Silence Sorely Sought
John Cage, the avant-garde American composer and the Jewish holiday of Sukkot don’t have a ton in common at first glance. If we peek beneath the surface though, the eclectic musician and the unique season of joy in the Jewish calendar do have a shared connection. That connection has something valuable to teach us.
Among other contributions, Cage is known for a piece titled 4’33. It was composed in 1952, for any instrument or combination of instruments, and the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece purports to consist of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed. In Cage’s words, he wanted to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence. Take a “listen”:
Cage was inspired by a visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later,
"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.”
Imagine being able to really hear your nervous system and blood!? How powerful would that be? Well, it just so happens that Sukkot offers us such an opportunity, at least in theory. We find ourselves amid the loudest part of the Jewish calendar: shofar blasts, communal prayers, festive meals, hammering of pipes and nails to build our sukkot, those portable huts. Then, on this Friday night, we get a bit of silence.
There is a liturgical peculiarity that happens when a holiday meets a Shabbat. The normative service for a Friday night gets truncated. There are a whole host of reasons for why this happens but the one that is striking me this year is that in diminishing the sound, we hear actually allows us to hear ourselves and our world more clearly.
There’s a brilliance to this quirk that the Rabbis enacted. The gift of the lack of noise during a particularly noisy time is most welcome. It opens up for us so much of what we may have been neglecting to hear.
Which brings me back to that song of John Cage. We may not have the music of the regular liturgy this week but we do most certainly have the music of the universe surrounding us. And not just that, but quite literally the music of The Divine is inside of us.
In turns out that the way our heart pumps in our body corresponds to musical beats: adagio, the slowest and most leisurely is 60-80 BPM which is about what our resting heart rate is, regular rhythm of the heart corresponds to the andante measurement which is 80-100 BPM, allegro is about 120-160 BPM which is where you’re at with normal exercise, and finally presto is 160-200 which is the most strenuous highest possible normative heart beat.
We walk around with music inside of us. Take a listen. Whether you’re celebrating or not. Whether you have a sukkah or not. Take five minutes somewhere and really listen. You might be surprised at what you hear in the silence.
Shabbat Shalom, friends!