Silence Please!

On August 29, 1952, in Woodstock, New York, pianist David Tudor walked onto the stage, perched himself on the piano bench to premiere “4′33″”, a piece for solo piano by John Cage. He closed the keyboard lid and then sat in silence for the duration of the piece—only opening and closing the keyboard lid to mark each of the three movements. The audience was initially confused, then became restless, and finally many walked out of the concert hall in disgust.

John Cage was an American composer, artist, writer, philosopher and one of the leaders of the post-war avant-garde who challenged listeners with experimental compositions characterized by the use of indeterminacy where chance (he often used the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes) played an integral role in the writing and performance of the music. His works employed innovative compositional techniques as well as unorthodox instrumentation including prepared pianos, where objects were placed on the strings and hammers, altering the instrument’s timbre. His work with choreographer Merce Cunningham is legendary. In addition to his musical output, he authored many books, most notably “Silence,” “M,” “Writings” and “A Year from Monday,” which I highly recommend.

“4′33″” is the culmination of Cage’s experiments with sound and silence that began when he entered the anechoic chamber—a soundproof room—at Harvard University in 1951.  Expecting to experience total silence, Cage was surprised. “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”  This realization of the impossibility of silence fascinated him and eventually led to this intriguing composition.

When Cage was asked to comment on the premiere of “4’3″,” he said, “They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

As I reflect on Cage’s seminal work, I am reminded that we are often surrounded with some of the most magnificent sounds ever imagined. But we have a tendency to want to fill up the white space, to plug up all holes. Well lately, I’ve been unplugging myself more often than not, and I like what I hear.

Whether you’re a musician, designer, artist or writer, listening is an essential skill to your craft. So the next time you’re in your car, turn off the radio or the CD player. And on your next walk, take the ear buds out. Listen. To the silence. You may be hear something that will inspire you to do something great.

Glenn John Arnowitz is Director of Global Creative Services for Pfizer and co-founder of InSource. He is a designer, musician, composer, writer, actor and speaker, always looking for new ways to scratch that insatiable creative itch.