“Silent prayer”, the first silent piece

John Cage, composing


In February 1948, John Cage gave a talk at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York as part of the National Inter-Collegiate Arts Conference. The subject of the conference was “The Creative Arts in Contemporary Society.” Merce Cunningham spoke as part of the session on drama and dance, and Cage was on the art and music panel with painter Ben Shahn. Cage’s talk was titled “A Composer’s Confessions”. Towards the very end, he described his vision of a silent piece:

I have, for instance, several new desires (two may seem absurd but I am serious about them): first, to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence and sell it to Muzak Co. It will be 3 or 4½ minutes long—those being the standard lengths of “canned” music—and its title will be Silent Prayer. It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape and fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibility.

To our knowledge, Cage never actually composed Silent prayer. It has always been assumed that 4′ 33″, composed four years later, was the ultimate realization of Cage’s 1948 desire. Cage himself made this connection, when he noted that he had the idea for a silent piece years before he actually wrote 4′ 33″.

But when connecting Silent prayer and 4′ 33″ it is easy to overlook the rather startling gap between John Cage in 1948 and John Cage in 1952. So many of the characteristics, features, and aesthetic attitudes we associate with Cage’s music in 1952—and especially with 4′ 33″—were not yet in place in 1948. Here are a few things that would be completely missing at the time Cage proposed Silent prayer:

  • Most importantly, his experience in the anechoic chamber and the resulting realization that there is no such thing as silence (he entered an acoustically engineered, perfectly silent space and still heard sounds from his body). In 1948, Cage still thought of silence as the absence of sound. A few months after the lecture at Vassar, for example, he delivered a lecture at Black Mountain College in which he described silence as “the opposite, and therefore, the necessary partner of sound.” It was not until some time after 1950 that he began defining silence as unintended sound. In 1948 he had no interest in paying attention to ambient noise, much less considering it to be music.
  • Chance as a compositional tool. Cage’s first use of chance operations was still three years away (1951’s Concerto for prepared piano). The music that he was writing at the time of “A Composer’s Confessions” was the Sonatas and interludes.
  • The language of Zen Buddhism. The first mention of Zen in Cage’s writing does not occur until a letter to the editors of Musical America in 1950. This draws from R. H. Blyth’s book on haiku, published in 1949. Cage spends a good deal of time in “A Composer’s Confessions” describing his spiritual investigations and does not make a single mention of Buddhism in any form. While he no doubt had heard of it, there is no reason to believe that Cage had any special interest in Zen in 1948.

The existence of Silent prayer means that John Cage conceived of a silent piece without any of these things as preconditions. It demands that we explain what a silent piece meant to John Cage without recourse to any of these things. Imagine taking the entire literature on 4′ 33″ and redacting all mention of the anechoic chamber experience, “no such thing as silence”, ambient sound, chance, and Zen. There would be relatively few coherent paragraphs remaining, stranded in the sea of black. While Silent prayer is not 4′ 33″, the two works are clearly connected—they are both silent pieces. The radically different historical context of Silent prayer makes us rethink Cage’s motivations for a silent piece, and hence for 4′ 33″.

What was the context of Silent prayer, then? We can start with the context of “A Composer’s Confessions” itself. In this talk, Cage described his musical ambitions, how they were dashed, and how he came to become a seeker of spiritual wisdom that could inform his musical life. He was speaking at the time when he was in his deepest connection to the work of the art historian and philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy. Cage, following Coomaraswamy, forcefully stated that music serves a spiritual rather than a material purpose:

So I don’t believe it is any particular finished work that is important. I don’t sympathize with the idealization of masterpieces. I don’t admire the use of harmony to enlarge and make music impressive. I think the history of the so-called perfecting of our musical instruments is a history of decline rather than of progress. Nor am I interested in large audiences or the preservation of my work for posterity. I think the inception of that fairly recent department of philosophy called aesthetics and its invention of the ideas of genius and self-expression and art appreciation are lamentable.

Taking this line of thinking further, Cage even disavowed his interest in new musical materials. The desire for the unknown, Cage said, “has found expression in our culture in new materials, because our culture has its faith not in the peaceful center of the spirit but in an ever-hopeful projection on to things of our own desire for completion.”

It was immediately after making this strong anti-materialist declaration that Cage described Silent prayer. Given the spiritual journey described in “A Composer’s Confessions”, it is clear that the title of the piece was meant sincerely. This was no joke (as Cage made explicit to his listeners). What did he mean by it? The idea of Silent prayer was perhaps akin to what contemporary spiritual teacher Tara Brach refers to as “the sacred pause,” a time to silence the ego and turn inwards, away from the materialistic culture that Cage (and Coomaraswamy) found problematic artistically. Cage did not describe Silent prayer as a concert work, but rather as a track to be programmed for Muzak, a way of inserting that sacred pause into the never-ending babble of distracting music in the public space.

Cage, of course, had used silences in his music before, even a few rather lengthy ones. But these were expressive silences. As explained in “A Composer’s Confessions,” the silence of Silent prayer was to be something altogether different. It would represent a turning away from personal expression, a turning away from ego, a turning away from the material—and a turning inwards to emptiness. It would be not simply an acoustic silence, a silence to be listened to, but rather a compositional silence, a silence to be composed from.

