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The sound of silence

John Cage (1912–1992) composed Four minutes, thirty-three seconds (or “Four, thirty-three”) in 1952. The score states the performer(s) do not play an instrument through three movements (thirty seconds, two minutes and twenty-three seconds, one minute and forty seconds).

For the premiere David Tudor sat at a piano and closed the keyboard lid. Some time later he opened it marking the end of the first movement. This was repeated for the second and third movements. John Cage said, “They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began patterning the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”

This reminds me of my experience of watching  Into Great Silence:

It is a unique experience to sit in a quiet, full cinema, where we are used to at least some background music, and for the first thirty to forty minutes there is no music, no human voice. Every sound is heightened – the sound of the snow falling on the screen, a cough in the cinema.

Silence is an essential part of worship – individual silence, corporate silence. [Those who have been to Taize or have been part of that style of worship know how silence is integral there]. How do you use silence individually? As a community?

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9 thoughts on “The sound of silence”

  1. I was also struck by how magnified every little sound was while watching “Into Great Silence.” It increased the awareness of all the noise going on around me in creation, even as I watched it alone.

  2. I have found when planning and leading worship, most people can’t deal with extended times of silence. This awkward mood starts to hang in the air. The idea of resting and relaxing in a Church just doesn’t compute with our minds that insist something must always be happening.

    I happen to really enjoy silence. I don’t really like singing and sometimes prayers become a little bit too repetitive (When ‘just’ is God’s favourite word). Sitting in silence, when we acknowledge the presence of God, can be a relief. No expectations on anyone, no pressure, just God and people together.

    Of course that is not to take the place of the preached word or sacrament, just there is a place for all those things.

  3. It reminds me of the times we think God is silent to our prayers. We can’t hear what his music for us because we are listening for the music we want to hear and miss the shepherds song to us.8=))

  4. Silence is fine (as I write this in a silent room, with a silent guitar just feet away – is that a performance?). To call this a “movement” as it relates to music is ridiculous. To hear folks applauding this as a musical performance is, again, ridiculous. Complete silence of an instrument is NOT art, nor is it a performance!

    Sad, sad, sad. To me this “movement” is like story “The Emperor’s New Suit,” by Hans Christian Anderson. Swindlers told the King that only a “fool” would not be able to see the new cloth that was being used to make his new suit. There was no cloth to see. It took a small child to admit the truth – there was no cloth and the King was naked. Folks, there was no movement, there was no performance, there was no artistic expression!

    Thank you for the opportunity to express my opinion.

  5. To gather a group of people for this purpose is indeed a performance. Neither they, nor the audience were there accidentally, nor were they sitting about casually like in the foyer, but for the expressed purpose of experiencing for a specific time, the absence of willed sound. Not the absence of all sound, like that of profound deafness, but something profoundly different. It may well have been the first time for many of them, that they have listened, really listened, to silence.

    I was as fascinated by the images of willed inaction and active listening, as I was of my own heightened awareness to incidental sound. I couldn’t look away from the video. Did they realize, themselves, that they were doing so much? No performer was simply not playing, they were actively not playing. That’s why the piece had timed movements, to focus attention on the silence so framed.

    Ever heard ‘the sea’ in a seashell? It’s only the reflected sound of your own body. Perhaps that’s what makes silence uncomfortable to many. Take away willed sound (voices, TV, music), and one is left with the reflection of one’s own self. That can be hard to take, full of the tension that was mentioned in the video, hence the constant seeking for outside distractions.

    I’ve seen my children’s grandmother take them outside on a quiet day, and say ‘what do you hear?’ At first, of course, they say ‘nothing’. Eventually though, they hear a great deal more….I’m glad these people had a chance to touch the same experience.

  6. Muller Oosthuizen

    Penetrating the mind, then the heart, then the soul … the being.
    But then I had to WATCH this a few times before I listened ….&allowed myself to be influenced.
    This silence is of course not about the performance of music, but about listening. It’s not about entertainment, but about interacting [may I call this “enteracting” or “enteractment’??].
    We can all do with learning how to TAKE PART in silence.

  7. Maybe it is more helpful to turn our attention to inner silence, free of the constant mental chatter that we often mistake for who we are. Who are we when free of remembering, judging, planning, comparing, striving, wanting and avoiding? In deep silence, one can find peace, love and transformation.

    Start with a few minutes, then hours, then days. In some traditions, people commit to weeks or months in silence.

    It is hard at first and can help one develop patience.

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