Have you listened to John Cage’s 4’33” lately? It’s the American composer’s infamous piece where the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments through its three movements, leading to four minutes and 33 seconds of silence.
Except, of course, that it’s not silence in the strictest sense; the ambient noise that rings through concert halls in the music’s stead – coughs, shuffles, distant aeroplanes or sirens – becomes the piece’s ever-changing score.
Cage was supposedly reacting, in part, against post-war America’s relentless soundtrack of muzak. The restive reactions to the piece’s performance – tittering, barracking, walk-outs – shows how profound, unsettling, and unusual it is to encounter pure silence. Particularly as the global decibel count has inexorably risen in the six decades since Cage’s piece was written.
I thought of Cage this week when I went to see The Artist, the silent film that’s tipped for Oscar glory this year. Except, of course, that the film’s no more silent than its 1920s forbears were, with its alternately jaunty and moody piano accompaniment.
Even so, the film’s lack of dialogue required a mental readjustment, where you’re solely reliant on the screen’s visual cues and you’re much more aware of the ambient noise of your fellow cinema-goers (particularly the woman on my left, who was laboriously elaborating on each plot point to her companion). There are a few moments of genuine silence in The Artist, but they’re immediately undercut by the film’s noisiest sequence.
Perhaps, in an age where everything from satnavs to smartphones are competing to yammer in your ears, our brains equate the absence of noise, white or otherwise, with some kind of terrifying existential void. And it’s no accident that the adjective “profound” is often applied to silence.
But it cuts both ways. A few years ago, I spent a week walking across the Sahara Desert. About three days in and as far from civilisation as I’ve ever been, I discovered that Simon & Garfunkel were right, and silence really does have a sound. It’s a deep, subterranean roar that could well have represented frivolous thoughts being flushed out of my system colonic irrigation-style. Or it could simply have been the sound of my blood pounding in my brain.
I was gratified to hear it. I would encourage anyone to turn off their iPods, silence their ringtones and even switch off their radios for just a few moments. Try and get as close to that state of aural surrender and mental clarity as the modern world allows.
It doesn’t have to be four minutes and 33 seconds’ worth, but Cage’s radical act helped focus minds wonderfully on the fact that, when clamour is king, silence can be subversive, as well as seductive.