Rum Music: Some Thoughts On Silence

In this edition of Rum Music, Michael Begg looks at the problems inherent in a recent compilation of 'silent' music, and Stephen Graham heads to King's Place for a selection of live explorations of silence

A nearly-review of Sounds Of Silence, a recent compilation

Michael Begg

When I was very young, around 2 years old, I fell silent. Literally. Nobody in the family can recall the trigger, nor the exact duration of the episode. But a cursory examination by the doctor resulted in the pronouncement that there was nothing wrong with me and that I would speak again when I was ready. Which I did.

That’s more or less all I know about an episode that may or may not have actually happened, yet it is something that continues to affect me – the quality of silence. I recall that there was a sense of protest and the need to find something to secure my survival in my adopting silence. It’s the same sense I feel now when circumstances defeat me. Silence becomes a monolithic, impregnable fortress, and the only safe place to be. Similarly, when I gave up on city living a decade ago and moved out into rural East Lothian I was hit hard on the very first evening by the viscous quality of the night. This was quietness, not silence, but palpable, thick and just as commanding as a presence.

When encountering new people, their capacity for silence is a parameter I tend to unconsciously measure, and in observing any group of individuals my attention is always drawn to the one who contains the most silence. The presumption being that this is likely to be the person with the highest possible quality of contribution to make. How much of this is conditioning?

In secular human interaction silence tends to be projected as a palpable force, always positive and good, if somewhat lacking in consistency. It is, variously, an indicator of wisdom ("Silence is a fence around wisdom" – German proverb) an aspiration ("The silent man is the best to listen to" – Japanese proverb) a balm ("Silence is medication for sorrow" – Arab proverb) a weapon ("You hesitate to stab me with a word, and know not – silence is the sharper sword" – Samuel Johnson) or a cultural benchmark ("Silence is the mother of truth" – Disraeli).

Moving from the secular into the divine, we find no less appropriation of silence as an articulation of ineffable yet laudible qualities. In Buddhism, there is the story of the nengemisho, in which Sakyamuni offers a wordless sermon. He holds up a white flower and stands in silence, thereby imparting the greatest wisdom. In most traditions of faith, silence manifests a wholesome and desirable quality of withdrawal and reflection. Noise is waste. Silence is the location, or the circumstance, or the prerequisite to finding God. Nirvana. Peace. Wisdom.

As an abstract idea, silence acquires a certain degree of gravity by being offered up judiciously as something endangered. The world is becoming a louder place and eating up, along with all the other natural resources, all the possible silence.

So silence is on a par with North Sea oil, rainforests and pandas. It’s a refuge, a sanctuary, an indicator of wisdom, and a high human quality to aspire towards and nurture. And all this for something of which we have absolutely no experience or first hand knowledge. We cannot know silence. There is always something to hear, whether it be in the outside world or internally, arising from our own bodies.

By means of an irresistible segue into music, lets consider John Cage’s experience of the anechoic chamber at Harvard. Anechoic chambers are elaborately sound-proofed rooms characterised by large foam wedges and sprung floors that lock out external sound and absorb sounds created within the space whilst reflecting nothing back into the space. Its an environment as close to silence as we can hope to achieve and there are only a handful of such spaces located in universities and research facilities around the world.

At Harvard, Cage emerged from the experience offering the main impression that there was no silence within the chamber. That there were, in actual fact, two discrete pitches present throughout; one high, one low. "The low one’s your blood pumping," Cage was told. "The high one’s your nervous system."

There is nothing particularly new or revolutionary about the use of silence in music. It is an essential component of the dynamic range. Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna closes with seven full bars of silence. Mozart observed that the silence between the notes was of equal importance to the notes themselves. Brian Eno once quipped that having no silence in music was like having no black or white in painting. It is, in a sense, just another tool in the box.

But there is a difference between objective or functional form – the structural pause, the rest, the fermata – and the more subjectively active intervention of silence as a force of intent in composition.

In musical contexts there is a parallel distinction to be drawn between the divine and the secular, with each having a different projected requirement upon this abstract, impossible condition; silence.

