Silence – John Cage

The scariest thing about silence, at least to me, is that it is so foreign. I don’t believe that I have ever in my life experienced complete silence. Even if I am home alone I can hear the sound of the fridge humming or the washing machine running. In the distance I can (faintly) hear cars, traffic, sometimes voices. The times when I’ve been away from the city I’ve heard the ocean or animals; the sounds of nature.

I struggle to think of a time when I have sat in silence and not heard something – real or imagined – in my own head.

To me, the idea John Cage had is a disturbing one. I am particularly frightened of silences when I am with others. If I am alone I can make noise or listen or just focus on my own thoughts, but when others are around (especially people I don’t know well) I feel I have to fill the silence with conversation.

Placing a theatre full of people in this position – and particularly without warning – is an interesting social experiment. We tried this (knowing exactly what was coming) in our week 2 Media Lectorial and even 33 seconds was slightly uncomfortable. I started, even in that brief period, to pay more attention to the sounds filtering through the windows from the street and faint noises in the classroom. I also started to withdraw into myself and concentrate on my own thoughts.

Silence is a fascinating tool in audio, theatre, public speaking and the art of prosody (stylised vocal utterances). I’ve found it can be particularly useful to punctuate an important point because it abruptly calls for attention.

I don’t recall whether I’d heard about John Cage’s performance before we discussed it in our lectorial, but I am now curious about the significance of the title of the performance (4’33”) and the original concept behind it. There could be any number of aims behind the piece – exploring awareness, human nature, social relations, societal norms or perhaps just silence itself.

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