A priest and performer considers religion, the arts, and the often thin space between sacred and secular, church and culture, pulpit and pew.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Caged" Silence

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the death of American composer John Cage. (The centennial of his birth is coming up on September 5th.)  In an article in the New York Times this past Wednesday, Allan Kozinn wrote about having a “John Cage moment” on the uptown A train in New York City. Such moment exist when we stop and listen to the ambient sounds around us and begin to perceive the music they make.

Kozinn highlighted what may well be Cage’s best known work, 4’33”, in which he explored what the writer refers to as “the music plucked from the air”. Over the course of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, a pianist opens the lid, then closes and reopens it two more times to signify the three movements of the work. The pianist never strikes the keys or plucks the strings. But just because the piano is silent doesn’t mean the audience hears nothing during that time; at least, not if they’re truly listening.
As I write this I’m having a “John Cage moment” of my own. What do I hear, aside from my fingers clicking on the laptop keys? My husband turning the pages of a newspaper in the next room, with an occasional laugh or sotto voce comment; my son upstairs practicing scales on his double bass; cicadas outside the open window. I listen more closely, to the sound of my own breathing, the traffic on the street outside, the sound of a jet plane passing overhead. In other such moments I’ve occasionally heard the sound of children’s voices playing outside, something all too rare these days. And birds! Have you ever noticed the music of birds – the pitches, rhythms, the sounds as varied as instruments in an orchestra?

The composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim was once asked if he listened to his MP3 player while walking around Manhattan (surely I’m not the only person who would love to know what’s on HIS playlist!). He said he left it at home, preferring to hear the ambient noise from the city streets. We’re no longer used to listening for these ambient sounds, something our ancestors often had to do just to survive. We go around with little buds stuck in our ears so that we can hear canned music that could be listened to any time, while the music in a given moment flies by and is gone forever. When Simon and Garfunkle recorded “Sounds of Silence” decades ago, they were surely onto something.

Listening for the sounds of silence takes an open ear, a willingness to use our God-given imagination and creativity, and patience. So here’s a thought for today, in honor of Cage: stop, and listen. Just…listen. What do you hear? Remove the earbuds, turn off TV and the radio, stop talking - and listen to “the music plucked from the air.”

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