What happens when a sound that has been going steadily suddenly stops?
Great jazz musicians use the power of silence when improvising, great speakers pause now and then to let a point sink in or even just to regain the audience’s attention.
Sudden silence can be a shock that brings us out of our reverie. And, within sustained silence, the slightest sound will do the same.
Music, oratory, even the sound of your car engine running – all these are about the sounds, but embedded in the sounds, or rather, supporting or containing them, is silence.
The composer John Cage wrote an influential piece for piano called 4’ 33”. Comprising three movements lasting a total of 4 minutes and thirty three seconds, the performer plays no notes, only turns the pages of the music. What is presented is the backdrop of silence itself. This is the perfectly ordinary silence that is always behind the sounds we hear, but in the concert hall it is given a significance not possible in other situations.
4’ 33” can be considered a conceptual work of art, a snide poke at stuffy convention, a revolutionary turning point, a mere novelty or a profound meditation. Silence itself doesn’t contradict any of these, rather it supports them all. As the piece is being performed the audience members cough and fidget, the rumble of a heavy truck passing by somehow filters into the hall, the pianist scratches her ear. The music critic for the local paper jots a few ideas into his notepad as the person next to him rustles their overcoat while changing position.
All the sounds and movements that happen during the piece are part of it. But always there is the profound silence accepting all the audience reactions as well as ambient noises. It accepts those who are fully attuned to the moment as well as those who get up and leave because they’ve had enough.
This silence is also the backdrop for our mind. Try looking at your thoughts and feelings like the people in the audience – some are patient, some are angry, some are distracted; all are equally part of the audience, all are equally playing their part within the container of silence. Now, instead of zeroing on any one of them in particular, keep a respectful distance and let them all play their roles. Like the performer in 4’ 33” allowing the audience and ambient sounds equal freedom to contribute, let all your thoughts waft through as easily as the sounds going by outside your door.
What would happen if we started identifying with the silence behind our thoughts rather than the thoughts themselves?