Posts Tagged ‘Where the Heart Beats’

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Biology of 4’33”

August 11, 2012

Sorry for the lack of posts lately. I have been away for a yeast conference and have been playing catch up ever since. The conference went well. I got a lot of really good advice and got to meet a ton of very famous scientists in my field, which was very exciting for me.

The meeting was incredibly busy and tiring though, with sessions and talks going from 9am to like 11pm. I did get a chance to skip out for a few hours, explore the city, (Princeton, NJ) and do a little shopping. I found a pretty cool book that just came out called Where the Heart Beats, by Kay Larson. The book is sort of a mix between a biography about the American composer John Cage and a history of Zen Buddhism in the United States. John Cage, though his music is somewhat popular among certain niche groups, is mostly famous for being a music philosopher of sorts. He wrote a lot of incredibly experimental pieces that played with randomness, formally called chance music. For example, he wrote many pieces for a prepared piano, where the piano had been messed with by placing objects inside it, thus creating some very strange noises. The book has received fairly positive reviews, with the main criticism being that the writer spends most of her time discussing Zen and hypothesizing what Cage would have thought, and not enough time on his music or his later life.

Regardless, the book so far has been a very interesting read and has taught me a lot about Zen Buddhism. I did not know before how important Zen was to John Cage. John Cage’s most famous piece, 4’33” is a piece of complete silence. The orchestra, pianist, etc. enters the stage, sits in silence for 4 minutes and 33 seconds, and then bows and exits. Formally, the piece is divided into 3 continuous movements, but the average audience member would not realize.

The purpose of the piece is to reveal the sounds that are always around us. The sounds of people fidgeting, someone coughing, a door opening in the distance all become incredibly apparent when you sit in silence. Cage wrote this piece wanting us to realize that we are constantly surrounded by music, and that everyday noises are a piece by themselves.

But because I was at a biology conference, I started to really think about what this piece means to me, as someone who is not necessarily as in tune to my spiritual, Zen, side. While all the talks I was attending were about genetics and these incredibly high-throughput approaches to answer questions, I realized that this piece forces us to think about the noise in our experiments. In high-throughput approaches to science, we basically want to test everything we possibly can, or in other words throw a ton of money and resources to test every possible gene or protein in every possible way. What we get out of that is a ton of data that we then have to sort through. But what ultimately gets published as a result of all that data mining, are just the most interesting “hits” or things that passed a certain statistical test above the background noise (or all the seemingly unimportant stuff).

4’33” is not just about listening to silence and the random noises that occur around us all the time. It is about realizing that our entire lives are focused on the signal-to-noise ratio; we want the noise to be so low that the signal is obvious, clear, and easy. We listen to music on noise-canceling headphones to ensure we hear just what we want to hear and nothing else. We shop so that we make sure we see everything available to us, so that we know the choice thing we want to buy was the best. As scientists, we want very clear data that absolutely no one could argue with.

I think John Cage wants us to realize that there is something beautiful about the noise. When we listen to music, it is ultimately impossible to completely remove the noise and hear just the orchestra, the singer etc. Interestingly, I think many people do appreciate the importance of the noise. Obviously CD’s and MP3’s will provide the purest sound, yet old school records and record players are still sold today. That static that comes out of the record player is just as much part of the music.

As scientists, we need to accept the noise in our data and realize that it might be meaningful. We so often ignore the noise, only focusing on the hits because they are so clearly going to give us a reliable result. But who knows what we are missing in the noise?