Last night I went to Christine Moulton’s recital. (Christine’s the one who has me hooked on Ashtanga and keeps me inspired.) For her “day job” she teaches flute in the MU Music Department (she’s a superstar).
For her recital last night she enlisted a guitarist, an English horn player and a soprano. The whole thing was great.
For the last piece they performed John Cage’s 4’ 33” (4 minutes, 33 seconds). This is 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. Here’s what happened:
The musicians came out as if they were going to play. They adjusted their scores on their stands. The singer stood, holding her score in a book, open, in her hands. They nodded to each other to signal the start, and then they sat there.
For 4 minutes and 33 seconds they just sat there.
The audience squirmed. Some snickered. Somebody coughed. The English horn player cleaned her instrument. I could hear sounds from outside the theater. I closed my eyes and listened to everything I could hear.
After 4’ 33” they stood up, bowed, and we all clapped.
It has always been my experience that when a group of people gather to sit in silence as in a Zen hall or a Quaker Meeting, the silence is very deep and there is an energy to it, a positive “charge.”
It’s invigorating. (That’s why people like to meditate together.)
Last night’s 4’ 33” wasn’t like that at all. It was a very tense, anticipatory silence. It was an awkward, let’s-get-this-thing-over-with silence. It felt like the audience was holding its collective breath, and when the applause erupted, it felt like a collective exhalation.