On Silence

“Soon silence will have passed into legend. Man has turned his back on silence. Day after day he invents machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation… tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster his ego. His anxiety subsides. His inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.” ~Jean Arp

“Everybody should have his personal sounds to listen for – sounds that will make him exhilarated and alive or quite and calm…. One of the greatest sounds of them all – and to me it is a sound – is utter, complete silence.” ~Andre Kostelanetz

“Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Not to be ironic, but one recent Thursday night my mind wandered of to the concept of SILENCE. I was waiting in my assigned place, for the prescribed time for me to go to the piano to accompany the Northeast Middle School choir on their portion of the concert. Preceding the choir was the Beginning Band.

It would be easy for the reader to assume that a Middle School band might make one wish for silence, but that would be a false assumption, I assure you. My daughters are former denizens of Middle School bands, and some of my old friends (and current friends) direct Middle School bands.

The truth is that the time, waiting for my portion of the concert, was the first opportunity to think back on something the Pastor said during Ash Wednesday service… about silence. In my experience, silence in church scares people. It shouldn’t, and indeed, we plan silence into the service; have you noticed that planned silence needs a good introduction… an announcement, to legitimize it? Even then, the length of the silence is often truncated, to avoid the discomfort that it causes. Silence must be filled, we too often think!

We fill our grocery stores and elevators with sound (music); movies blare music to cover a lack of constant dialogue; people we know become nervous if we sit in silence. Is it about control? If we don’t hear words spill from someone, we don’t know what they’re thinking? And then, we can’t CHANGE what they’re thinking? Is it about loneliness, and the sounds of voices calm us?

I have to confess that, in my teaching, the silent students are the most challenging. I want to know how they are reacting, absorbing, interpreting; I rely on musical actions and verbal reactions. If I sense a lack of audible engagement, I tend to “fill in” the silence with more “help”; this is undoubtedly NOT helpful. Talking too much in our teaching is indeed, a sin!

I fully understand the function of silence in music; it is completely necessary. Rests, in all of their rhythmic vividness, are the punctuation, the spice, of music. In accompaniment, and in improvisation, less is more; silence… a reticence to fill in the void with sound, is laudable.

Composer John Cage, a true revolutionary in 20th century music, was fascinated by the relationship of music to sound, and sound to noise. He composed a piece entitled 4:33 (four minutes and thirty three seconds). The composition is for any sound medium. The performer is directed to come out on stage, approach his/her seat, and prepare to play… for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The performer never does play; in one way, it is theatre. In another, it is an experiment. The joy, for Cage, was that the audience invariably fills in the silence; with rustling, fidgeting, coughing, murmurs, etc. That, for Cage, was the music.

In 1974, while in graduate school, I took classes in Transcendental Meditation. These were fascinating; there was the ubiquitous mantra that had to be repeated; this, I was told, should be done silently. One never repeats his mantra out loud. At first I was uncomfortable with the mantra; it seemed nigh unto superstitious that a word would have some, almost magical, significance. Ah! I was told, the mantra is not a word, and we don’t care about the word itself, but the aspects of the word. Sibilants, glottals… the sounds that are the mantra, when one considers it from different “angles”. The mantra was hypnotic, and cleared my mind of other things. For 20 glorious minutes, I could feel the tension dissipate; I would be award of sounds in the room, or movement, but my mind was somehow relieved of the commotion. When I would finish my meditation, I would feel very clear, energetic; somehow invigorated. I think I never would have made it through graduate school without this vehicle for removing the residue of sound/noise pollution from my body and mind.

I do not fear silence; I am alone with my thoughts at times, and I need that. My creative juices will not flow if I can’t have silence. And, like rests in music, giving shape and meaning to the music, the lack of sound, dialogue, conversation, make those things more meaningful when they are present.


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