A stillness on the ear

At 17:00 on April 30th contemporary music group Psappha will perform a new work of mine, Wege & Waldstille, for clarinet, handheld percussion, piano, cello and electronics (see event listing). In writing it I thought a fair amount further about silence and near-silence in my music, how it can behave and how it can become a construction material in its own right. Here are a few more thoughts on that subject.

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland observes that, ‘Silence has no narrative. Silence intensifies sensation, but blurs the sense of time.’ Silence was one of the first things I came to explore when I started having music performed. Before I had experienced the gripping vacuum at the heart of Helmut Lachenmann’s Gran Torso, before I had heard Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille sparkle on the horizon, before I knew how Salvatore Sciarrino’s music can totter and weave on the brink of audibility, even before I had read John Cage’s Silence or understood 4’33” in any real way, silence was something I discovered, uncovered and loved.

Why this isn’t a paradoxical attraction for a composer to have is simple: as Cage realised, there is no such thing as silence, at least not in that pure sense of a complete absence of any aural stimulation. Instead there is this immensely seductive stillness that ‘intensifies sensation’, which, if employed well, draws a listener in, heightens their concentration and brings to the fore subtleties, structural possibilities and novel experiences. So, the German ‘Stille’ and ‘Ruhe’ are perhaps more precise here with their multiple connotations covering not only absolute silence, but also its less extreme manifestations: peace, quiet and stillness. In the first piece I had performed in the UK, Sketches in Silence, I found through thought experiment that given the powerfully expectation-thwarting quality of silence in a concert hall context it was possible to sustain a minimum of material for quite extended periods. This achieved, I think, an interesting duality of experience as the audience found themselves reaching a sort of meditative stasis but also entering a zone of heightened awareness allowing them to discern more oblique structural processes. The latter is I suppose akin to the adjustment of our eyes as we hunt for outlines in the gloom, but aurally that which we hear at the extremities seems to bear a crispness and a presence that does not equate to the impaired blur of darkened sight.

At the outset this interest drew on a couple of inspirations. The idea of subverting expectations came from my first thorough education in Classical tonality. I reasoned that the repetitive and relatively static material found in minimalist music (specifically that of Steve Reich, whose music I still find frequently excellent) shifted the expectations of the audience and allowed for the use of tension and release that mirrored in some sense that of Classical tonality, but functioned in terms of repetition and change rather than harmonic progression (which is arguably a learnt set of signs requiring education to perceive). Of course, this is somewhat simplistic as Reich’s music can also have a strongly harmonic drive, but I felt that my experience of it was grounded in the repetition building expectation of change (tension) which can then be released in various ways providing a compelling musical discourse. Having at the time recently read Jerzy Pietrkiewicz’s Other Side of Silence: the poet at the limits of language (OUP, 1970), I was influenced by his suggestion in relation to poetry that

Silence resembles a listening companion rather than a place emptied of all sounds. It has the attentive quality of a person. What is unspoken may be intended and therefore imply meaning.

So, the idea of Sketches in Silence, which was definitely largely an experiment, was to explore the potential of silence to act similarly to the repeated material of Reich: the listener goes to a concert, expects sound, seeks and constructs meaning from sound, in the absence of ‘performed’ sounds  (they are few and far between in this piece) the listener will continue this process indeed perhaps imagining some sounds which aren’t there. To push the possibility of listener-constructed narratives, I also included some genuinely silent gestures for the performers to see whether those might become triggers for either imagined sounds or for sound to become differently source-bonded.

After Sketches in Silence, silence became less of an explicit focus for me and more an area I felt an affinity to, something I felt needed exploring, but not in solitary confinement, instead alongside other kinds of music, within less extreme situations, giving it weight not as ‘an experiment’ but as an integral part of a wider language. How does one achieve stillness, spaces for reflection without losing tension? How do you reach silence without it retaining its traditional meanings of closure (be it final or inter-movement)? Can you give silence a narrative or a linearity? All these questions have been part of my recent work to various extents and this continues in Wege & Waldstille, but I feel as if I am at something of a turning point. I am excited about the start of rehearsals to hear how what is on paper comes across and to work with the fantastic players from Psappha. It’s always fascinating to see what you’ve done wrong.

Wege & Waldstille will be performed by Psappha at 17:00 on 30th April 2010 at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama in Manchester.


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This post first appeared on an older version of this site: v2.chrisswithinbank.net/2010/04/a-stillness-on-the-ear/