Silence in Music (and Vice Versa?)
Silence and music are strange bedfellows. Just as a painter uses a blank canvas to begin working, music emerges out of silence as organized sound to fill an aural void. Of course music itself has its moments of silence, too—such as the silence “heard” in between multimovement works or actual rests notated in the music itself.
Ironically, some of the most powerful moments in music rely on pauses or rests to achieve the composer’s desired effect. It is worth noting, for example, that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins not with the famous short-short-shortlong motive but with an eighthnote rest immediately preceding it, which makes all the difference in how the music is perceived.
Taking the idea of silence in music to an extreme limit is John Cage’s infamous work from 1952, titled 4’33”. It consists of three movements of specific duration, but each movement in the score is simply labeled “TACET.” There is no notation whatsoever. At the premiere, the pianist simply closed the keyboard lid to signify the beginning of each movement and reopened the lid at each movement’s end.
The “piece,” such as it is, ends up being a succession of ambient noises produced randomly during the performance. Perhaps the air-conditioning unit can be heard, as well as coughing and murmurs from the audience, or the sound of footsteps as bewildered concertgoers deciding not to stick it out for the full 4’33” head for the exits.
Cage’s piece calls into question musical conventions and performance rituals, and the very definition of music itself. Here the role of the composer is reduced to setting certain basic parameters while relinquishing all others to chance. Concert hall recital norms come under scrutiny as the audience is made to feel uncomfortable and/or perplexed.
An audience’s silent cooperation is usually a given at a classical concert, and background noise needs to be kept to a minimum at all times. (Hence the standard reminder to silence cellphones and other devices at the beginning of concerts.) Yet with Cage’s work, the audience becomes an active if unwitting participant and must, as time goes on, decide between remaining silent during the piece or actively contributing to the random sounds being produced. Cage’s 4’33” may be a unique work that is sculpted randomly out of silence, but its composer was not working in a vacuum at the time it was composed. In fact, Cage had found inspiration from Robert Rauschenberg, the worldrenowned artist with local ties who died on Captiva in 2008.
Cage had viewed Rauschenberg’s “White Paintings” on exhibition in 1951. The now-famous panels are painted white and appear blank. But as Cage noted, their appearance changed according to the setting in which they were displayed, becoming “airports of the lights, shadows and particles.” The parallels are striking between Rauschenberg’s “blank” canvases and Cage’s “TACET” musical score and how they demand a response from viewers and listeners with their departure from artistic norms.
One of my professors once asserted that Cage was a philosopher rather than a composer. I would say he was both, because in addition to his many radical musical experiments are meticulous, beautifully written works using traditional notation. (Check out the sonatas and interludes for prepared piano). It seems that even Cage could not throw out the baby with the bath water.
Pianist, instructor and musicologist Erik Entwistle received an undergraduate degree in music from Dartmouth College. He earned a post-graduate degree in piano performance at Washington University in St. Louis. He earned his doctorate in musicology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He teaches on Sanibel.