Silence: A Fertile Soil

Silence is more than just the absence of sound.

Interior with Ida Playing the Piano, by Vilhelm Hammershøi, cropped. Original here.
Screen Shot 2016-05-16 at 22.12.45     By Young-Jin Hur

LISTEN to me,” said the Demon as he placed his hand upon my head. “The region of which I speak is a dreary region in Libya, by the borders of the river Zaire. And there is no quiet there, nor silence.”

So starts Edgar Allan Poe’s short story Silence – A Fable. The tale commences with the demon’s successive attempts to frighten a man bearing ‘sorrow, and weariness, and disgust with mankind, and a longing after solitude.’ The dark forest of tall primeval trees, the river of sickly hue, the roaring and frightful animals, and a violent tempest do not threaten the man – he shakes in solitude but perseveres. At last, when the demon conjures up an unworldly silence that sets everything to absolute stillness, the man flees in terror.

Poe shows silence as a source of great terror. Indeed, there is an ominous and often frightful aspect to silence. 18th-century English philosophers, including Edmund Burke (1729-1797), would not disagree. ‘All general privation’, Burke writes, ‘they are all terrible; Vacuity, Darkness, Solitude, and Silence.’

The Soviet composer Nokolai Myaskovsky’s (1881-1950) symphonic poem Silence is based on the Poe short story. It depicts the terror and unease with a brooding introspection building up to a violent release. There are moments of great passion, in which the propulsive rhythm draws a graphic and dramatic picture.

While silence as a literary concept often reveals a sense of dread and terror, what are the effects of silence when utilised as a compositional device? And ultimately, what is the relationship between silence and music?

The Austrian composer Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) was notorious for using silence in his music, to such a degree that his Second symphony was at one point nicknamed the Pausensymphonie, ‘symphony of pauses.’ In fact, this is very characteristic of Bruckner’s compositions. While frequent pauses abruptly disturb the flow of music, they bring out a sense of granite-like monumentality, a rigid architecture. By eschewing smooth transitions between differing musical ideas, Bruckner also achieves heightened contrasts and surprise. ‘You must take a new breath when you intend to say something important,’ he once explained to the conductor Arthur Nikisch.

These characteristics are prominent in his fifth symphony. Slow pizzicatos (plucking of the strings) solemnly and mysteriously open up a spacious canvas, upon which walls of sound build up to stately musical climaxes. In the coda of the finale, the giant work concludes with ecstatic grandeur, again through pause-driven suspense and release.

The second half of the 20th century saw an increasing tendency for composers to identify silence as an important musical language. According to Boulez, the initiation of such a paradigm shift can be attributed to the works of Anton Webern (1883-1945). Boulez writes* in 1955: ‘if one can, in a certain sense, maintain […] that Webern was obsessed with formal purity to the point of silence, it was an obsession that he carried to a degree of tension hitherto unknown in music.’

While ‘pointillistic’, ‘concentrated’, and ‘economical’ are terms often used to describe Webern’s works, such illustrations often overlook the deeply emotional nature of his music. Webern’s unique and potent use of silence allows the listener to hear each individual note clearly, right from the birth of the note to its decay, which gives his music layers of eerie contemplation and introspection. The short duration of his works and radical harmony only add a deeply personal and abstract poetry. Such characteristics are represented well in his terse string quartet, Op.28.

A particular group of composers in New York, led by John Cage (1912-1992), took the element of silence to another plane. It was Cage, with his Zen-like spirituality, who brought silence to the fore through his infamous 4’33’’, where not a single note is played. Cage also left a substantial amount of writing on silence in music. Yet it was the composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) who struck an ideal balance between silence both as a concept and musical language. In his essays published in 1985, Feldman writes, ‘silence is my substitute for counterpoint. It’s nothing against something […] It’s a real thing, it’s a breathing thing.’

