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Silent Music

While collecting some writing samples for a proposal for a new article, I happened on this piece I wrote nearly two years ago that remains unpublished. I had nearly forgotten about it, but it contains some lingering questions that come up again from time to time as the discourse around silent music continues to grow. Feel free to offer your comments below!:

Listening To Silent Music (March 2012)

Among the many innovative and revolutionary ideas put forward by John Cage, our most influential musical thinker (currently in his 100th year), the use of silence as a musical material has had perhaps the most significant impact on current practices. With the composition 4’ 33’ (1952) and later works, a new understanding of music, sound and consciousness was reached, the implications of which are continuing to unfold through many varied strands.  In this emergent field of so-called Silent Music, which can take the form of a notated work, an improvisation, electronic or electroacoustic sound art, a theoretical inquiry or a set of prose instructions, silence, as both an idea and a material becomes the central focus.  Much as Schoenberg liberated the dissonance, and in doing so set in motion the atonal revolution,  Cage liberated silence, and in doing so pointed the way to the democratization of music.

Tiny music, lower-case sound, minimal acoustic music, minor musics, non-cochlear sound  – these are some of its guises. With 4’ 33” Cage wanted the focus to be on the sounds around us, to the “music” that surrounds us.  Later, with her Sonic Meditations and her practice of Deep Listening™, Pauline Oliveros turned silence inside out, teaching us to also listen to our own silence, the sound of our inner world.  With the composers of the Wandelwieser Group, a transnational collective of composers that share an intense focus on the structural potential of silence, silence is decidedly a material, for use in a composition, considered and measured in varying proportions to a range other sonic materials, instrumental and otherwise. For an international community of improvising musicians, sound artists and acoustical ecologicians, silence is more a political statement, a form of humility and passive resistance.

To listen to silent music is a complex act that for some can be intolerable, for silence is not what we expect to encounter at a concert or when we listen to a record.  But silence is also an opportunity, an invitation, an opening, a catalyst.  Imagine you are comfortably seated in a concert hall or club among a diverse group of fellow concert goers.  The musicians you have come to hear take the stage and begin to play, offering what seems to be a familiar enough sounding work of contemporary music; a few pitches, a discernable rhythm, a distinct tone or an interesting electronic sound – yes, this sounds like music. But suddenly and without warning a remarkable thing happens:  SILENCE.  In some such pieces, a silence of this type might last ten minutes or more, before something resembling familiar music returns, if it returns at all. Whether you are outraged or pleased by this dramatic imposition on your otherwise very reasonable expectations, something interesting, even transformative has happened, and usually this will be good.

To  share an experience in public with a group of people, such as at a concert, has it’s own magic of social connection and interaction.  To share a silence in such a context is a more deeply intimate experience, and every bit as magical and interactive.  A concert of silent music can be like a religious experience, a shared observance, like a prayer.  Not surprisingly, in an early description of his still gestating “silent piece”, Cage referred to it as Silent Prayer.  It has also been noted that a related work of visual art that was to influence the creation of 4’ 33”, Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, also contained a kind of religious impetus.  Cage is also well-known to have been influenced by the more contemplative varieties of eastern thought, most notably Zen Buddhism, and no silent music can be completely removed from some connection to oriental philosophy. 

But there is more to silent music than religiosity and contemplation.  To make of silence a creative work, and even a performance, is to empower the audience to share in the work’s realization.  For when silence descends in a work of art, the listener immediately becomes an active participant on an entirely different plane than when the music is without silence, when it is fully supplied by the performer or composer.  Silent music invites participation, whether with thoughts, ideas, sounds or visions; listening to silent music is a form of composition. Composers I know have spoken of listening to music that makes them hear music of their own invention, that inspires composition, while listening to music.  Silent music takes this phenomenon to a new height, for not only are we hearing the “music” around us (Cage) and the sounds of our inner world (Oliveros), we are also composing our own music while listening to silent music, and this represents a fully democratized music.

But there can also be a darker side to silent music, for silence is not always healthy or welcome.  It is perhaps not surprising for example, that among the known practitioners of silent music there are few women, for why would women who have for so long been heard less in serious music than their male counterparts want to practice silence in their work?  Whatever the sex of the composer, to choose silence, to remain silent, cannot always be good.  Perhaps in the increasingly controlled, media-dominated public sphere we are practicing a form of self-censorship when we compose silent music, unconsciously internalizing the very same corporate-controlled agenda we so consciously resist.

Silence can also be an expression of exhaustion.  Perhaps Cage felt this to some degree in 1952, but it wasn’t much later that the wider musical culture clearly reached exhaustion, as the hyper expansion and invention of the modern and post-war eras overwhelmed the very creators that drove it and begat a crisis. Many a music student from, say 1975 and on must have felt this, at least to some degree. With so many choices, languages, styles and technologies available, a period of retrenchment took hold. In this context silence is a form of negation and rejection, a way of saying no.  

But much as someone in crisis may seek refuge and healing in a monastery or hermitage, so has music sought a silent rebirth. Thus silence can be a new beginning, a tabula rasa. If, as has been suggested by Attali in his classic work of music history, Noise,  music is prophetic, is a herald, what does the emergence of a silent music portend?  It is both frightening and exciting to imagine our musical future, and some would no doubt suggest that silent music represents the end of music, and this would not be unreasonable.  But to look, and listen, to the wider world of music today is to witness a veritable explosion of music, often traveling at the speed of light through the infinite global networks and from all corners of the planet. It would seem in this context then, that music is becoming fully liberated and democratized, that silence has heralded a roar!

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