Four Minutes of Silence

There were only a handful of compositions that were universally banned from senior recitals at my alma mater. Contemporary works that would cause physical damage to the piano made that list. So did what we considered the ultimate musician’s cop-out: John Cage’s famous work, 4’33”. 

In this piece, the performer sits in silence for a total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. There are three movements, marked with the lowering of the baton in an orchestral performance, or the closing and opening of the keyboard lid in a solo piano rendition. A timer is used to ensure accuracy of the movements’ length.

Understandably, 4’33” has been met with confusion since its first performance in 1952. Some mock it as being a fool’s ploy, others express concern that it has dangerously redefined our concept of music and art, while still more perceive Cage as making an important statement about sound and our perception of it.

Cage’s goal in 4’33” was to force the audience to listen to the sounds around them: the occasional coughs and sneezes from other audience members, the whirring of the fans in the building’s ventilation system, the traffic on the highway outside. “When I hear traffic… I have the feeling that sound is acting, and I love the activity of sound,” he said. “If you listen to Beethoven or to Mozart, you’ll see that they’re always the same, but if you listen to traffic, you see that it’s always different.” 

There is a grain of truth here. To stop and listen to the sounds around us is to stop and listen to what God has created. It is to heighten our capability to observe, our appreciation and wonder. It is to sit and write a blog post, listening to the birds chirping, the sound of fingers typing, and upstairs, a hair dryer running as a roommate prepares for her day. If I were to thoughtlessly blast music into this space, my attention would be drawn away from what is around me. Instead, I am drawn to worship the God who created the birds, to work with excellence as I hear the rhythm of typing fingers, and to love the sweet sister who is drying her hair. 

However, I think as Cage moves forward in his explanation of the work, we come to more troubling territory. He continues: “I don’t need sound to talk to me… [some people are] thinking for something to just be a sound is useless, whereas I love sounds, just as they are.” It is good and well to learn from Cage to love sounds just as they are, but we must also remember that sound talks. The first sound in Scripture is the creative word of God Almighty, thundering as it commands light to be born. The name of the revealed Christ is the Word made flesh, and we see through Him that sound not only talks, but is embodied.

This understanding of sound as speaking, creating and revealing has significant implications for artists. First, it is the foundation for appreciating ordered sound, whether it be the work of Mozart and Beethoven or the new hit on the radio. As we use ordered sound to communicate ideas or simply to be beautiful, we reflect the image of our creator God, who brings order to a formless and void world. 

Understanding sound in this light also helps us better appreciate a piece like 4’33” – we see that even the sound of traffic is not “just sound,” as Cage would attest. Rather, the noise around us speaks of the beauty of an ordered world, demonstrates the creativity of image-bearers as their inventions allow for traffic in the first place, and reveals the grace of God in enabling these rhythms we often take for granted.