In his mammoth, 70-minute piano work For Bunita Marcus, strange repetitions of notes echo between the abysmal valleys of silence. Yet for all its strangeness, there is an atmosphere of calm. It is also noticeable that the music has a spatial dimension, much like the musical architecture of Bruckner’s symphonies. However, Feldman’s unique grandeur never roars or imposes – it merely whispers and gasps.

Feldman infamously wished to be completely dissociated from the Western musical tradition, to be remembered as the first great Jewish composer. Still, if one can hear a strange resemblance to the music of Webern, this may be no accident. Stefan Wolpe (1902-1972), the tutor of Feldman, was an ardent advocate of Webern’s music, after all.

It appears that whether loud or quiet, music with ample doses of silence acquires characteristics of contemplation and breath – characteristics well suited for sacred music. The religious music of Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) lacks no intentions for creating silence as a source of awe and spirituality. ‘Silence’, says Pärt in a recent interview, ‘is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed […] [and] must be approached with a feeling of awe.’ Such is felt in abundance in Da Pacem Domine (‘give peace, o Lord’).

Yet Pärt is no pioneer in this regard. In fact, Pärt’s art of distilling silence in long stretches for the purposes of spirituality has long been practiced and mastered by Renaissance polyphony composers, as can be seen through the works of Heinrich Isaac (1450-1517).

Isaac, much like Pärt, uses elements of silence as a crucial form of composition, the difference perhaps being that Pärt was more conscious of his choice of silence. It is fascinating to know that Webern studied Isaac’s music extensively for his doctorate thesis. Could it be that Webern’s paradigm shifting musical language of silence may, therefore, be as old as it is new?

Silence has a long tradition in the thinking of East Asia, and developed independently from various Western developments. The state of emptiness is crucial in the teachings of Buddhism and Taoism. The Japanese Wabi-sabi, furthermore, is an aesthetic discourse that finds grace and beauty in the emphasis on emptiness. Such appreciation of nothingness is reflected in the general aesthetics of East Asia, as can be seen in the following work by the calligrapher Chusa Kim Jeong-Hui (1786-1856) from Joseon (now the Korean peninsula).

Original here.

It is possible to notice the palpable empty spaces in such paintings. Here, emptiness is not the absence of presence (i.e. dead space), but rather the presence of absence, through which one realises the humbling of the physically tangible. It comes as no surprise that such attitude towards silence is reflected in the musical tradition of East Asia. For instance, Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996) and Teizo Matsumura (1929-2007) made no secret of their fascination of silence. I present the music of the Buddhist composer Somei Sato (b. 1947). Taken from the album From the Depth of Silence, Satoh, in Kisetsu (‘season’), combines a uniquely East Asian sensibility of meditative vision using a Western orchestra and (relatively) traditional Western harmonies.

It isn’t hard to argue that there can be no music without silence. Silence, after all, is the canvas of music upon which notes are written. Yet is it not also the case that silence cannot exist without music? Is it not music or the presence of sound that allows our realisation of the importance and presence of silence? And the stronger the sense of silence, the stronger the sense of sound. I like to think therefore of silence as a very musical problem.

The experience of music is also the experience of silence, and much like the yin and yang, one cannot be detached one from the other. Once aware of the coexistence of sound and silence, we may start hearing things we never noticed before. And this awareness of the intimate relationship between being and its relative not being may go beyond a physical realisation, to a metaphysical one. Is this the state that James Joyce felt, for instance, when he wrote the following in the dying paragraphs of his short story, The Dead?

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. 

Heidegger’s sweeping metaphysical rumination brings new light:

Let that which shows itself be seen from itself in the very way in which it shows itself from itself. 

* I would like to reserve special thanks to Dr. Edward Campbell of the University of Aberdeen, who helped me find the exact quote of Boulez on Webern.

Young-Jin Hur is a PhD candidate in psychology at University College London, an ardent record collector and a self-professed Anton Bruckner enthusiast. He has written concert notes for the Seoul Arts Centre and contributes to one of Korea’s largest classical music online communities, 클래식에 미치다 (‘Crazy about Classical Music’).