John Divola writes, “The desert is not empty. However, it is vacant enough to bestow a certain weight to whatever is present.” Silence was a desert playground for the musician John Cage. On August 29, 1952, he debuted the score 4’33” in which a segment of concert time was allotted for any chance sounds that might occur. For four minutes and thirty-three seconds, 4’33” captured the ambient noise of an open air concert hall in Woodstock, New York. In the three unscored movements, the audience heard the wind in the trees, the rain on the roof, the occasional turning of the pages of the blank score and, during the final “movement,” the sounds of its own disgruntlement. Cage referred to 4’33” as “listening to a period of time when there aren’t any sounds being produced.”
The concert supported the Benefit Artists Welfare Fund and was attended by an audience open to contemporary art and the avant-garde. Yet the audience did not share Cage’s willingness to engage a moment, a short passage of time, with a minimum of intention. As Cage explained, "The essential meaning of silence is the giving up of intention." Cage operated within the convention of a concert setting, but opened the moment to chance. Of his experiments with the I Ching he said,
If you use, as I do, chance operations, you don’t have control except in the way of designing the questions which you ask. That you can control. I mean you can decide to ask certain questions and not others. But if you use chance operations, you have no control over the answers, except the limits within which they operate.
In explaining the audience’s discomfort with 4’33”, Peter Gutman alludes to a basic human need for “the familiarity of repetition.” Cage inverted the familiar setting of a classical concert by introducing a seeming silence where the audience expected orchestrated sound. In fact, Cage did not consider 4’33” silent. Rather, his composition argued against the very existence of silence. In 1951 he had entered an anechoic chamber to experience the complete absence of noise only to discover the resonant sound of his own nervous and circulatory systems: “Try as we may to make silence, we cannot.”