Living in a city can get exhausting. There’s the garages that continuously beep to herald exiting vehicles, crosswalks that chirp at you every minute, and construction workers drilling from what feels like strictly one to five a.m.. Thankfully, headphones were created to stuff our eardrums with songs we would much rather be hearing. It’s gotten to the point, however, where most people tune in to tune out nearly every day, even when the garage stops beeping and the drills have long silenced. We’re listening — but only to what we want to hear.
American experimental composer John Cage had almost this exact thought in mind when he created “4’33.”
Pronounced “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds,” the three-movement composition instructs performers to, surprisingly, not play their instruments during the entire piece. Minimalism at its finest. There is sheet music with notations, a full range of instruments present, and a still baton in Cage’s hand. While the composition is commonly known as “four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence,” that’s not the only thing occurring.
As Cage points out, the composition is an example of automaticism; without the instrumentalists or Cage making any direct noises, the sounds audience members hear are selected by them and only them. What our ears pick up is our decision alone. Cage willingly surrenders his control over what sounds the audience receives for a progressively conscious intake of what’s resonating in the room.
Another way to understand this is by looking at a song comprised of city sounds spliced together: steam from the subway iron cover, taxi horns, hurried footsteps. Songs such as these take noises that surround us and order them in a way where rhythm, melody, and dynamics are brought out of pre-existing sounds. The instruments, as the song points out, are all around us. It isn’t that the subway steam’s hiss to mimic an instrument, but that they presented the hiss in a way where it can be more easily identified as a drumbeat or backing beat.
Our world is quite musical, but we have to ask ourselves what we’re listening for in the world — that is, if we’re listening to it at all. While silence may seem scary (like when you take a water break while hiking in the woods and the quiet grows so loud that it could build walls), we need to be open-minded enough to flush it out with a wave of simplicity and an understanding of the present. This may seem Zen, but that’s because it is.
If our own city can be “turned” into a song, then the more subtle sounds certainly can as well. Hold off on the headphones at least two days a week. No one else around you is hearing the world the same way you are, so take it in; you’re getting a personal concert every single day.