Silence. A subtle ostinato of coughs begins; whispers fill the concert hall. Some guy breathes as if his trachea is seized in a death grip. Thousands of uncomfortable people shuffle. They’re conscious of every sound: every high-pitched ring in their ears, every low beat of their hearts. Meanwhile, the trumpeters are frozen, their lips silently kissing their mouthpieces. The violinists sit in suspended motion on the stage, as if space and time do not exist. The conductor stands, his baton ready, as still as ever.
Those in the audience who know nothing of composer John Cage’s “4’33” fail to understand the silent symphony gracing their ears. It is a composition of no notes – only the seemingly insignificant rustlings of the concertgoers make up the score.
As a violinist, I originally thought Cage was insane. I have spent years appreciating intricate classical melodies. Who would compose four minutes and 33 seconds of silence? How is that music? When I first heard about the piece, I was annoyed that anyone would waste five minutes that could be devoted to sweet, melodic music.
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I was mystified by the piece until I realized that silence is one of the most important aspects of my life. Wordless moments – when the TV is off, when I’m snug in my bed with a book, when everything stops – are when I feel truly at ease. Every care or worry in my day dissolves like Alka-Seltzer hitting water. I’ve discovered that time spent in silence allows me to deconstruct my life and think about simple things.
I realized Cage is the master of making something out of nothing. In music, I was always taught that rests are not empty spaces in a piece; they should be played as if they are notes themselves. Rests are not empty moments devoid of thought. They are moments to count, to breathe, to absorb the impact of the phrases just played.
Every Thanksgiving, my family starts the feast with a silent prayer – our own real-life rest. Every year we say our thanks then bow our heads. Since my grandfather, the rock of the family and most honorable man I’ve known, passed away nearly three years ago, silence has been the most meaningful language my family can speak. The silent “conversations” at holidays have taught me much about the strength and stamina of the human condition. As we stand holding hands, crowded in my grandmother’s living room, lighting candles to honor the twinkle Papa always had in his eyes, silence is the perfect tribute for a powerful love lost. It instills more hope in our hearts than any poorly constructed words.
As I begin to make the largest transition in my life, I will remember John Cage’s “4’33” when life seems too hard, too hectic, or too meaningless. I will sit in my own symbolic concert hall, making symphonies out of my thoughts, learning everything about myself in total silence.