Silence is dead....long live silence.
In this blog I am going to avoid certain aspects of silence, partly because they have been well represented in writing about music, and partly because they are not silence in the sense of non-activity. The topics to be dismissed are starts and ends of pieces along with periods between movements, long pauses, dim al niente , extreme pp range. Rests are a slightly different matter as we shall see as the blog progresses.
We live in a world of continual sound and vibration, some within our hearing range and some outside of it unless we process that sound. If we consider the radio sounds of the cosmic background radiation one may think of the entire universe being flooded with sound. Silence is a rare commodity and we have certain built in responses towards it.
When I started to learn to play the fugues from The Art of Fugue I was delighted with the moment in the first of the set where Bach interrupts the flow of the music, it is a dramatic moment, and restarting the music requires more than just a counting of the beats to judge reentry, The skill is not unlike the timing discussed when telling a good joke, and that is because silence has the power of building anticipation. A question we must ask is how long can we use silence before the dramatic effect is lost, and given longer time frames does silence take on a different role?
If you have used mindfulness techniques or engaged in meditation you will be familiar with "counting the breath" techniques. It is very simple, in order to focus attention, or refocus from the continuous dialogues which plague us, you simply pay attention to each breath and count each as it comes. After a while one begins to register non-activity, a quiet state. I find there is always a tension in the non-active moments which I put down to arising from body awareness. When music introduces non-activity there is a real dramatic tension, not dissimilar to body awareness, as the silence works to heighten our response to the whole. This expectation/ awareness is heightened when in a group or audience, this may well be a primitive response but it certainly exists.
Recently I have been listening to works which use electronics to provide a spatially enhanced experience these included Jonathan Harvey's fourth string quartet which makes use of 6 loudspeakers and a recent quadrophonic radio presentation of Hymnen by Stockhausen. It struck me how it is possible to place the sounds in one particular place in the concert hall, so that the remaining spaces are empty/silent. This has the effect of heightening the sense of drama. The techniques of spatial setting go back in time, even if we only consider art music, but there is an essential difference in electronic music in that the sound environment as a whole can be engineered. Monteverdi had the acoustic of St. Marks as his background, but in the concert hall we can introduce any soundscape should we wish.
There are many recordings of natural sounds available to us these days, and some enterprising souls make great use of these. Of course nobody has a recording of silence, we enjoy varieties of noise and welcome them. As long as we have control, or we pass the responsibility of control, to other people. Many recording programmes, like Nero or Audacity, have the capacity to place silence into a recording. Some time ago I had made a piano recording and replaying it noticed unwanted sounds during a period of short length inactivity, rather than re-record the section I pasted in ‘silence’. It was unsuccessful, in fact the result was in every sense wrong.
A rest is a period of non-activity, depending on the instrument and acoustic it could be a period of silence or not. It is the element that shapes, forms phrases and more, as Lao Tsu says:
“We join spokes
together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.
We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.
We work with being,
but non-being is what we use.”
There is a difference between successive short rests to articulate e.g. a type of phrasing and a period of silence to create emotional impact. Reading about Takemitsu one constantly comes across his use of silence in music, relating it to Japanese philosophy. This interested me on several levels, but there are many works in which silence is not a significant feature. There are long pauses on sustained piano with the use of pedal carefully notated. There are periods of very quiet sounds fading away, and it is possible that the process carries on in our minds after the music stops. Is silence then a matter of length of time, where some are more sensitive than others to the spaces between events?
I have been working recently on a piece which takes its design from the Fibonacci series, and as the series progresses the events that articulate the passing of time are placed further apart. Listening to the skeleton structure was very interesting as I was awaiting the events for up to 8 seconds with silences between. This made for a music of contrasts with high levels of activity followed by inactivity. The composition required more to express the design that I intended, but there was a quality in the bare bones that required further attention in future works.
After Cage composers had to review their thoughts on silence, both as a structural device and in considering what sounds could “populate” the areas contained by it. Stockhausen makes two distinct points on the matter in an interview he gave for “Modulations” in 1999
There's one work of piano music, for example, "Piano Piece #10", which lasts about 26 minutes. And it's true that at the beginning there's a very dense period of music about 2.5 minutes long which has all the musical material in extreme compression. And then, one by one, fragments of music occur and die out in resonances. The silences finally go up to about one minute, which is an extremely long time to make a minute musically interesting. So I discovered a new way to prepare for a certain duration of silence by what happens just before the silence, so that one can hear again, like an echo, the figures or structures before the silences.
I think there is a very secret science of musical composition in knowing what one has to do before a silence in order to make the following silence meaningful. And I'm still trying to expand this relationship between something and nothing
The preparation for silence demands a degree of intensity, a Zen story provides an insight,
A zen student and nun Chiyono studied under Bukko but she was unable to attain true “emptiness”.
One moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was “enlightened”.
Her poem marks the importance of the event:
In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
I used the title “Silence is dead” as listening to a number of recent contemporary works I have noted how little space exists between events. I am taken to considering if we have started to turn our backs on Cage who provided us with one of the great contributions to modern music.