The Sound of Silence

John Cage’s 4'33" is a famous piece of avant-garde ‘music’, in which the audience experience a framed silence. Cage believed that whatever the audience heard during the silence was music, and it causes us to question ‘what is music’? I’ve become a little bit obsessed with this glorious work, and the video below, which is of a performance at the beautiful Barbican in London.

4'33" by John Cage - John Cage Live at the Barbican - BBC Four Collections

This very self-aware work encourages self-awareness: In the video above the audience are appreciating the work, reacting as though they were listening to music. They are listening to, and appreciating the silence, and their faces display a calm, contemplative quality, in an almost meditative state. The audience are part of the performance: their existence creates the music. The susurrus of breathing, rustling, and the weight of silence created by the mute presence of hundreds of bodies is the music of the work. The piece wouldn’t work as a recording: it requires participation in order to exist as it does. The value of the work is created through presence, a communal event that, in this space, is akin to a religious experience.

4'33" can be read as a comment on the form; the convention of music and concerts, the rigidity and requirements of the space, and a critical reflection on the expected behaviours, reactions and conventions in this environment. This audience have been primed and prepared for exposure to the work, and they know what is obliged of them – I wonder how this piece would work amongst an audience who don’t know already. The orchestra, too, are ‘following’ the music, watching the conductor conduct the quiet: they adhere to their expected behaviours within this form and frame. I feel as though it is an endurance work for these talented musicians, to not play – although maybe it comes as a welcome rest during an evening of challenging orchestrations?

In the video, the main sound comes in the spaces of silence: when the conductor lowers his baton to signal a change in movement, this allows movement. The audience cough, shift, relax, and then return to their obligatory state of silent appreciation.

Sheet music for 4'33"

The piece is arranged: on the page and in the frame – the audience arrangement is that of agreeable appreciation; an understanding that this is a meditation on silence. The tacit agreement adheres to the tacet arrangement.

By framing time and space, highlighting the process through absence, the work creates value from nothingness. The idea of ‘making’ silence reflects, to me, the ‘signature’ of the artist, as in Duchamp’s Readymades – would 4'33" have value if Cage hadn’t already been well known prior to its creation?


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