I sat in my chair, in this little restaurant in downtown Vancouver, listening intently to the music being performed in front of me. I could feel the twenty or so other bodies in the room sitting at tables nearby , all of us within a few meters of the performers. Of all the pieces that were played that night, this slow, emotionally vibrant, peice had us all completely hooked. Everyone in the restaurant had stopped eating, stopped talking, and were completely committed to what was happening with the music. We were all hooked to every single note, every single beat of the whole song, following the band as the lead us on journey to some unknown destination. As we intently followed the piece, it began to wind down, slowing down as the final notes were being played. We were all caught in some almost hypnotic trance. And as last note of the trumpet sounded out and stayed with us for some time we were still completely absorbed in the beauty of the piece and then, absolute silence. Everyone in the room was completely still. It felt as if everyone was suspended in time, with the last note still resonating in the air around us, wrapping us in a communal tension. I was aware of everybody in the room, aware of the music, aware of the performers, and aware of the. And then, just as the tension became almost too much, applause. The silence was broken, and we all were acknowledging what had just happened. These three moments of silence that still lay so vividly in my mind.
That was the most memorable moment of the whole night. Not to say that the music throughout the whole night wasn’t fantastic, but that to me was such a powerful moment, that it still sticks out in my mind. Taking that moment to appreciate the music that we had just heard in silence, and the fact that the music had made us silent, is still so astonishing to me. Silence is such a powerful force. There are so many moments in life where it’s true that a thousand words can be said with a single moment of silence. This moment to me, was a true testament, to the power of silence. But was the silence itself, an aesthetic experience? If nothing is really happening, can that still be called an aesthetic experience? There have been many others who have taken a look at the power of silence in art, and to really try to get down to the bottom of this experience, let’s take a look at one of these first.
One man, took the study of silence so far as to make an entire piece of music about it. In 1955, minimalist composer John Cage composed a piece entitled “4’33″”. The piece is an entire composition of complete silence, which includes three movements. The title of the piece changes depending on the length of the performance, with the first performance having been four minutes and forty-three seconds long. John Cage composed the piece after a long time fascination with silence, and after having made silence a big factor in a lot of his compositions beforehand. In 1951, Cage visited an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An Anechoic chamber is a room designed to absorb all sound coming from within the room, and block out any external sound as well. Cage went to the room expecting to hear absolute silence, but instead he reported hearing two sounds, one low and one high. When he described this to the engineer in charge, he told Cage that the low sound was his blood in circulation, and the high sound was his nervous system in operation. Cage was astonished. He went to a place where he though there would be complete silence, and yet still heard sounds. He was reported saying, “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” This experience, and being influenced by other experimental artists at the time creating similar works, composed this piece as a study into the world of silence.
Cage was very passionate about this piece, his purpose was to envelop the audience in the natural sounds of the environment that was around them while the piece was going on. Because he considered sounds themselves, completely pure and untouched, to be music, he completely presented this as an aesthetic experience. But this piece, as you can probably guess, caused a lot of controversy. There are many who considered this piece to be a great look into what constitutes as music, a can be taken as a challenge to the very definition of music. But there are also others who point this out as having absolutely no point at all. And being that it is a piece of music, that it is completely silence, it’s not hard to see why people could see this as self-indulgent, and even pretentious. But maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not you agree with the pieces usefulness of honesty, maybe the aesthetic experience doesn’t have to have you agree with it. Before we get down to that, let’s take one more look at what John Cage has to say about silence.
It’s interesting to wonder what makes some people love the piece, and some people hate it. The experiences that people could have while experience John Cage’s “4’33″”, and the one I had in the restaurant could be considered to be quite similar. Being enveloped in complete silence, especially with other people in the room, is going to create some sort of feeling with in you. For people like John Cage who view sounds as a part of music, this piece becomes about the positive effect that silence can have on you. For others, it becomes a something that they dismiss as having any real meaning. But either way, the piece becomes something in that person’s mind. Whether it be positive or negative, it has stirred something inside of that person. One of John Cage’s reasons for creating the piece was the he knew that different people would experience it in different ways. He knew that some people might take it as a joke, while others might not. But what he wanted, was for it to do something. and I think that’s where the aesthetic experience comes from. Just like that moment in the restaurant, even if it was just silence, that silence became something inside my mind and it made me think about that experience. The aesthetic experience is an experience becomes something inside of you, and has left an impression that you later can think about. It’s an experience that while you’re having it, allows you to complete concentrate on what’s going on in front of you. And that can be anything. Even silence.