One day, we were looking at a composer by the name of John Cage. The main piece of his that we watched is called 4'33” (when spoken: “four minutes and thirty-three seconds”). This is a three-movement piece, and it lasts for a combined—you guessed it—four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Here is a link to a performance of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4
That's right, four minutes and twenty-three seconds of silence, timed by a man sitting at a piano with a stopwatch. The time is broken up into three intervals of thirty-three seconds, two minutes and forty seconds, and one minute and twenty seconds. And yet, it's not really silence. There is the constant noise of people shuffling and coughing, and at times whispering to each other. And that's the whole point. It is the audience who are making what music there is, by the sounds that they are making.
As I sat and watched the performance, I started to get annoyed. Cage's point was that any sound can be music, but this felt like cheating. Cage didn't even do anything! All he did was dictate the length of time the person would sit staring at the stopwatch. To be music, to be composing, there should at least be a little bit of work, shouldn't there?
As it progressed, though, I thought of something. Those noises, the shuffling and coughing and such? We would not hear those without the room being otherwise silent. Not only that, we would not hear them unless we were listening for something in a silent room. When things are silent, we notice things that we would not otherwise hear. My dad talks about a place outside of Cadiz, California, where he likes to watch for trains, where most of the time, the silence is so extensive that the ringing in your ears is loud enough to make them hurt. That's when you notice things you didn't before: in the silence.
And the thought occurred to me: where else do we get such a silence? Just about nowhere, that's where. Everywhere you go, people are talking, people or machinery or other things are moving, and there's noise.
The point that John Cage was trying to make was that any sound can constitute music, but the point that I came away with was completely different. When you go to see a performance of 4'33”, you are paying to spend four minutes and thirty-three seconds listening to the things you can hear in the silence. Why are you paying to hear that? Because you can't hear it anywhere else?
When did silence became a thing that people would pay to experience? And what does it say about our culture that that is the case?
We have trouble taking time to be still. Even as I write this, I am listening to music. I listen to music when I do the dishes and the laundry, when I write, when I work on schoolwork, and just about all the rest of the time. For many others, the same applies to YouTube videos or movies or any other type of entertainment. I believe that there is great value in music. Music has the power to calm us, to encourage us. But there is also great power in silence, and that is something that, by and large, has fallen by the wayside.
For some of us, it is the pressure that we feel to be productive. When we could be spending time thinking in silence, we are buried in video conferences for work, or working out in a crowded gym, or any number of other things. There is nothing wrong with that, in general, but I think we are harming ourselves by not taking time to rest.
I am not the only one that thinks this. There have been numerous studies that have shown that we are pushing ourselves and pushing each other to achieve more and more, to the point that we have begun pushing into unhealthy areas, all in the name of productivity. They all advocate for a better balance in our lives.
The Bible also points this out. Psalm 46:10 says to “Be still and know that I am God...” We were not made to be always pushing, always driving. Sometimes, we are supposed to just be still and rest, to sit in the silence and hear what we can hear, without worrying about any of the things that we worry about.
Am I good at this, even marginally? Not at all. But it is something that I am learning to do, and I think if more of us learned and practiced this, the world might be a calmer place. Our hearts certainly would be.
The other thing that I learned that day was this: no matter how terrible of a pianist I am, I will always be able to perform 4'33”.