Arvo Pärt’s favoured conductor and essayist, Paul Hillier, has spoken of Pärt’s music "illuminating the silence that surrounds it" and of music, more generally, as the negation of silence. It remains unclear, on this evidence, whether silence is seen by Hillier as a super structure which music stands against. Or as the medium in which sound exists. Certainly in the negation of silence’s role the relationship seems more confrontational. Pärt himself, however, speaks more in terms suggestive of silence being in itself a manifestation or projection of the divine principal in whose name his life’s work is offered. Performers of his work have to face the challenge of how to play variations of silence written into his scores. His ‘Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten’, an unusually secular work for Pärt, begins and ends with three beats of silence. ‘Für Alina’, the first manifestation of the tintinabuli style, begins with a single, scored moment of silence. "This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me," Pärt has said. The performer needs to be mindful of the importance of the silence when allowing a note to end, and to be equally mindful of the importance of silence before seeking to break its purity by announcing a new note.

Cage’s ‘4’33"’ was by no means the first example of scored silence. In 1897, Alphonse Allais’s ‘Funeral March For The Obsequies Of A Deaf Man’ featured nothing more than 24 measured rests. In 1949, some three years before ‘4’33"’ was first performed, Yves Klein’s ‘Monotone Symphony’ scored twenty minutes of an orchestra holding a single D major chord, followed immediately by 20 minutes of enforced silence.

‘Monotone Symphony’, performed only once in Klein’s lifetime, and by a ten piece band at that, enjoyed a sell out performance with full orchestra in Manhattan’s Madison Avenue Presbytarian Church on 18th September 2013 and showed that silence, in combination with context, juxtaposition and a full house can result in a compelling experience of poignancy and power.

Cage’s most notorious work, however, despite often being referred to as four and a half minutes of silence, was concerned more with the impossibility of silence. The experience of the anechoic chamber gave him that much. Silence doesn’t exist. The work, and others making similar episodic use of the device served to focus the listeners attention on the context rather than solely the "musical" content.

Silence, it seems, a phenomenon which can only be conceptualised rather than realised, depends for its gravity upon that against which it is counterpointed. If silence is a protest, then it requires the presence of that which it is in opposition.

Which – and thank you for waiting so long – is the main problem at the heart of Sounds Of Silence: the most intriguing silences in recording history, a limited edition double vinyl release by Italian label Alga Marghen. It is a self styled compilation of "notorious" silent tracks by the likes of Crass, Ciccone Youth, Whitehouse, Orbital, Robert Wyatt, Andy Warhol, and many, many more. (Check out this Wikipedia page for a growing list of occurrences of silence used as protest, abstraction, poetical or theoretical statement, expression of cynicism, absurdity or just a plain old joke.)

The recordings are presented as they were originally recorded, preserving imperfections. Each silence is, say the label, considered as a "surface", and that the record itself should be played loud.

It pays lip service to the hipster requirement for a desirable object – a slice of vinyl, and contains a mooted association with significant cultural figures, whilst the whole endeavour has managed to rid itself entirely of any creative act requiring accountability, effort or commitment.

These are empty recordings, denied their original context, delivering an approximation of a phenomenon that we cannot experience. Even Orbital’s digital silence is compromised by the vinyl medium and the inherent weaknesses in both human hearing and the listening environment. Any sense of presence, of intent, can be transferred only by the title; ‘Are We Here? Criminal Justice Bill?’

And so it follows that each musical track is an imperfect vacuum, pulled out of its individual context, floating in space, merely soundless. Their only hope for success is in the transfer of the title, the appropriation of the artists fame, or infamy, and whatever new context the compilation can bring to the table for the silence to work against. Viewed in this light it represents the difference between first hand experience and an after dinner bore poorly relating second hand reports of sketchily recalled events that at some point long ago meant something to someone. Safe. Predictable. Sickly. Mentioned only for perceived conversational value. Tick. Done. Next.

