Try as We May to Make Silence, We Cannot by Arielle Crumley
Amid the haze of smoke and musk, I join the crowd eagerly awaiting the show. The buzz of anticipation clashes with the sound of passing cars. Clad in pressed suits, polished shoes, and pearls for the ladies, all of New York’s finest musicians and artists have shown up for the event. “Can’t wait to see what this bastard has come up with this time,” a cigar-wielding gentleman behind me wails, laughing through coughs of smoke. Above us, a large, lit-up sign hangs:
Contemporary Artist: John Cage
The velvet rope is lifted, and the crowd begins to shuffle into the building. The audience filters in, nearly filling up the seats. I take my seat and begin to look around the room, my gaze falling on the lone piano. As the lights begin to dim, the excited chatter begins to quiet. The piano is illuminated by the spotlight, and seconds later a figure emerges. Cage walks out confidently and takes his place in front of the piano. After giving a bow and taking his seat, he lifts the lid of the piano and places his hands in his lap. He takes a deep breath to prepare for the performance.
But he doesn’t move.
Ten…Twenty…Thirty seconds pass, and he hasn’t shifted at all. I feel a ping of secondhand embarrassment for the man. He must have forgotten his entrance. Forty…Fifty…Sixty seconds pass, and his hands remain in his lap. An awkwardness hovers in the stillness. The silence is soon broken when the audience becomes antsy, looking around, shifting in their seats, whispering. The tiny shuffling grows louder, and voices begin to grow in volume. A woman laughs, a man clears his throat, whispers crescendo into agitated speaking.
“What is going on?” the man next to me leans in to say.
I shrug, completely at a loss.
“What is he doing?” a woman in front of me asks.
“Is this some sort of joke?”
Two full minutes have passed, and Cage still sits motionless at the piano. Hands in his lap, head tilted pensively towards the piano.
The crowd becomes irate, and the gentle whispers erupt into exclamations.
“Are you going to play or not?”
“I didn’t pay good money to listen to silence!”
A man in front of me stands up and marches out violently, cursing under his breath.
Several other men and women follow suit, the heavy shuffling of feet and angry exclamations creating a chaotic second movement to this performance.
At least three and a half minutes have passed, and Cage, myself, and a few patient others are still sitting in our seats while the noise begins to fade. The few people left in the theatre make their exit, the door slamming like a solid cadence.
In the now nearly empty and quiet room, the sounds from outside are emphasized. Cars rush by, taxi cabs honk their horns, and the crowd continues to chatter away out in the lobby.
Suddenly, I begin to hear the music. The contrapuntal cacophony becomes melodic, the gentle hum of the theatre’s ventilation system, the pedal tone foundation for the orchestra. Four and a half minutes pass, and I am awakened from my daze by movement. Cage releases his hands from his lap, closes the lid of the piano, and stands. With a gentle hand on the rim of the piano, he takes a solid bow and emerges with a proud and genuine grin, as though this has been his most successful performance yet. One of the few audience members left, I give him a standing ovation.
“Four minutes and thirty-three seconds,” he says, and walks off towards stage right. The curtain closes. I sit back in my seat. The show isn’t over. I close my eyes, and I listen.
-Originally published in The Elixir’s 2013-14 print edition
-Photo credit to Kyriakides Piano Gallery