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Invocations: The Art of Silence

The Invocation at ANOMALY was taken from an essay by John Cage, in which he explains some of the thinking behind his musical pieces, such as his infamous “4’33”.


On August 29, 1952, concert pianist David Tudor walked onto the stage, sat down at the piano, but then rather than playing the music the audience expected, he closed the lid and remained seated, silently in front of the instrument for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. This was the debut of John Cage’s most famous composition, a work of complete silence, except the sounds of the confused audience. Since this first performance 4’33 has been performed numerous times, provoking questions about its intent and effect, and whether it is a piece of performance art, an experiment in Zen philosophy, or something else entirely.

Born in Los Angeles in 1912, the composer and artist was inspired to compose this piece by a 1951 visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, in which he realized that even in silence, there is always sound: “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation…Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.”

Robert Rauschenberg

At the same time, he spent time in the company of the avant-garde artist Robert Rauschenberg, who became somewhat notorious in the art world for exhibiting a series of white on white paintings that same year. Similar to Cage’s observations about silence not actually being silent, Rauschenberg wrote of his seemingly blank canvases: “I always thought of the white paintings as being not passive, but very – well, hypersensitive. So one could look at them and see how many people were in the room by the shadows cast, or what time of day it was.”

With these influences in mind, Cage began to think of the power of a performance of silence, played live for an audience.

 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf ManHe was not actually the first to think this way. In 1897, French writer and composer Alphonse Allais played with the concept of musical silence in his Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, which carried silence through twenty-four blank measures. Following that several other musicians have created similarly blank compositions, but Cage’s has become the most famous by far.


In his book Silence: Lectures and Writing, published in 1961, Cage described his motivations and inspiration. True to form, the essays in the book are free form, almost poetic in arrangement, sometimes dispensing with whole sentences, words artfully placed on the page, thus requiring effort and attention of the reader, and allowing for a great deal of interpretation.

John Cage - lecture on nothingness

Our invocation is excerpted and compiled from the essay “Where Are We Going? What Are We Doing?”

“You want to know what we’re doing? We’re breaking the rules, even our own rules.. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities. That is what we are doing. In fact we don’t need to go to bring that into our action. We tend to rush to what we think are the limits only to discover how tamed our ambitions were. Will we ever learn that it is endless? The house had been so well-built that even though it burned, it did not bum dawn. The fire gutted it. We’re not going to become less scientific, but more scientific. We do not include probability in science.”

For your enjoyment, here are two versions of 4’33:

Further Reading:

Silence: Lectures and Writings, by John Cage –

See the Curious Score for John Cage’s Silent Zen Composition 4’33” – Open Culture

“Is John Cage’s 4’33 Music?” – Julien Dodd at TEDx Manchester

“Mindfulness in Art: Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings” – Hektoen International