For many of us right now, our lives are quieter than normal. And quiet can be unnerving. It can make you feel lonely, or just all too aware of the things you’re missing out on. I think about sound all the time.
I’m a sound designer, and I host the podcast “Twenty Thousand Hertz.” It’s all about the world’s most recognizable and interesting sounds. But I think this is the perfect time to talk about silence.
Because what I’ve come to understand is that there is no such thing as silence. And the person who opened my mind to this idea is one of the most influential composers in history. (Piano music) John Cage has made an impact on artists in many genres, from avant-garde musicians, to modern dance, to pop music.
Right now, we’re listening to his 1948 piece called “In a Landscape.” This version was recorded in 1994 by Stephen Drury. (Piano music) This piece is actually not very typical of John Cage’s writing.
He’s more known for his innovations and avant-garde techniques. But despite his reputation, no one was prepared for what he did in 1952, when he created the most daring piece of his career. It was called “4’33”,” and it was a piece that some critics even refused to call “music,” because for the entire duration of the piece, the performer plays nothing at all.
Well, to be technical, the performer is actually playing rest. But to the audience, it looks like nothing is happening. John Cage’s “4’33”” was performed for the first time in the summer of 1952, by renowned pianist David Tudor.
It was at the Maverick Concert hall in Woodstock, New York. This is a beautiful wooden building with huge openings to the outdoors. So, David Tudor walked out on stage, sat down at the piano, then closed the piano lid.
He then sat in silence, only moving to open and close the piano lid between each of the three movements. After the time was up, he got up and walked off the stage. (Piano music) The audience had no idea what to think.
It made people wonder if Cage is even taking his career seriously. A close friend even wrote to him, begging that he not turn his career into a joke. John Cage had, well, if you could call it, composed a piece of music that really challenged some very established ideas about music composition.
It’s something that musicians still debate today. To understand just what John Cage was thinking, let’s back up to the 1940s. Back then, John Cage was making a name for himself composing for the prepared piano.
To make music like this, John Cage would put objects inside the piano, between the strings. Things you just find lying around, like screws, tape and rubber erasers. So now, you’ve transformed the piano from a tonal instrument with high and low pitches into a collection of unique sounds.
The music you’re hearing is Cage’s “Sonata V,” from “Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano.” Probably his most famous work outside of “4’33”.” This version was performed by Boris Berman.
John Cage wrote incredibly detailed instructions about where to place each object in the piano. But it’s impossible for every performer to get the exact same objects, so the sound you get is always different.
Basically, it comes down to random chance. This was pretty bananas and pretty alien to the way most composers and musicians are taught to do things. John Cage was becoming increasingly interested in chance and randomness and letting the universe provide the answer to the question “What note should I play next?” But to hear the answer to the question, first, you have to listen.
And in the 1940s, listening to the universe was getting harder to do. The Muzak company was founded in the ’30s. It really took off, and soon, there was constant background music nearly everywhere.
It was almost impossible to escape. John Cage realized that people were losing the option to shut out the background music of the world. He worried that Muzak would prevent people from hearing silence altogether.
In 1948, four years before he wrote “4’33”,” John Cage mentioned that he wanted to write a four-and-a-half-minute-long piece of silence and sell it to the Muzak company. It started as something of a political statement or an offhand comment, but this idea struck a nerve and quickly evolved.
John Cage was starting to think deeply about silence. And when he visited a truly quiet place, he made a startling discovery. John Cage visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Anechoic chambers are rooms that are acoustically treated to minimize sound to almost zero.
There are no sounds in these rooms, so John Cage didn’t expect to hear anything at all. But he actually heard his own blood circulating. I’ve personally experienced an anechoic chamber, and it’s a really wild experience that can completely change your perceptions about sound and silence.
It really felt like my brain just turning up an amplifier, grasping for anything to hear. Just like John Cage, I could very clearly hear my blood pushing through my body. John Cage realized, in that moment, that no matter where we are, even our bodies are making sound.
There’s basically no such thing as true silence. As long as you are in your body, you’re always hearing something. This is where John Cage’s interest in chance and randomness met his interest in silence.
He realized that creating an environment with no distractions wasn’t about creating silence. It wasn’t even about controlling noise. It was about the sounds that were already there, but you suddenly hear for the first time when you’re really ready to listen.
That’s what’s so often misunderstood about “4’33”.” People assume it’s a joke, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It sounds different everywhere you play it.
And that’s the point. What John Cage really wanted us to hear is the beauty of the sonic world around us. “4’33”” should be a mindful experience that helps you focus on accepting things just the way they are.
It’s not something that anyone else can tell you how you’re supposed to feel. It’s deeply personal. It also brings up some pretty big questions about our sonic world. Is “4’33”” music, is it sound, is sound music? Is there even a difference? John Cage reminds us that music isn’t the only kind of sound worth listening to.
All sounds are worth thinking about. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset our ears. And if we become more conscious of what we hear, we’ll inherently make our world sound better. Quietness is not when we turn off our minds to sound, but when we can really start to listen and hear the world in all of its sonic beauty.
So in this spirit, let’s perform “4’33”” together, wherever you are. It’s three movements, and I’ll let you know when they start. Listen to the texture and rhythm of the sounds around you right now.
Listen for the loud and soft, the harmonic, the dissonant, and all the small details that make every sound unique. Spend this time as mindful and focused in this real-life sonic moment. Enjoy the magnificence of hearing and listening.
So here comes the first movement. Starting … now. [I. Tacet] And here’s movement two. It will be two minutes and 23 seconds. [II. Tacet] And here is the final movement. It will be one minute and 40 seconds.
[III. Tacet] And that’s it. We did it.