Silence by Valentin Bazarov
John Cage’s piece 4’33” – the infamous four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence – is commonly thought of as a joke. Even serious music criticism has a hard time treating it as little more than a novelty:
However, 4’33’ demonstrates both the strength and the weakness of Cageian method. It was a great idea that still packs a certain punch as theory – but does it live as a piece? Hardly. Like a comedian’s joke, you can only use it once per audience and that’s it. Done.”
In a concert setting, one is naturally inclined to focus on auditory sensations. In most Western cultures this is actually work for many people, and so listening is a good way to focus one’s attention. What Cage has done is to use this setting to introduce this kind of attention, not as a one off joke, but as an introduction to a practice.
Here is what I think is implicit in 4’33”: it is an invitation. It invites us to notice what fills the spaces we leave in the world when our awareness frees itself from a predictable fixation and travels around our environment. In this sense of course, 4’33” will be different every time it is “performed.” Four and a half minutes of silence is never the same. In fact, take that time right now and sense what you hear.
Beyond the noises, beyond what is “out there”, is the noises “in here:” thoughts, self-talk, reflections, insight. The next level of awareness can be about our reaction to the silence. Are we uncomfortable? Do we squirm? Or can we rest into what is around us right now and pay attention to the questions and the thoughts that arise in our mind as we navigate the relationship between our minds and our environment.
In fact, experiencing 4’33” over and over will develop in us a capacity to reflect with pointed and deep awareness. As a performance, perhaps 4’33” is a bit of an unrepeatable joke, but as an invitation, it might actually be a quick way to introduce the practice of introspection, whether in a concert hall, or sitting in front of a computer. Repeated over and over, our appreciation of the silences between events grows, and perhaps our need to fill space lessens.