alan little’s weblog

music, meditation and 4'33"

5th May 2004 permanent link

I remember when I was growing up people I knew who were serious about music regarded John Cage’s 4’33” – four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence – as the ultimate expression of absurd modern music, on a par with the Tate Gallery’s pile of bricks as the definitive silly work of non-art. I hadn’t really thought about it for years, until recently I was surprised to find Peter Gutmann saying I’m occasionally asked, “So, what’s your favorite piece of music?” I instinctively cringe at such an impossible question, yet if really pressed for an answer my choice would be John Cage’s 4’33”.

I generally respect Peter Gutmann’s musical opinions – his excellent biographical article on Wilhelm Furtwängler, for example, introduced my to Furtwängler’s marvellous 1944 recording of Bruckner’s 9th Symphony. His essay on historical recordings, and what they tell us about what’s wrong with late twentieth century classical music, is fascinating too. So if I know he’s no fool, and he takes 4’33” seriously, perhaps there’s more to it than meets the, er, ear:

Although often described as a silent piece, 4’33” isn’t soundless at all. While the performer is quiet, you soon become aware of a huge amount of sound, ranging from the mundane to the profound, from the expected to the surprising, from the intimate to the cosmic – nervous giggling, shifting in seats, breathing, air conditioning, a creaking door, passing traffic, an airplane, ringing in your ears, a recaptured memory. Concerts and records standardize our responses, but no two people will ever hear 4’33” the same way. This is deeply personal art, which each witness shapes to his or her own reactions to life

This reminds me of a thought, and a conversation I had with my brother, a few years ago when at around the same time I was just starting to practice yoga and to really listen to classical music, to the effect that really listening to music – especially intense, introspective chamber music – is actually quite an advanced form of meditation.

One of the clever things about yoga is that, by apparently giving you a lot of things you’re supposed to think about – where am I trying to put my arm? My leg hurts. Look up, not at her. Don’t forget to breathe. Heels down. If I could just get my knee a bit more to the side. Breathe … it actually ensures that you think about nothing else. It’s difficult to worry about office politics and at the same time be aware of what your diaphragm and your pelvic floor are doing.

Or, as one of my first yoga teachers put it much more simply: “there’s nothing like a bit of discomfort for bringing the mind into the present moment”.

All this, if you can really focus your mind on what you’re doing in your practice to the exclusion of everything else, starts to take you towards the fifth and sixth of the eight stages of meditation in classical yoga as described in Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras: pratyahara, withdrawal of the mind/senses/attention from extraneous sensations and dharana, the ability to focus concentration on one thing. It’s all about learning voluntary control of the focus of the mind, as opposed to the normal state of being constantly distracted by thoughts, images, fears, worries, desires – the thin stream of semi-random noise that we call the consciousness and commonly regard as “ourself”. Patanjali’s classical sanskrit definition of yoga – yogas citta vrtti nirodaha – is commonly translated into English as yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Which is clumsy and ugly but sort of conveys the idea. If you are struggling to reach your toes and your mind is truly focused on what you are doing, you are doing yoga. If you have been sitting absolutely motionless in lotus for two hours thinking about how angry you are with your boyfriend, what you intend to cook for dinner, how cool you look sitting in lotus for two hours, or what you could write in your weblog about what an advanced understanding of yoga and meditation you have, you are not doing yoga.

Back to music: clearly getting one’s body into difficult and strenuous positions is not the only way to learn to focus the mind – it’s just one way that yogis have discovered over the centuries is accessible and effective for some people. Another one, that I personally find harder and rarely have time for, is to really, intently listen to music and lose yourself in it 100%. Most cultures throughout history have found that the most effective way to do that is by combining music with dance – as dance therapist Gabrielle Roth says, “the best way to still the mind is to move the body”. Doing it with music alone, without dancing, is much harder. Take away the music too and you might as well just go to a Zen class and be done with it.

So I still think 4’33” is pretty silly. Or, to put it another way, I sit in silence for at least five minutes at the end of my yoga practice most days anyway, so I don’t see it as anything special. I think it’s a good thing to do but I wouldn’t choose to go to a concert hall to do it. I suppose there is some possibility that a “performance” of 4’33” might introduce some people to just sitting, listening to what is happening around them and in their head, who might otherwise never consider trying anything described as “yoga” or “meditation”.

related entries: Music Yoga

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