What can we learn in silence?
by The Revd Alan M. Barker (revised, originally published in 2011)
Suitable for Key Stage 4/5
To reflect upon the significance of silence.
Preparation and materials
Have available videos of John Cage’s work 4’33’’ (pronounced ‘Four minutes, thirty-three seconds’ or, as the composer himself referred to it, ‘Four thirty-three’) and the means to play them during the assembly.
- ‘John Cage’s 4’33’’’ is a piano version, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4
- ‘4’33’’ John Cage’ is an orchestral version, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oh-o3udImy8
You may also wish to play a recording of John Cage discussing silence and music, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pcHnL7aS64Y. It is 4.17 minutes long.
Invite everyone to imagine that they are at a classical music concert. At the centre of the stage is a grand piano. The programme includes a new work by a composer named John Cage. It is in three movements and has the title 4’33’’. The audience applauds as the pianist enters. He places some empty sheets of music on the piano. After a pause, the pianist closes the keyboard lid and raises his right hand as if preparing to play. For 30 seconds, nothing can be heard except for the wind in the trees outside the hall. The pianist opens the lid for a few moments, and then closes it for a further period. He is again poised to play, but makes no sound. Rain can be heard beating on the roof. Again, the lid is opened and closed. People around you are now whispering to one another, ‘What’s going on?’ Some angrily walk out. After four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the lid is opened. The performance is over.
Explain that you have just described the first performance of John Cage’s work 4’33’’ in New York in 1952.
Show the YouTube video ‘John Cage’s 4’33’’’. (Use any length of the video.)
It became both famous and controversial. Sometimes, the work is referred to as a silent piece. However, what you actually hear if you listen to 4’33’’ are random sounds. Interviewed in later life, John Cage observed, ‘People expect listening to be more than listening . . . Whereas I love sounds, just as they are.’
Reflect that, although people differ in their response to 4’33’’, the composition invites everyone to listen to the music of their environment, and to discover the sound of silence.
Invite members of the school community to reflect upon their experience of silence. Make the following comments.
- Might silence help us to appreciate the world around us more?
- It’s said that there are moments when ‘silence speaks louder than words’. For example, in times of tragedy, silence can express shared grief and solidarity.
- Silence can feel uncomfortable. Yet some people speak of ‘inner listening’ and use silence as a means of increasing self-awareness.
- There are people of faith who believe that it is possible for ‘God to speak through silence’. What might this mean? Could the shepherds in the Christmas story have heard the ‘music of heaven’ in the stillness of the night?
- John Cage argued that ‘music is sound that doesn’t mean anything’. Was he right? Is there meaning to be found in the sound of silence?
Time for reflection
John Cage is quoted as saying, ‘The sound experience which I prefer to all others, is the experience of silence.’
Ask the following questions.
- Are we ever silent?
- Do we ever make time to be quiet so that we can really listen to the world around us?
Ask the students to spend some time in silence while the YouTube video ‘4’33’’ John Cage’ is shown. It is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oh-o3udImy8
‘The sound of silence’ by Simon and Garfunkel