One of the strangest of all musical compositions ever conceived was that drafted by the avant-garde American John Cage. He wrote it in 1952 and called it “4’33”.” It was written for any instrument or instruments, as the case may be, and each of the three movements has the instruction that it is to be rendered tacit which is Latin for “silent.”
Mark Swed explains, “The audience watches a piano virtuoso, say, open the keyboard, start a stopwatch, sit motionlessly, then close the keyboard when four minutes and 33 seconds are up.” That’s it! Four and a half minutes of silence.
Now if you had paid good money to go to a concert, and the virtuoso pianist sat down at the piano as the applause died out, opened the keyboard, started a stopwatch, and sat there, what would you think? You would probably be asking yourself, “Hey, has he forgotten the music?” I would get uncomfortable for the sake of the artist wondering, “What’s wrong? Why doesn’t he start playing?” And when he turned off the stopwatch and shut the lid on the keyboard, I would think, “I’ve been swindled. I paid to hear music and heard only silence.”
That was the point John Cage wanted to make. It is impossible to escape sound, whether it is the din or noise of traffic, the wind, the creaks and groans of a forest, or the thump of your own heartbeat.
When Cage released his “4’33” it created a furor, to say the least, and it is still controversial. Some think he might have made a contribution to a social science class or a high school psychology class, but not to serious music.
Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. Psalm 46:10
I’m not so sure. The reality is that we are bombarded with noise from the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to sleep, and even then, we are aware of the noise that surrounds us.
A friend who lived in the shadow of an overhead train, tells how he had grown so accustomed to the sounds of the passing trains that one night, he woke up with a start. “Something’s wrong!” he said to himself and jumped out of bed to find out what had happened. No, the roof hadn’t collapsed, but a train strike had silenced the noise he had grown accustomed to, and without it, the silence was deafening.
Some 3000 years ago, God spoke through the psalmist and said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). “In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength” says Isaiah 30:15. So where does this leave us today?
The reality is that most of us are afraid of quietness. We turn on the TV even though we don’t watch the picture or even listen to the voice. We have music playing in the background.
On one occasion, I spent several days in a wilderness area at an altitude of about 3000 meters or 10,000 feet. For hours at a time, I sat overlooking a valley and read and pondered my life and future. There was no radio, no TV, no traffic or voices, yet there was a symphony of sounds that were almost deafening—the stir of the wind, the chatter of chipmunks, the songs of birds, and the deep rumbling of nature itself.
No, I didn’t hear the earth turning on its axis, but I did memorize Psalm 46 and will never forget the impact of those words, “Be still and know that I am God.”
God still says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Perhaps that controversial 4 minutes, 33 seconds of silence John Cage conceived is more valuable than if he had put notes on the composition marked tacit or silent. Indeed!
Resource reading: Psalm 46:1-11