As a record, of course, it fails. It has to. There is no music, no sound excepting the crackle of vinyl. Its just a simple jape, a one-line joke. The only frame in which it may be regarded otherwise is one of pure post modern posturing, where the work itself exists solely to provoke a reaction and that it is the reaction that is the point rather than the work. To that extent then, and reviewed within that context, the release has to be considered as something of a success.

Given the ongoing process of devaluation of the role of the musician only half hidden by fashion, media, fame and the slippery premise of the evolving digital ecology. This minor release potentially provides the bleakest waypoint yet. A physical artefact with no content and stolen context. Physically there, but absent by any other measure. The opposite, in fact, of silence.

King’s Place – Some Recent Silences, Apartment House

n Graham

Despite what you might think, silence does not simply represent a blank or negative space in music. In fact, ‘silence’ has provided fertile material across a wide variety of musics in recent decades. In the now 61 years since John Cage’s famous ‘silent piece’, 4’33”, a huge variety of composers, sound artists, musicians and so on have consciously sought to explore various applications of silence in their work, whether it be the literal silence that serves to focus attention on environmental sounds à la Cage, or other kinds, such as carefully choreographed passages of silence that feel permeated by drama through the residues of previous and coming sounds.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s article for New Music Box, ‘Some Recent Silences‘, references silence’s flexibility and plurality in suggesting that "silence itself has proved a remarkably resilient and heterogeneous material" in a range of contemporary composers’ and musicians’ work.

Some composers, according to Rutherford-Johnson, such as György Kurtag, Sofia Gubaidulina and Sergei Zagny, score silence rhythmically or dynamically, so that passages of silence in their music are given temporal shape and (seemingly paradoxical) performative weight. This kind of approach dates back to Beethoven and even earlier, such that ‘silent’ pauses and passages in works represents a fairly conventional strategy in building scores, even if that strategy has recently been radicalised by being extended over a number of bars, as opposed to the beat or two of silence that would have been common in earlier eras.

Others composers and artists, such as Hildegard Westerkamp and David Dunn, focus on an "organisation of perception" where "composed listening" displaces "composed sound" as the primary object of the composition. Within this model, it is not a passage of silence that is notated, but instead the actual behaviour of the audience. The focus turns in this way from the manipulation and organisation of sound to the organisation of audience members’ experience of silence and sound. Dunn’s Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time, the score for which specifies only "the cognitive listening state of its performer/audience" across a variety of parameters (e.g. direction of attention upwards or downwards etc.) and in an unfixed sonic context, illustrates this approach well.

Others still, such as Manfred Werder, Michael Pisaro and Peter Ablinger, engage in concept-based compositions that frame sound and/or aestheticised social interaction with silence, so that, for example, a piece might consist of barely audible violin tones that recalibrate our sense of sound by fringing it with silence. Another piece might be comprised of an "ordered arrangements of chairs…set out in specific locations". This latter scenario, taken from Peter Ablinger’s Listening Piece In Four Parts, perhaps sits closer to conceptual art than music. However, in its invitation to a kind of keen, socialised attention on sound, silence, and whatever else might be taking place in the vicinity of the chairs, the piece at least draws in aspects of music conceived in traditional terms.

In any case, silence, in Pisaro’s words, is both "a material and a disturbance of material’ in all of these composers" works; silence is both present in a literal sense in these works, as scored passages ‘between’ scored sounds, whilst also being a kind of container – in the relative absence of scored musical sounds – for a range of social concepts and scenarios.

Common to all of the pieces that Rutherford-Johnson discusses in his article is a sense of exploration as to what might be seen as ‘music’. This sense of exploration was likewise in strong evidence in the recent Apartment House King’s Place concert which grew out of the article. Curated by Rutherford-Johnson and likewise entitled ‘Some Recent Silences’, the concert illustrated very well both the breadth of silence’s reach in contemporary music and the philosophical and musical richness that often results from that reach.

The King’s Place show featured a nicely-balanced and dynamically-effective programme made up of pieces with silent passages, pieces made exclusively from silence, and pieces that used silence as a background for social action. The concert, in this way, explored music and also the social and conventional basis of the live performing situation in a like manner to the music discussed in the article (with which the concert shared only two composers). G. Douglas Barrett’s A Few Silence (2007) and Gregory Emfietzis’ DIY 1: the pianist and the lamp (2007) were perhaps most notable in the latter regard.

