Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Sound Of Silence

“There are many types of silence. There is a silence before the note, there is a silence at the end and there is a silence in the middle.” DANIEL BARENBOIM

Neon sign by Tracey Emin

Silence, the pause between the notes (even in the middle of the notes according to Barenboim) and between sections and movements is important in music. When you think about it, without the pauses, without the silences, there would be no individually distinct notes at all, only an unbearable, endless wall of sound. The apotheosis of the concept of silence in music has to be John Cage's 1952 composition 4' 33". In this revolutionary piece the musicians do nothing at all with their instruments; not a sound is heard. (Or rather — and this is important — the only sounds heard are those which come spontaneously from the environment of the performance venue.) It's also noteworthy that Cage's first book was called Silence: Lectures And Writings (1961).

The use of creative silence is not confined to music. Indeed, it is employed in all the arts. In poetry, the intentional, significant spaces between words, between lines and at the end of lines, are crucial. If poems did not contain silent (though pregnant) spaces — in the form of blank lines, line breaks, enjambments, ellipses and caesuras — many poems would resemble the demented rants of some breathless Whitman or Ginsberg wannabe.

Sculptures by Barbara Hepworth in the Kröller-Müller Museum sculpture garden, Otterlo, the Netherlands.

Substitute "silence" for "empty space" and it's the same thing in painting, where the use of "negative spaces" or "negative shapes" is essential to the depiction of "positive" forms, just as in architecture one talks of interior and exterior "architectural space" defining a structure. In sculpture, too, the holes, gaps, chinks and spaces in and around an artwork are absolutely essential to its overall meaning: just look at the works of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Anthony Caro.

Bedford Square Pavilion, London

Ok, so silence is important — but what's going on in these silences, these empty spaces? Quite a lot, actually. Total silence or a completely empty space is a rare thing, as Cage demonstrated in 4' 33". To put it crudely, there's always someone coughing or scraping their shoe; there's always some fly buzzing at the window or an aircraft whining in the distance. Even the state of peace and tranquillity you could reasonably expect to find in the depths of the countryside is far from silent. There's always something going on, some sound to hear: the birds tweeting, a stream gurgling, the wind tearing through the trees. Perhaps you could then speculate that these sounds of nature do in fact reveal the true silence of nature, in the sense that behind and beyond these real, physical, natural noises you might faintly detect the hidden, metaphysical pulse of nature, the barely discernible rhythm of the universe, the mystical reverberation of deep silence. Which some have identified as a low hum. Ha, we're back to sound again!

I suppose true, unadulterated silence or empty space is utterly airless and featureless: a vacuum, a black hole, a nothing. In other words, completely boring — without interest, without substance, without definition, without meaning, without any possibility of change or transformation.

What's intriguing, I think, is Barenboim's recognition of a silence not only before and after the note, but in the middle of it as well. Is this the contemplative zen silence at the heart of all things, at the heart of the atom, at the heart of the universe, at the heart of music, at the heart of poetry, at the heart of ourselves? And what does this silence sound like?

in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles

EE Cummings


  1. Lots of interesting ideas here, SW. I'm not remotely qualified to talk about poetry, but there are countless examples in good old rowdy rock'n'roll of moments of (relative) silence, and the great songs often display a tension between cacophony and restraint.

    But you forgot to cover one of the best examples in all of nature of pure silence: ask a class of ESL students about their plans for the weekend. Silence. Repeat the question. The silence begins to hum. Rephrase the question. The mystical reverberation of deep silence. Etc.

  2. The silences you talk about are mostly just punctuation marks in a noisy world. Beyond that is the real silence, the silence beyond duality - and it's not easy to approach. (Discuss!)

    1. I understand you, Nick. Please also see below for Dominic's response to your invitation to discuss.

  3. Much to the amusement of scoffers, I once drove down to Sheffield to hear a performance of 4'33".

    Regarding silence in the middle of a sound, as well as the mystical angle there is also a scientific one. Slow down an audible sound and there are silences betwen the peaks. If there weren't "silences" between them, the peaks would not be peaks. The sound would be merely a constant draught of air. These silences sound - like silence, only they're too brief to be percieved as such.

    A related idea: is music confined to the audible? Rhythms are simply sound-waves which occur so slowly that we don't percieve the sound as a continuous note - each individual peak is audible. At the other end of the spectrum (literally), one could describe visual art as high-speed, electromagnetic music.

  4. Another thought on the silence within the sound. I said: "These silences [between the peaks of the wave] sound - like silence, only they're too brief to be percieved as such." Correction: they may contain an echo of the peak if there is a reflective surface close enough and the frequency of the note is low enough for the peak that has just happened (and any previous peaks) to be reflected back to the listener. The silences between the peaks would only be "sound free" in an anechoic chamber - or a chamber exactly designed so that the reflected peaks coincide exactly with those being produced. If that sounds theoretical, try humming low notes in small rooms with hard walls. You can often hit one that resonates around you remarkably loudly. Anyone waiting outside, of course, might wonder what on earth is going on.

  5. Thanks, Dominic, for this scientific explanation of sound, the relationship between music, art and the spectrum, and for clarifying why silence is rarely "sound free".

  6. how intriguing to read your post, robert, having just seen an article in the nytimes about a couple who record sounds and exhibits them in museums and galleries. the recording of natural sound is overlooked in our culture as an art form, as is - more to the point - the appreciation of silence.

    many years ago i attended a play in which no words were spoken, just the sole actor on stage, going through the motions of his daily life.

  7. You might also like this
    Silence by Billy Collins
    thanks for sharing