I’m fortunate enough to have a number of friends who are creative. One of these friends is Joe Pignato, who was an amazing drummer back when I went to UMASS with him, and is even more amazing now that a whole slew of years have gone by. I was fortunate enough to see his band, Bright Dog Red, a while back, and look forward to seeing them again.
Recently, when I wrote an essay about finding something to write about in the midst of the belief that I had nothing to write about, Joe posted something that stayed with me: “often, there is something in nothing.”
This made me pose a question to him: what’s a piece of music that comes to mind in which a main component of its appeal is not the notes themselves, but the spaces between the notes, the silence of the pauses?
Joe, of course, immediately answered, and—for Joe is a direct person who gets to the heart of things quickly—mentioned the ultimate piece of music in this category: John Cage’s “4’33”.”
John Cage was an experimental composer, and many of his pieces were, in addition to musical pieces, performance art as well. He was always looking to expand the boundaries of what the audience experienced, and always sought to explode the basic notions of what an audience expects when they go to a concert.
“4’33” is perhaps the ultimate example of this sort of thing, as the entire piece of music is silence. That’s right: when an orchestra plays this, the conductor gives a downbeat, and for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, they just sit there.
Not playing anything.
Yes, of course it’s easy to dismiss this as a stunt, as a prank. Often, when an orchestra performs this, there is at least a small ripple of laughter as time goes by, and the silence continues.
And yes, of course, when I was a kid and heard about John Cage, I thought this was laughable, too.
But then I listened. And it really got me to thinking about not just music, but writing, and art.
In every creative endeavor, there is a wise reminder to focus on negative space. For example, Austin Kleon, in “Steal Like an Artist,” discusses how in art classes, they’ll ask you: how many lines are there below?
The answer is not two, but three. There’s that white line between the two black lines, the one that I didn’t draw. By creating those two lines, I also created that third one.
Seen that way, “4’33”” is an ode to all of that negative space. The whole piece, of course, is negative space, a collection of all the rests and tacets (“tacit” is a musical expression that indicates the musician doesn’t play, Latin for “it is silent) that are in so many other musical pieces. Instead of working on a motif of notes from another piece, Cage is working on the motif of silence.
No, it is not something that I listen to all the time. Yet every now and then, when I’m using too many words in my talking or writing, I think of this piece, and how it’s just as important to think about the things that I leave out, as opposed to merely thinking about the things that I put in.
For there is something sacred about the the feel of a white page for a writer, the look of a blank canvas for a writer, and the sound of a silent passage for a musician. It is not just a place for pauses between what a person writes, paints, or plays; it is also, and I know this sounds pretentious, but I honestly mean it, the place where possibilities reside.
Yes, of course I love the full frontal assault of, say, Art Blakey’s version of “A Night in Tunisia.” At the same time, though, even there, at the end, in between those explosive bursts of sound as the piece concludes, there is absolute, utter silence. And it’s only now, as I contemplate Cage’s piece, that I really think about how important that silence is.
Yes, Joe is a wise man when he says that there is always something in nothing. And in less than five minutes, Cage provides a powerful reminder that there is always something between the words, the brush strokes, and the notes. There is space, there is silence…and above all, there is deep, deep meaning.