Barrett’s piece takes as its material the largely accidental sonic matter of the performing space itself. Its performers spend the first few minutes of the presentation creating real-time notated transcriptions of the sounds of the room, whilst the audience look on mostly in silence. The performers then perform their transcriptions in the composition’s second half using a variety of everyday objects. The piece in this way serves as a document of the silences and sounds of the space, such that its second half dramatises and recreates the accidental and unintentional sounds of the first half. A recursive chain is set up here that is fascinating: the performance in the second half sonically documents a documentation (i.e. the transcriptions), which documentation can in turn be seen as a documentation of the audience’s behaviour in the first half. This head-spinning chain is interesting in itself. However, just as important is the charged atmosphere created by the dual performance – the audience’s in the first half and the performers in the second – where silence becomes loud and ‘music’ temporarily becomes an open container for a whole world of ideas and experiences.

Emfietzis’ piece is less interesting in a philosophical sense than Barrett’s, even if its theatrical set-up – pianist tries to perform a score but keeps being interrupted by the trigger of a lamp being turned on – makes for a fun few minutes, particularly with pianist Philip Thomas’ campy execution (a good-sport showiness that also served Kurtag’s short Quarelling 2 from 1975 very well). What seems most interesting to me in the Emfietzis, beyond the rather vivid chromatic dirge of the interrupted music, is its inherent role-playing aspects, where Thomas seems to embody performer and composer and actor at various points throughout the performance.

The rest of the programme likewise explored the role of the performer and the social interaction of performers in the context of framed and ‘loaded’ silence. Ben Isaacs’ allone (2009) and Charlie Sdraulig’s close (2012/13), both for clarinet (Tom Jackson), voice (Lore Lixenberg) and cello (Anton Lukoszevieze), each rail (quietly) against the tyranny of the audible that has ruled over music history. Isaacs’ rather gorgeous piece sounds like Feldman heard through the k-hole, fringing sound as it does with silence, movingly evoking the wispiness of this thing called music that we all love so much. Sdraulig’s close is even more extreme, using timeline notation filled with curious blocks and waveforms (from what I could see) to direct its performers into a conducted sociality marked by phantom-like breathed, muffled and whispered sounds and silences. Sdraulig’s comes closest out of all of these pieces to Dunn’s notion of the "organisation of perception", where performer becomes listener and listener becomes performer and music, as a result, becomes not-itself.

Two remaining pieces felt a little more traditional, even if their approach to sound and drama was anything but. Mathias Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke (1975) comes straight from the post-war tradition of indeterminate music in the sense that it asks performers to select and order fragments of notated material in any way they see fit. The novelty here comes in the dense Nonoesque concentration of the tiny, often two or three-note clarinet/cello/voice fragments that make up the piece, each of which is framed by what Rutherford-Johnson describes as "stubbornly neutral and emotionless" silences. I didn’t hear the silences in this way – the pauses between iterations of a single fragment or between different fragments seemed as charged with performative dynamism as the sounds themselves – even if the relative independence of the discrete musical fragments does mean that the silence here feels opaque, sublime even, both a part of and apart from the ‘music’.

Michael Pisaro’s Fade (2000) for solo piano treats its copious silences differently to the Spahlinger. Their lengths vary wildly, for one. Similarly, they help suggest a very different sense of linearity. The musical gestures that make up the piece – single notes played quietly and repeated evenly four or five times – can after all be heard to express something like a dramatic through line where for example one note resolves another or a sequence of notes seems to frame a central tone. Silence here serves both to contain this dramatic through line but also to displace it, allowing us to hear connections whilst rendering them enigmatic and at something of a remove at the same time. As with much of the rest of the music in this concert, Fade re-examines sound largely through the medium of composed and socially-grounded silence, demonstrating the importance of seeing sound and silence not in oppositional but rather in dialectical terms, as mutually entangled components of music conceived in a non-traditional, three-dimensional and social way.

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