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It is the genuine significance of absence. It offers nothing in terms of melodies and harmonies. It is just a moment in the space of time, placing silence at the heart of it. It only offers a meta-structure named “Tacet” to an unknown future musical output. Maybe a way to answer questions like what silence affords and what it sounds like. Maybe more, maybe less…

I still remember my initial reflections on 4’33” when I first listened years ago. Simple yet beautiful; minimalist, yet a huge breakpoint in music history.

It struck me to observe some sort of improvised discussion between musicians on stage and audience members, erasing the hierarchy between them, thinking and creating together. Once performed, the music becomes anonymous, free from the composer, and creates a brand new tune each time. It is nothing, but it certainly grounds us facing the nothingness if we stay in the present for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. We can’t possess it; it won’t repeat itself. However, we can be there, embody it, and be part of it. We can keep a memory of it because it’s just an idea. An idea that even John Cage himself does not possess because it multiplies its meaning every time. It’s silence; the idea of silence in a space of time, or the odds of an absolute silence.

It is a unique piece of art to experience thoroughly rather than to be heard or listened to. This experience calls us to hear the music based on our expectations and crushes them by requiring us to check whether the speakers are on. It suppresses the affordances that music elicits and, simultaneously, puts an ambiguous smile on our faces along with an explicit expression of surprise, sparking curiosity and question marks in our minds. A sort of emancipation happens for us, the audience, and challenges the musicians to welcome the absence and create from nothing.

This is John Cage’s way of saying something and inviting us to take the floor, being inspired by silence. Years later, I still dwell on the vivid reminiscence of my first encounter with it.


Ebru Yılmaz

Ebru Yılmaz is a PhD student in developmental psychology at Paris Nanterre University, focusing on early musicality and communicational patterns in mother-infant vocal interaction. Her dissertation aims to describe how mothers' talk is organized according to the frame that defines proto-narrative sequences following an introduction, development, and conclusion pattern and how infants partake in these sequences, shaping their communicative development.

Cite as

ebru-yilmaz. 2024. “A Silent Manifesto: John Cage’s Tacet Way of Saying Something.” Anthropology News website, January 11, 2024.