Silence in stillness, stillness in silence

The unique experience of John Cage’s 4’33”


Eva Trainer / Daily Collegian

By Grace Lucey, Collegian Contributor

Stillness of body and sound is a moment of rest –– a time lapse. This moment, no matter the longevity, travels, resonates and resends. During this time, the artist and the spectator establish a bond in order to appreciate this beauty. Stillness allows silence to rest and reverberate for sound to return. It is the vessel for the traveling of music and any other sounds within the scape.

John Cage’s 1952 composition “4’33” explores silence and effects of potential stillness or even disturbance. Composed for any instrument, the piece calls for four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. The only noise comes from the environment. This artform allows the experiencer to delve into this sense of nothingness. As the audience sits and waits for this composition, they find themselves waiting for the music to begin. However, the idea of conventional music does not necessarily need sound production. Thus, this stillness of sound is a type of music, though it exudes emptiness.

Within Julian Dodd’s article “What 4’33” Is,” Cage’s intentions are explained as an unconventional artform. “We do not just hear sounds; we hear silence, the absence of sounds,” he says. The absence of sound is a subcategory of sound itself.  If nothing is something, and something can be theoretically anything and everything, then nothing can be everything. The true performance is the performance within the audience. It is used as an organizational tool regarding the spectator. It is the audience doing most of the work, not the artist himself.

Stillness may allude to an emptiness. However, emptiness does not have a negative connotation within the narratives of the artist. It is a necessary moment in the process of producing art. Stillness provides a needed silence for the spectator to marinate in the air filled with suspense. It permits sound to travel through this emptiness and creates endless possibilities. Within these possibilities, there can be a moment of reflection which mirrors the sound during this experimental process. These processes organize the audience’s experience when absorbing the sound, or lack thereof, around them.

Stillness maintains its authority regarding all other sounds the world may contain. Because there can never be any other sound compared to stillness, it holds an inexplicable power among the artist and audience. At times, this stillness can be intimidating, holding all other notes to a high standard. Whether purposeful or accidental, this stillness holds jurisdiction between the performer and spectator. It can be painful, confusing or boring. It can be bold, comforting, extinguishing and relieving.

During a performance, a moment of silence or stillness is crucial for a well-rounded experience. There would be an imbalance without it. The anticipation of movement of sound summons a particular anxiety. Petra Kupper’s article “Toward the Unknown Body: Stillness, Silence, and Space In Mental Health Settings” delves into the inner workings of the mind when confronted with the stillness of sound, and therefore, silence. This silence, as described through the discussion of John Cage’s musical piece “4’33,” “‘…quickly becomes something filled and meaningful: members of the audience moving in their seats, clearing their throats, one’s own heartbeat, one’s breath–all these aural effects make each performance a distinctive, interactive event.’” A connection is made between the audience and the artist, leaving them a part of the experience as well. The artist’s stillness is then mirrored and echoed within the spectator. They engage with not only the image presented on the stage, but the performers themselves.

In addition, when examining Deborah Hay’s experimental choreography of silence and stillness, it is important to take note of  “Through this pursuit of stillness, Hay’s dances concern themselves more with multiple cellular experiences unfolding simultaneously in the body, perceived both by the dancer and the spectator, who join each other as rapt audience of the living body.” Stillness is a performance itself which draws attention from the stage to the audience.

Though there is a stillness of sound, it might produce a disturbance of the body. Silence is often an uncomfortable feeling and makes the experiencer question reality. When there is stillness of sound and body, it makes the audience feel as though they are doing something wrong, something criminal. However, Cage hopes his audience embrace this silence and become acquaintances with it. Music is not linear but a continuum ––  a concept which revolves around itself. It reflects thoughts and the silence that comes before and after the noise.

Grace Lucey can be reached at [email protected].