“…silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.” —John Cage

The most famous instance of silence in the American arts had its debut almost half a century ago, on August 29, 1952, a muggy night in Woodstock, New York, the artists’ colony two hours north of New York City. Pianist David Tudor stepped on stage at the Maverick Concert Hall and walked over to a grand piano. He closed the lid, silencing the instrument. Seating himself on the piano bench, he opened the score, set a stopwatch, and folded his hands. John Cage’s 4’33’’—the “silent piece”—was about to begin.

Tudor sat without moving for 30 seconds as the wind gusted through the wide-open rear doors of the hall. Then he stood, moved to the piano’s side, raised the lid, closed it, and sat down. He did nothing for 2 minutes, 23 seconds, while rain pattered on the roof and people muttered in their seats. Again he stood, opened, and closed the lid, and sat for 1 minute, 40 seconds. The hall was filled with the sounds of people storming out and starting their cars. Tudor rose, opened the lid, and walked offstage.

Whatever the audience may have thought—and for years, people screamed, whistled, and howled during performances—Cage was adamant that his silent piece was not a joke. It was his statement of essence, his return to principles. “Not a day goes by without my using that piece in my life and work,” he wrote many years later.

Although Cage conceived the piece in 1948, he didn’t actualize it until after he began studying Zen with D.T. Suzuki at Columbia University in 1950. Cage had been drawn to Suzuki after and intensive immersion in Hindu and Buddhist texts and Western mysticism during the last half of the 1940s. Books whetted Cage’s fascination with Eastern ideas, but ultimately they were not enough. Once Cage began attending Suzuki’s lectures, he discovered what he needed—in Zen. After Cage met Suzuki, his whole life changed. The turning was not the acoustic. It was a whole body-and-mind transformation.

The silent piece has always baffled commentators. But if we look at 4’33’’ from a Buddhist viewpoint, it makes perfect sense on many levels. For Suzuki, the Buddha’s penultimate act was to sit silently. Suzuki cited the traditional story of a wandering philosopher who, unsatisfied by everything he had heard in his travels, pressed the Buddha for answers to his urgent life questions. The Buddha folded his hands and sat silently.

The usual observation about 4’33’’ is that it opened you to the sounds around you. That’s true enough, but limited. We might well ask: Where is the line that divides me from my ears? And my ears from everything?

Not only sound, but the whole of life flows in us and through us at all moments. It is only we who wall it off into seconds, divide it into categories, label it “music” or “noise,” judge it, “compose” it. Cage welcomed whatever passed through. His instruction was, simply, don’t hold on.

“Our poetry now is the realization that we possess nothing,” Cage wrote. “Anything therefore is a delight (since we do not possess it) and thus [we] need not fear its loss.”

I performed 4’33’’ recently at Bard College, in Annandale-on-Hudson, across the Hudson River from Woodstock. On my way there I ran into a friend who said, “I heard that piece two years ago at the Maverick Concert Hall. It made me so ANGRY.” I asked her why. “Where is the MUSIC?” she said.

4’33’’ creates a crisis of expectations. You bring your complexes, your ideas, your baggage about “art” into the concert hall. Merely switch the scenery, however, and expectations fly out the window. At Bard, Tatjana von Prittwitz, the curator of an exhibition centered on the German conceptualist Joseph Beuys, had arranged an afternoon of Cage’s music (Cage and Beuys were friends). Bard students expected a “happening” or an “art event” and came prepared. Nobody stormed out. Nobody raised a fuss. They had merely traded on set of expectations for another.

So where is the music? In performing, I set the stopwatch and sat quietly until the hand had passed a number on the dial. A few people whispered, but otherwise the only sound was the swish of camera shutters: a 3-D mechanical whir from the culture of today.

The only characteristic of 4’33’’ is duration. Otherwise the piece is absolutely contiguous with the world. It IS the world.

“When I write a piece,” Cage said, nearly forty years after the debut of 4’33’’, I try to write it in such a way that it won’t interrupt this other piece which is already going on.” The other piece, Cage noted, is the music of the world. “The Indians regard it as continuous. It is only we who turn away.”

The duration of 4’33’’ is arbitrary. A “silent piece” could last four hours and 33 minutes—or a lifetime. Duration is the marker of your life and mine. Otherwise, we too, are contiguous and continuous, and interpenetrating ceaselessly.

But within this seamless flow, my mind supplies interpretations. Cage designed 4’33’’ with acute awareness of the psychological components of tie. The first movement (which can be 30’’ or 33’’ in different versions) is just long enough to provoke a question: What’s going on? The second (2’20’’, or 2’40’’) is interminable. Every rustle is magnified. Your mind is on high alert. If you have even a modicum of anxiety about being still, the third movement (1’20’’ or 1’40’’) will propel you into action.

Cage’s interest in silence came into focus in Suzuki’s classes and was intensified by his experience in 1951 in an anechoic chamber—a perfectly soundproofed tank—at Harvard. He was stunned to realize he could still hear sounds: blood rushing behind his ears, his buzzing nervous system. The experience for him was comparable to the mediator’s discovery that the supposed stillness of zazen is actually crammed full of “me.” In the anechoic chamber, Cage discovered that there was no such thing as absolute silence. The phrase is a trick of nomenclature, a phantom of naming. Even in the most silent of all places, the music of being alive still arises. To hear its harmonies, Cage realized, he would have to turn down the volume of the self’s solo song.

In 1951, in Music of Changes, Cage began to use change and indeterminacy so he could get himself out of the way. From then on, he did everything he could to dismantle likes and dislikes—his own and others’—and to turn body and mind, ears and heart, toward the nonintentional.

“If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego,” he wrote. “You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.”

In all his career, Cage’s purest statement of no-self was 4’33’’.

Western composers intend their music to be repeated pretty much the same way in each performance. They also mean for it to “do” something: to express an idea of an experience, to “go somewhere.” The silent piece has no intention but to BE the moment. One performance can never be like the next even if the second follows immediately. When the work is the world—as in real life—anything can happen in it.

Cage’s silences have provoked (even Buddhist) audiences to fist fights and name calling. One recording of a Cage performance in Milan is punctuated by the sounds of tomatoes splatting on a stage. At Naropa—the Buddhist-inspired school in Colorado started by Trungpa Rinpoche—a performance turned violent; people whistled and shrieked; one audience member leaped onstage and ripped off Cage’s glasses.

Whatever mayhem exploded around him, Cage always remained unmoved. He saw that praise and blame are embedded in samsara, the world of delusion. He endured the hostility of audiences with wisdom that often included a trace of sadness.

Accepting change, accepting not-knowing, accepting indeterminacy, Cage, letting go of “music,” found the world. Free of likes and dislikes, released from goals, not hemmed by anything but duration, the silent piece it life in its boundless dimension.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .