4′ 33″: On Listening to the Silence


On Music


About a month ago, at the Museum of Modern Art, I attended a performance of John Cage’s 4’33”. I’d read about its famous silence, but because I’d never sat in a theater and experienced that silence, all I had were expectations. I expected the pianist to be a man, which is what expectations do, they give you a picture of what will happen before it happens, and it turned out the performer was a violinist. He took, as they say, the stage, concentrating his thoughts, lifting his instrument, and with his bow not quite touching the strings of his violin, the music began. Almost immediately a subway train, beneath the streets of midtown, rumbled in the theater, the volume increasing and then decreasing, and the indeterminacy Cage had talked about, because the ears can’t shut themselves, was continuous, one thing after another, and I could hear voices behind what seemed like a curtain but was probably a wall, a woman’s voice, almost plaintive, and indeterminacy, which means “not exactly known or expected,” was what I’d come to hear. I was craning my ears, or pricking up my ears, or opening the metaphorical doors of hearing, and we don’t have a word for what the mind does, the way it turns from object to object, turning from the moment in front of it to another moment, to a past or a future, and having heard the subway sounds and the voices behind the wall, I expected to hear a candy wrapper being opened, the crinkling cellophane echoing through the audience like music, or “music,” but there was no cellophane wrapper. But in thinking about the cellophane wrapper I was hearing the music, which was part of the let’s-make-art-out-of-anything spirit that was in the air in 1952, when Cage composed 4’33”. And the fact that there was no candy wrapper, combined with the realization that, in thinking of one I formed a picture of one, was like waking up from a dream, knowing I’d been somewhere else and now I was here and the violinist was perfectly still, standing on the stage, looking like any musician concentrating on the music he was making, and the music was swirling in the air like thought, like seeing or smelling, and I say “thought” because whatever we hear is heard in the brain. The vibrations on the eardrum sends signals to the brain, through the nerves, and the mind is where we make sense, literally, of the world. And because I was still making sense of the candy wrapper, thinking about the candy inside the wrapper, thinking my daughter would like the candy, I wasn’t paying attention to what came next, the performer lowering his bow and violin, and was it over already? That couldn’t have been four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Not yet. And then he sat. I hadn’t noticed the stool behind him, but he leaned on the edge of it, holding his instrument in a different way, close to his chest, as if he might do a pizzicato section and the piece went on. I didn’t know it was divided into three parts. I thought maybe the performer was repeating the piece, and I was glad because, by adjusting his position, he’d given me an opportunity to adjust myself to the silence, which is what I wanted to listen to, and the duration of that silence was hard to gauge because he’d been standing on stage for at least three minutes. But time is tricky. And by tricky I mean like waiting in line, thinking the line is never going to move, which is one kind of time, as opposed to moments of pleasure when time moves quickly. I wasn’t hearing the silence because I was thinking about how long that silence was taking. I was wondering when the piece would be over, soon I suspected, but how many minutes left to enjoy it, or endure it, and tomorrow we would be taking my daughter to Giselle, the ballet, the one where the ballerina kills herself for unrequited love, although in the end it is requited, and later my daughter would be going away for a few days. That was the plan. I’d have the house to myself, wouldn’t need to wake up when the sun wakes, when my daughter comes to my room, our room, but she comes to me, and the minute I’d gotten her face in my mind, the performer, a redheaded man or sandy-haired man, still perched on the stool, raised his violin and assumed a different position. I say assumed because he was only miming the act of making music. A piano was the instrument the piece was originally performed on. The pianist then, having just played a piece that required musical virtuosity, played 4’33”, which seemed to require no virtuosity. Anyone could do it. And his hair was curly, more blond than red, but his beard was red, and I once played a piano at a concert. It was my college thesis, and I’d made a film, some found footage of NASA satellite cameras surveying the surface of some planet, probably the moon, and the college was Kresge, named after a store that no longer exists, or maybe it does, I don’t know, but I sat at a black piano in the college concert hall, my hands not not quite randomly hitting the piano keys as the film played on a screen. I’d taken a few piano lessons as a kid, and I knew the difference between dissonance and harmony, and although I couldn’t play actual songs, I could make the piano sound like what I imagined avant-garde music sounded like. I’d arranged for a stand-up bass player to play with me, along with the film, and I was partly inspired by a performance I’d seen at the school. A performance artist had come from New York City, an advocate of LSD, and I can’t remember his name but I remember the song he sang at the end of the show, “DOA in San Jose,” and how did the violinist know when the silence was over? I didn’t check my watch but he’d been “playing” 4’33” for at least five minutes, definitely longer than four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and did he have an ear bud that told him the time? Or was he counting? I was told later he’d been counting, which would have made the precision of exactly thirty-three seconds not quite precise. And even bad music, and especially bad music, has what they call hooks, bits you can remember and by remembering enjoy, but the music Cage “composed,” the music the “red-haired” man was “playing,” and everything ought to be in quotes because everything is partly something else. And because the “silence” I was hearing wasn’t something else, had no hooks to distract me from the purity of what it was, although that sounds pleasant, in the actual act of sitting there, I noticed anger arising. That’s how D. T. Suzuki, the Buddhist writer and the teacher of Cage, would have described it, and it was arising in me because, beneath the anger there was a desolation I didn’t want to feel, an aversion that caused the anger, and yes, I was judging myself, my inability to confront that desolation, and the judgments, were evolving like the music, like the subway crescendo beneath the theater, and next month I’ll have my daughter all to myself, just the two of us, and I want to finish this review so I can give her my time. Time is what the silence of the concert was showing me, and the performer was playing it perfectly well but I was fighting it because, although the love I feel for my daughter isn’t like desolation, her life is evolving more and more away from me. And because the sadness of that was in me, I distracted myself with anger, which was easier, feeling it rising up and directing it at anything that wasn’t in me, at the music, and at Cage, and it is a cage, and I reacted to the hopelessness of ever escaping the cage with hate, hating the music and hating my mind, which was making the music, the sadness and anger and silence and then, when the music is over, I miss it.


John Haskell is the author of the story collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock and the novels American Purgatorio and Out of My Skin. His newest novel, The Complete Ballet, was published today by Graywolf Press.