No Such Thing as Silence
Contributed by Tereza Walsbergerová, 27, graduate student of English
No Such Thing as Silence
I believe I was in the first year of my undergrad when I saw a video of John Cage’s 1952 composition 4’33” for the very first time. It’s been give-or-take eight years since I sat in that lecture room, but I still keep coming to that day in my thoughts, to that moment when everything fell into place for me as a future humanities scholar. I remember leaning forward in my chair (I always used to sit in the back, feeling like I didn’t belong, like I wasn’t cut out for university, still finding my place) and squinting at the image projected on the wall, staring at the pianist as he stared into the audience and they stared at back at him. He never played a note, he never sang a word, he never even spoke. I didn’t at first realise the gravity of that composition. I knew Cage was an experimental, avant-garde artist and so I didn’t bat an eyelash at the weirdness of his “music”, but I couldn’t fathom the /why/, I couldn’t understand the purpose, until I realised that /why/ wasn’t the question I was supposed to be asking at all. I was supposed to listen. 4’33” is an avant-garde composition whose score instructs the musicians not to play their instruments. It consists of three movements and takes exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds. While many people perceive the duration of the composition as four minutes and thirty-three seconds of awkward silence, Cage maintains that his composition is anything but silence. What we may perceive as nothing is actually EVERYTHING. While the musician doesn’t actually play, there are so many things going on, there are so many sounds that we might have not even heard under normal circumstances; the squeaking as the audience squirms in their seats, some opening packets of peanuts, some whispering to each other, perhaps sharing secrets or paying each other compliments, telling each other “I love you” or perhaps “I hate you”; the muffled traffic and ambulance siren noises coming in from outside the concert hall, people rushing from or off to somewhere, people meeting people, people being rushed off to hospitals, people living, people dying… this is what makes "the music". That's the actual composition. My mind was blown. I couldn’t help but imagine the story behind each of those sounds. I couldn't help but care. And I realised that that was it. That was what excited me about being in that lecture room, about being a humanities student. The thing is, if John Cage’s composition was never performed, we may have perhaps never heard those sounds. Or we may have heard them, but not /heard them/. And that’s why I feel humanities are important; why I feel like studying literature and culture is crucial, even. Humanities ARE 4’33”––they provide a platform that lets us, the students and the scholars, the writers and the readers, stop and listen. They let us care. And that's important. There's no such thing as a silence, unless you live in a vacuum, and that is no place to live.
John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33"
Tereza Walsbergerová, 27, graduate student of English
Texas A&M University