§ § §

Cage proposed “to compose a piece of uninterrupted silence”, thus indicating that this was not just a concept, but a practical musical project. In 1948, Cage was recently equipped with the technical means needed to execute such a project: a duration structure that could equally accommodate sound and silence. He had based all his music on duration structures since he had emerged on the new music scene in the late 1930s. But those structures were based on the idea of phrase structure derived from the dance. Earlier in “A Composer’s Confessions”, he states this plainly:

Two facts then led me to structural rhythm: the physical nature of the materials with which I was dealing [i.e., unpitched noises], and the experience I had in writing within the lengths of time prescribed for me by modern dancers.

In this context, silence could be used within the duration structure, but since it followed the dance, these silences would be dramatic in nature: the cessation of the music would contribute to the expressivity of the choreography. But even as he was describing his work with dancers, Cage’s thinking about duration structures was changing, and rapidly so. Just a few months after “A Composer’s Confessions” he delivered his lecture “Defense of Satie”, wherein he would shift to an acoustic rationale for duration structures. His central thesis was that duration was the only basis for structuring music because it was the only factor in common between sound and silence. Thus in Cage’s new thinking silence was becoming the basis for structure; one could even think of his duration structures as silent, empty containers within which the music would happen. Although he did not recognize this quite yet, Cage was developing the basis for a technique that could encompass compositional silence. Realizing that durations could be filled with either sound or silence, it is a short distance to conceiving of a structure that is entirely silence, non-material, empty of self-expression. The appearance of Silent prayer in 1948 could thus be a result of nascent technical musical realizations as well as spiritual discoveries.

But what did Cage mean by that poetic, cryptic description of the piece?

It will open with a single idea which I will attempt to make as seductive as the color and shape and fragrance of a flower. The ending will approach imperceptibility.

Without further clarification from Cage, it is anyone’s guess what this might mean. My own personal guess of the moment is that Cage envisioned sound being the frame for his three-to-four-and-a-half minutes of silence—how else to demarcate the silence? He would craft some “seductive” sound for the opening, and then some barely perceptible sound to mark the ending. I can almost hear them in my mind’s ear, perhaps as prepared piano sounds drawn from the palette of Sonatas and interludes.

§ § §

Cage did not create Silent prayer, however—why? It may have been that his conception of the piece was inextricably linked to its placement on Muzak. Selling this to them would certainly have been a tall order. We have no record of any attempt that Cage made to pitch this idea to the company, and it seems unlikely that he would have gotten far if he had. Cage instead channeled his thinking about compositional silence into other projects. In 1949, while spending time in Paris, he began working on what would become his String quartet in four parts. “Without actually using silence, I should like to praise it,” he wrote at the time. With its flat, relatively uneventful surface (especially in the “nearly stationary” third movement), and with its increasingly controlled use of materials, the string quartet shows another way of approaching the compositional silence that Cage hinted at in “A Composer’s Confessions”. This way of thinking would lead him in 1951 to use chance operations in his Concerto for prepared piano and chamber orchestra. This emptiness of self through chance operations was the breakthrough that Cage had been working towards, the realization of compositional silence. It was a life-altering development. Perhaps then it is not surprising, with his energy applied in this direction, that Silent prayer remained unrealized. But it was the technique of chance operations that would bring the next silent piece into being: 4′ 33″.

Next in this series: The origin of 4′ 33″

Home page for the entire series: John Cage’s silent piece(s)

Notes & asides

“A composer’s confessions” has been published in various places, including Musicworks issue 52 (Spring 1992). The 1948 Black Mountain College lecture in which Cage described silence as the opposite of sound is his “Defense of Satie”, published in Richard Kostelanetz’s anthology John Cage (Praeger Publishers, 1970). The quotation about the string quartet and silence is from a letter Cage wrote to his parents in August of 1949.This critical period in Cage’s life and work, from 1948 through 1951, was the subject of my series “Opening the door into emptiness”. In that series I go into much greater detail about “A composer’s confessions”, Cage’s conflicted relationship to Coomaraswamy’s writing, and the exploration of compositional silence that led to chance operations. My thinking about the different kinds of silence in Cage’s work and how they relate to Silent prayer were helped along by William Brooks’s article “Pragmatics of silence” in Silence, music, silent music, edited by Nicky Losseff and Jenny Doctor (Ashgate, 2007).

2 thoughts on ““Silent prayer”, the first silent piece”

  1. Paul Beaudoin, PHD

    I wish I had my books with me to check but I well remember that Cage spoke of the courage he received in composing 4’33” after seeing Rauschenberg’s White Paintings. Here it is:

    “To Whom It May Concern: The white paintings came first; my silent piece came later.”

    John Cage: Preface to “On Robert Rauschenberg, artist, and his work.”
    In: Silence. Lectures and Writings by John Cage.
    Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973, p. 98.

  2. Pingback: Cage's silent piece(s): What is your silent piece? - James Pritchett

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *