In 1952, American experimental composer and artist John Cage composed a score in three movements that instructed musicians not to play their instruments for a duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The piece was to consist of whatever ambient sounds occurred in the time frame designated for the score, and the radical gesture resulted in moving attention and focus away from the musicians, the "artists" performing the piece, to the world of the audience. Over sixty years later, 4'33" is still regarded as one of the watershed acts or episodes in the history of twentieth century art-- a work that creates a space for people to consider the notion of "silence" and the active and unfolding present moment as unique and open to chance. In a 1991 interview (see YouTube clip above), Cage reflects on "silence" as a far reaching concept that encompasses most of the ambient and everyday sounds around any one of us-- sounds, that when paid attention to, create the possibility for a powerful kind of lived and spatially experienced art. Over the years, many famous performances of 4'33" have punctuated how quickly the concept of space and time can be transformed through the process of active listening.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently featuring an exhibition about John Cage's famous composition titled "There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage's 4'33." As part of the show, people are being encouraged to visit the MoMA website and upload their own soundscapes as a way to share the experience of personal silence. After visiting this site a number of times in the past week, I must admit here is something oddly hypnotic and peaceful about listening to these shared "silences" from around the world. It also reminds us how little time is actually spent focusing and truly listening in the way Cage encouraged.
For more information about Cage's composition, I recommend Kyle Gann's book No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage's 4'33" and Dieter Daniel's and Inke Arns' Sounds Like Silence, John Cage 4'33": Silence Today.