The Sounds of Silence

One morning recently, when an early start was less than welcome, Petroc Trelawney’s cheerful invitation on R3 Breakfast to suggest music to be played as a wake-up call prompted me grumpily to think of recommending John Cage’s 1952 work, 4’33”. The piece is completely silent. It is ironical to think that a composer’s best known work consists, musically, of – nothing.

Or does it? If you attend a performance of the piece without knowing what to expect, the event is quite a shock. Enforced listening with a background of silence makes you aware of the sounds inside and outside a venue, and can lead to lively discussion, as well as being an experience outside the usual music comfort zone. Perhaps 4’33” is puzzling for some, perhaps humorous for others, but it is unforgettable. Performing the piece can be quite a challenge, too – stillness is not easy. A pianist is permitted to close and open the piano lid between movements, but this can be a distraction. A performance for full orchestra is here, with Tommy Pearson and Tom Service talking about it afterwards.

 Prepared pianos were another speciality of Cage –

 Cage was truly a 2oth century Renaissance Man – a musician, an artist, a writer, a thinker. His work with choreographer Merce Cunningham had a far-reaching influence on modern dance. But perhaps his greatest legacy was to challenge us to listen, and to appreciate sound for its own sake.

He is not the first musician, of course, to consider the effect of silence. Mozart wrote: ‘The music is not in the notes but in the silence between the notes’. Hmm …  Rather less obscurely, the use of silence in rests within notated music is very important: for proportion, balance, clarity, structure, articulation and to clear the musical airspace before a significant entry.

Leopold Stokowski speaks of a different kind of silence: ‘A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence. We provide the music, and you provide the silence.’ A completely silent backdrop against which a performance is ideally heard is rare – unless a miracle of music-making occurs of such extraordinary magic that the audience collectively is hushed, hardly even daring to breathe, let alone cough. And the best silence of all is when an audience respectfully delays its applause after a quiet ending.

2012 is the  centenary of his John Cage’s birth; perhaps it can best be celebrated by listening, and by – celebrating!

“What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposeless or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.”
John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings

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