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Silence? There's an App for That

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Since the invention of radio and television, the world has grown increasingly smaller and more intimate. We are more aware than ever that on the other side of the globe are people and lives more or less just like ours.

As little as 60 years ago that knowledge would have been an abstract concept, gleaned second-hand through newspaper accounts and magazine images. Today one individual's experience increasingly touches another individual's experience directly across vast distances and cultural divides. That closeness, that opportunity for intimacy, is likely to increase with the marketing of products like Google Glass and the burgeoning popularity of personal messaging services like WhatsApp. Both Google (GOOG - Get Report) and Facebook (FB) see this trend as among the most significant to the tech industry's future, as exemplified by Facebook's decision to pay $19 billion in stock and cash for the little gizmo, WhatsApp.

Among the weirder pieces of evidence of that phenomenon is an app available now from Apple's (AAPL - Get Report) App Store that allows users to share silence. Called 4'33'' the app takes its inspiration from the 1952 John Cage musical composition of the same name, a radical piece that challenges listeners to consider the small noises in the room as a musical composition.

For the premiere at Woodstock in 1952, renowned Cage interpreter David Tudor sat at the piano in front of a live audience and did nothing for four minutes and 33 seconds. The silence is divided into three movements. In between movements, Tudor lifted the keyboard lid of the piano, turned a page in the score and closed the lid again to start the next section of silence.

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Audiences have greeted performances of the work by hostility, giggles, jeers, boos, jokes, sneers, walking out -- in short, every expression of every variety of discomfort imaginable. And yet, many -- most -- have enjoyed it. It remains Cage's most influential and well-known work.

At the crux of the work's importance is Cage's insight that no two silences are the same -- that, in fact, there is no such thing as silence.

Cage was inspired in part by painter Robert Rauschenberg's white canvases -- a series of works that had no images, but allowed for viewers to appreciate the play of light, shadow and their own imaginations. But Cage, who was as much a philosopher as a composer, was also convinced that music could be anything, any arrangement of sounds. Musical expertise and even musical instruments were completely unnecessary for a true musical experience.

In 4'33'', Cage throws down the boldest of challenges: to hear the sounds around us as music. By inviting us to listen to the ambient noises, Cage hands us an opportunity to appreciate the soundworld we live in, without restriction, without predetermined music expertly crafted to pretty it up, to mask the experience. In his role of composer, his only act is to frame the experience by dictating the length and the division into three sections. For the rest, he merely gives us permission to find it for ourselves.

In a famous quote, he described 4'33'' this way: "I have nothing to say and I am saying it. And that is poetry as I need it."

With that, he invites us to own the silence as well -- the silence that is never truly silence but is filled with innumerable small sounds or ambient noises -- and by extension, to own more fully the experience of being alive.

Shared Silence

Sitting in silence in a group of people is a powerful experience. Anyone who has attended a service of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, can tell you that. In Quaker meetings, any one may speak if they feel moved to speak. If no one is moved, no one speaks. Sometimes hours can pass with no one saying a word.

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