absence of its setting.

It is, Pinchevski writes, “The context of echoing that determines its effect, whether amplifying the message or subverting it.”

[Robotic Music Fades Into Naxi Music]

Pinchevski wrote those particular words in reference to the multivalent context of social media memes and retweets, but they’re equally true of musical echoes. In her book, Echoes of History, Helen Rees studies the seemingly unchanging tradition of Naxi ancient music to find rich social variation in its generative repetition.

Witnessing how this music has served both Daoism and Buddhism, the Han majority and the Naxi minority, the Chinese state and foreign tourists, one comes to appreciate the ever-changing meanings of tradition.

[Philip Glass Piano Music]

Along a much shorter timeline, we can note minimalism’s contextual transformation from a downtown New York experimental form to a film soundtrack genre to a streaming productivity aid for knowledge workers.

With each echo, the past is made present in a way that would be strange in the context of that past. Yet it’s variation is perfectly in keeping with minimalism’s musical ethos of transformation through repetition.

The very purpose of the anechoic chamber is to silence the context that forever remakes sound and meaning. The chamber functions by reflecting nothing back. The mission of the Harvard Electro-Acoustic lab was after all to facilitate clear vocal communication in the bombast of war, to enable military personnel to speak and hear as if their bombs and engines were not deafingly present.

Today, anechoic chambers are used in research and in the development of loud speakers, hearing aids, and other communication technologies. 

By killing context, the chamber attempts to give us access to the sound itself. 

In a space devoid of all reflection, a sound can only be heard when transmitted directly from the transmitter to the receiver, like information. 

[Snippet From News Report Featuring Trevor Cox]

Acoustic engineer and science writer, Trevor Cox, once recorded a gun firing in an an echoic chamber. 

[Snippet From News Report Featuring Trevor Cox]

The sound of the gun, normally loud enough to damage one’s hearing, was less impactful than the sound of a finger snap in a typical room. 

[Snippet From News Report Featuring Trevor Cox]

The sound itself, it turns out, was barely a sound at all.

On a perceptual level then, even a sound with the violent potential amplitude of a gunshot can be said to barely exist without its reflective echoic environment. 

To echo a familiar assertion, by the time we hear a sound, it is already in the past. That is, it has worked itself through, against, and away from the resonant space that is necessary for any sound to be heard at all.

The assertion may be familiar, but its implications are difficult to assimilate. We want to believe that something determinant happened to John Cage in that anechoic chamber. That he heard two sounds, one high and one low. That if we could only dampen the noisy echoes of history, we could hear these sounds themselves, isolate the relevant information and know it’s true meaning.

But this is to embrace the false promise of the anechoic over the truth of Cage’s indeterminacy, the unavoidable and unpredictable creativity of time and space. 

The chamber was silent. It is the echoes that sound.

[Robotic Music]

And that’s it for this episode of Phantom Power. Today’s essay Cage’s Echoes of the Anechoic was written and edited by me, Mack Hagood. 

Special thanks to Monique Rooney and Australian Humanities Review for the opportunity to do some thinking about John Cage and for letting me produce this audio version of my essay. Links to the essay and the entire AHR issue in Cage are in our show notes. 

Today, we heard excerpts from Nam June Pike’s 1973 Video Global Groove, John Cage’s 1959 album with David Tudor, Indeterminacy

The video, Can Silence Actually Drive You Crazy? by Veritasium. Terry Gross’s 2014 Fresh Air Interview with Trevor Cox, the album Naxi Live by Djang San and the Dayan Naxi Orchestra. 

Shani Diluka’s performance of Glassworks Opening by Philip Glass and all the other music was by little old me. 

As always, I’d love to hear your feedback on the essay or anything else about the show. You can reach me at 

We have one more episode for this season. It’s an interview with Amit Pinchevski, who I just mentioned. We’re gonna talk about his wonderful cultural history of echoes, so keep an ear out for that and I’ll talk to you next time.

[Robotic Music Fades]