Much of John Cage’s work pokes holes in concert traditions or basic art constructs. In 4’33” he turns the mirror on the audience so that instead of hearing music, they hear themselves. Today, 4’33” is traditionally viewed as the ultimate gimmick. A silent piece. A piece containing no “music.” You could argue that it’s not strictly a piece of piano literature, but John Cage did premiere it while seated at the piano.
Yes, there is a bit of humor in the “emperor’s new clothes” emptiness of it, and people love to have a laugh when they found out that there is a published sheet music edition, and that commercial recordings exist. But quite frankly, I’m tired of this piece being a punchline. It’s funny, but it’s also beautiful.
I’ve been present at two performances of 4’33”, and if you haven’t, I’m going to try to describe it to you. As soon as it begins, the room fills with anticipation, a sense of tension and focus that, in a way, is just as loud as music. The performer or performers are frozen in time, hands positioned over their instruments. At some point you feel the audience relax, accept the silence, and start listening to sounds around the space. I remember a performance at a college student’s percussion recital, held in the afternoon in a large chapel. A baby present in the audience cooed at one point, creating the largest sound event. Hazy afternoon light streamed through the windows. We were all sitting still, frozen just like the performer, aware that we were alive and all going through this experience together. I felt relief, satisfaction, and overall well-being at the end. The audience members looked around at each other and smiled. Somehow a silent piece created more inherent subconscious feelings of community than many traditional works of music.
Aside from philosophical contexts that likely informed this piece, I think Cage really just wanted us to listen more closely to our world, and to experience stillness and quiet. Opportunities for real silence are quickly disappearing in the modern world. And because they’re rare, 4’33” might remind us of the times when we are truly silent: a moment of prayer, a moment in nature, a quiet corner of a library. It might fill us with regret that we haven’t been this quiet in a long time.
Sometimes silence can be uncomfortable. Emma Gonzalez, survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, delivered a speech at the March for Our Lives event in 2018 in which she stopped speaking after two minutes and stood silently for about four more minutes before resuming. Her intention was to mark the amount of time that elapsed during the shooting, and, though it may sound cheap to say, the silence spoke volumes. Much like a performance of 4’33”, the crowd’s brief confusion gave way to understanding, acceptance. A moment frozen in time. The camera cutting between Emma’s tear-stained face and the crowd reflecting on this inconceivable tragedy. The silence louder than a scream. It’s one of the most powerful things I’ve ever seen.
4’33” can be treated as a joke, but I think most people who actually experience a live performance come away surprised at how meaningful and healing it is. I can’t wait for the next chance to sit through it, to feel the electricity of silent humans all around, to reflect on the thoughts of the moment and remember that I’m alive.