On August 29th, 1952 a piece of music was performed. For four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the pianist and orchestra merely sat. The pianist occasionally opened and closed the piano signifying the beginning end of three movements. The orchestra did not play their instruments but they did perform as did the audience. The room was not filled with the sound of instruments but the noises made by the coughing of audience, the creak of chairs as people shifted, and the breathing, rain, and incidental sounds created the music of the piece.
The composer was John Cage and “4’33′” is one of his most famous pieces. Some critics hailed the piece as innovative and modern while others panned it instantly. Even today, some deny the musicality of the piece. I am not a musicologist and do not intend to debate for or against these arguments but either way “4’33′” is a profound piece of art as either music or performance piece. John Cage was either a musical genius (which I believe is shown by other of his works besides this) or a master conversation starter (and why do those two need to be mutually exclusive?). Those moments of silence do something deep and profound. They force the audience to hear something. It may not be what they expected; the sound of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. “4’33″” forces the audience to hear themselves and that is the power of the piece. The cough, the sneeze, the hushed whisper of, “why aren’t they playing?” all becomes the music. The sound of creaking chairs. The sound of offended patrons leaving in disgust.
“4’33” creates and causes a shift of focus and expectations. When we attend a musical performance we expect to hear music. Our focus, both visually and aurally, is on those on stage. We expect them to perform for us, to show mastery of their instrument and for melody, rhythm, tone, and all of the other musical terms to play out before us but in this piece we experience a new kind of performance. It is incorrect to think that there is only silence. “4’33” is not a performance of silence. It is not a lack of anything. It is the sound of the room, the people and the ambience. There is no absence of action, just not the expected action. There is no absence of sound, just not the expected sound. There is a shift of focus and expectation.
Jesus carries a deep shift in expectation and focus as well, asking us to remove power from the center. This removal of power from the elite, the throne, or the empire, does not result in a lack (like “4’33″”) but results in a diffuse power/belief/divinity that lives among us. Christ becomes immanent. God is not there, sitting distant. He is not transcendent, above and apart. He is here and among. His is not our focus over there on the stage, for us to hear and see in a performance, but he sits among us. Fundamentalism and conservatism creates a God who is there, on the throne and judging us from across the divide. God is over there. God is set apart.
But he is immanent. He is Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” The from a God who is there to a God who is here is a subtle one but it brings him amongst and changes our focus and expectation. God is not there, not in the words of the elite or the performance of the professionals but is here among us, where we become the symphony.
So sit and listen for a least 4’33” and hear the sounds around you. Turn off the noise around you and hit the mute button. If you are seeing an orchestra perform, plug your years. Shift the attention to the sound of you and the sound of the people around you. The importance is not always on a stage but sometimes is what we do. Let it remind us that God is not distant. Let us remember that God is not in an academic or rehearsed perfection of what has come before or traditional models. He may be in the strange and bizarre modernism or the reminder that the action in the audience is just as, if not more, important. God created the music of the universe but then shifted his focus to us. Let us shift our focus and listen to the same sounds he takes delight in.