Sounds of Silence

My pops and I were talking on the phone this morning about avant-garde art and music, and he brought up John Cage. I don’t know much about the man so I decided to do some research and what I found was very inspiring! Born in 1912, Cage was one of the leading figures of the post-war avant-garde movement — he was a creator of art, music, and philosophy that was highly nontraditional, innovative, experimental, radical, and unorthodox with respect to the status quo of popular culture. His most famous piece was a 1952 composition called 4’33” (perhaps Jay-Z’s new album 4:44 is a nod to Mr. Cage? I wouldn’t be surprised.) The performance of 4’33” involves John Cage sitting at a piano for four minutes and thirty three seconds without playing anything***.

The purpose of this experience is to showcase the sounds of the environment heard by the audience. A challenging idea to popular definitions of art performance and culture, indeed! (***Now that I think about it, I am sure Jay Z is familiar with the work of John Cage — back in 2013, Jay performed the Magna Carta Holy Grail track “Picasso Baby” for six straight hours — inspired by another great revolutionary of the avant-garde art movement Marina Abramović, who, in her 2010 The Artist is Present performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, sat for 3 months, 8 hours a day, simply to stare into the eyes of gallery visitors who had been waiting in line for their turn to take the single seat across from her.)

Below I have transcribed an interview I saw called “John Cage About Silence” — he describes his fascinating thoughts about the curious relationships between listeners and sound. He finishes by saying “The sound experience which i prefer to all others, is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different” — quite a unique perspective, Mr. Cage! In the interview he decouples the experience of hearing music from the feeling that music is somehow so important. I am aroused by this idea because for my whole life, I have held this belief — and so have all of my friends and family and anyone I’ve ever known — Music is vital, essential, profound! I appreciate Mr. Cage and all revolutionary thinkers and philosophers for offering a different perspective.

This particular notion, that silence is the greatest sound, is quite Buddhist and spiritual in fact — silence is the emptiness, the void of infinite potential from which all possible realities spring forth. Silence is soil, from which blooms a garden of sound. In our Western modern culture of industry and capitalism, we have become accustomed to non-stop productivity. We are addicts for action, and have forgotten the human value of meditation, which develops our patience and serenity and inner-expansiveness. It is important to listen to our elders, our peers, and even our children — for everyone has gems of wisdom that help us along our journey to understanding what is truly valuable in a culture of commercial vanity and conformism.


“When i hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings or about his ideas, of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic here on sixth avenue for instance, I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking, I have the feeling that a sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound. What it does, is it gets louder and quieter, and it gets higher and lower. And it gets longer and shorter. I’m completely satisfied with that, I don’t need sound to talk to me.

We don’t see much difference between time and space, we don’t know where one begins and the other stops. So that most of the arts that we think of as being in time and most of the arts we think of as being in space. Marcel Duchamp, for instance, began thinking of music as being not a time art but a space art. And he made a piece called “Scupture Musicale” which means different sounds coming from different places and lasting, producing a sculpture which is sonorous, and which remains.

People expect listening to be more than listening. And sometimes they speak of inner listening, or the meaning of sound. When I talk about music, it finally comes to peoples minds that I’m talking about sound that doesn’t mean anything. That is not inner, but is just outer. And they say, these people who finally understand that say, you mean it’s just sounds? To mean that for something to just be a sound is to be useless. Whereas I love sounds, just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more. I don’t want sound to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s a president, or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound. And I’m not so stupid either. There was a German philosopher who is very well known, his name was Emmanuel Kant, and he said there are two things that don’t have to mean anything, one is music and the other is laughter. Don’t have to mean anything that is, in order to give us deep pleasure. The sound experience which i prefer to all others, is the experience of silence. And this silence, almost anywhere in the world today, is traffic. If you listen to Beethoven, it’s always the same, but if you listen to traffic, it’s always different.” -John Cage


Photo By Therese C (Flickr: DSCN5579) [CC BY 2.0 (]