Silence: Exploring 4’33” by John Cage

Where Does Silence Begin?

Claude Debussy famously quipped “Music is the silence between the notes.”

Or consider this wisdom from an old Zen koan: “It is the silence between the notes that makes the music; it is the space between the bars that cages the tiger.”

Holding silence is difficult, musically and personally.

As a music teacher, I have noticed that the most common rhythm mistake is not counting rests correctly. We want to make the rest too short or add extra time. The correct silence, entered with intention and ended with beauty, is not easy.

In the headlong rush of our lives, creating space for silence requires effort. We turn on the TV or radio to create distraction. The noises of the house, office, people, and street are constant. Inward quiet is even more elusive.

4’33”

Composer John Cage has said that his most important work is 4’33”, an exploration of silence. In this composition, John Cage has written three movements of no music lasting exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The musicians simply sit on stage without playing instruments. The video below shows the soloist tuning her instrument and the conductor beginning each of the three movements.

The Musical Rorschach Test

How do you feel when listening to this piece? Impatient for it to be over? Curious about the sounds? Angry that people couldn’t be quiet in the hall? Perhaps you thought about the people at the concert who paid money to attend this concert.

I would argue that your perception of the piece reflects a bit of your subconscious. It’s like a musical Rorschach test. Everyone will see/hear something different. Your perception may change over time or with repeated hearings.

Rorschach test ink blot silence

Rorschach image

I first became aware 4’33” by John Cage in graduate school. A friend programmed it on his master’s recital. My reaction was, “That’s brilliant! Five minutes of music that he doesn’t have to prepare on his recital. Why didn’t I think of that?!” It seemed like a trick, a joke.

Now I am much more interested in the audience’s participation in 4’33”. In the video above, we hear noises during each movement and an explosion of sound between movements. This piece is successful because the audience has preconceived notions of what they are to do in a recital hall, ie. sit still and listen. But the hall is not silent. It never is. This helps me to remember that the audience is part of every performance. The audience creates an energy in a concert hall. Indeed, the audience is integral. Without an audience, the performance is just a rehearsal. Sometimes the audience is adding to the soundscape, as is made clear in 4’33.”

Finding the Stillness

In the days ahead, I challenge you to find some silence, realizing that it is never truly without sound. The beating of the heart, the hum of machines, are with us always. It is not necessary to silence the world, only to find peace among the sound. This is the spiritual practice of silence.

Find a stillness, hold a stillness, let the stillness carry me.

Find the silence, hold the silence, let the silence carry me.

In the spirit, by the spirit, with the spirit giving power.

I will find true harmony.   -Carl G. Seaburg (based on a Unitarian Transylvanian text)

 

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