When I was sixteen, I spent a couple wondrous summer weeks at a place called Governor’s School in North Carolina. It was here that country mouse me met all manner of bright and misfit kids, in social and academic pursuits. We started the term in shy quietude and ended it in tearful embrace. It was there I had my first kiss.
Early in the first week, we attended a recital of composer John Cage’s work 4’33”. The assembly hall hushed as the performer approached his piano, sat down, placed a stopwatch on the music stand, and closed the lid on the keyboard. What followed was silence. He gave us all the visual cues of beginning a performance, then sat quietly upright, his hands on his lap. Not a note was played for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
Well, we didn’t know what to do. Instead of the organized sound of music, we had instead the noise of our own thoughts and expectations, and an awareness that a code of conduct had been broken: He was supposed to play the piano, and we were supposed to listen. We were quiet, for a while. Then, there was nervous shuffling and occasional laughter. Still, the player refused to play. When he opened and closed the lid of the keyboard after each movement, the sound reverberated throughout the hall. We in the hall, meanwhile, swung madly from respectful inaction to contemplated mayhem.
“They missed the point,” John Cage said of the audience at the premiere of 4’33”, as recounted in Richard Kostelanetz’s book Conversing with Cage. “There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
When she was eighteen, Emma González hid in the dark auditorium of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School while her classmates were shot in the halls. On Saturday, González addressed the crowd at March For Our Lives. “In a little over six minutes, 17 of our friends were taken from us, 15 were injured and everyone in the Douglas community was forever altered,” she said. Then, after naming each of the dead, Emma González stood quietly for the remainder of the six minutes and twenty seconds.
The camera lingered. The crowd burst into scattered applause, like a fitful summer shower. People began to cry, or chant. Some stood perfectly still, their eyes cast down. An occasional breeze was picked up by the microphones on the lectern. What a terrible silence. I imagined myself at this young woman’s age, crouched in a quiet auditorium, knowing what was happening without fully believing it. I wondered at the society we have become, and how it can be transformed.
Finally, the beep of a timer.
“Since the time when I came out here,” González said, “it has been six minutes and twenty seconds. The shooter has ceased shooting and will soon abandon his rifle, blend in with the students as they escape, and walk free for an hour before arrest. Fight for your lives before it’s someone else’s job.”
It was about the audience during those six minutes on Saturday, those of us watching who had to fill the space with our own anguish and hope. It was about us, engaged, even as we were ejected from our role as passive listeners.
I grew up to be a musician, and can tell you that there is no music without silence. The best players know when not to play. John Cage gave me my first lesson in that concept, though I scarcely recognized myself as a student when it happened.
I know now that there are no words quite as effective as properly framed silence. Emma González taught me that this past Saturday. I have learned how to listen a little better.
Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.