On Silence

I recently listened to a radio documentary on the American composer, John Cage. It led me to read a little more on this man who some referred to as a genius and others as a charlatan. Some of the following thoughts are based on an 2009 essay by James Pritchett, called “What Silence Taught John Cage. The Story of 4’ 33.”
4' 33", or as it is often called, “the silent piece”, is easily John Cage's most famous creation. I would say that anyone who recognizes Cage's name knows that he wrote a piece of music that consists entirely of silence. 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence to be precise.
It is not surprising that this piece would attract the kind of attention that it has. At its first performance in 1952, pianist David Tudor sat at the piano, opened the keyboard lid, and sat silently for thirty seconds. He then closed the lid. He reopened it, and then sat silently again for a full two minutes and twenty-three seconds. He then closed and reopened the lid one more time, sitting silently this time for one minute and forty seconds. He then closed the lid and walked off stage. That was all. That controversy and notoriety followed seems only natural.
Part of what made the event so dramatic is the utter simplicity of the concept. The composer creates nothing at all. The performer goes on stage and does nothing. The audience witnesses this very basic act, the act of sitting still and being quiet.
It goes without saying that the piece can be difficult for audiences. Sitting quietly for any length of time is not something to which people are accustomed in Western culture in general, much less in a concert hall setting. Confronted with the silence, in a setting we cannot control, and where we do not expect this kind of event, we might have any of a number of responses: we might feel insulted, thoughtful, cultured, baffled, bored, agitated, sleepy, attentive, philosophical, or, because we “get it”, a bit smug. But do we really think of 4' 33? as a piece of music? What did Cage mean when he made this piece? How are we supposed to take this music?
Let’s go back a little. Although silence was become central to Cage's work as a composer, the thing with which he was most often connected and the title of his first and most influential book of essays, in his early years, he had promoted the antithesis of silence: noise. He spoke of being “for more new sounds.” Cage enthusiastically embraced the use of percussion instruments as a way of expanding “music” to include sounds that reflected the industrial culture he observed around him: Cage argued that sounds are just sounds, all equally valid; that a composer acts as an experimenter, discovering new sonic possibilities; and that it is important to use twentieth-century technologies to create twentieth-century music.
In a 1937 essay Cage wrote: “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” However a contemporary review commented: “People call it noise—but [Cage] calls it music.”
Over the years Cage struggled to articulate his philosophy of sound; he collaborated with avant-garde dancers and artists and experimented with creating metrical sounds without instruments. He studied Eastern philosophy and aesthetics and was deeply influenced by an Indian musician who taught him that “the purpose of music is to quiet and sober the mind, making it susceptible to divine influences.”
From 1948 onwards Cage became more and more concerned with silence, its nature, and how to engage it compositionally. Cage had discovered that, for him, a silence was simply a span of time that was empty. Since music is built out of blocks of time, these blocks could contain either sound or silence.
Cage's excitement at the discovery of the musical power of silence brings us to his 1952 composition 4’ 33”: four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. So, how does an audience deal with the silent piece? There may be two ways: firstly to pay attention to the ambient sound we hear during the piece. “Oh,” we may say to ourselves, “there are all kinds of sounds going on in this space that I never noticed before.” We become interested in these noises and what we can detect for those four and a half minutes.
The other common way of dealing with the piece is to think about what it might mean: to think about the concept of silence, whether silence even really exists, the philosophical significance of a composer making a work that contains no willful sound, the composer's silence as a metaphor for any of a number of things, the political implications of putting the concert audience in this position.
But there is something more: the silence as pure silence (not as an aesthetic experience or a political or artistic anti-statement). So what are we to do with 4'33" The piece, perhaps, is a tribute to the experience of silence, a reminder of its existence and its importance for all of us. Ultimately, the experience of silence is not something that can be communicated from one person to another. “We are made perfect by what happens to us rather than by what we do,” as Cage quoted Meister Eckhart.
We have to do the work of facing silence ourselves, just as Cage did, or at the very least to simply notice it when it appears. The most helpful role for 4'33" is to inspire silence. It can remind us that it is up to us to turn our minds towards the silence, to recognize it as we encounter it, even if only for a moment.
As James Pritchett says: “Moments of deep silence appear for us spontaneously (if briefly, perhaps) for various reasons. You can see this yourself if you reflect over your experience and look for such moments. For myself, it was the silence that happened when I stepped out and heard the wind in the trees, forceful, calling me into the woods. It was the silence that happened when I held in my arms a loved one who was suffering. It was the silence that happened when, opening the door and expecting to see the morning stars, I saw the falling snow instead. When we touch the silence in moments such as these, we experience that same moment in which silence taught John Cage how to compose.”

Elaine Sisson                 reading from 30th September 2012
Dublin Unitarian Church