Silence redux

Richard Osborne has been pondering a Top Ten of silent pieces in the New Statesman this week. As someone who has not long ago written about silence in the post-Cage world, of course I had to take a look.

It’s a nice list, skewed towards pop (befitting Osborne’s own work), but I find it rather one-dimensional in its summary of what silence is or might be. Of the ten pieces listed, seven are political in spirit – as acts of remembrance (West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band) or protest (John Denver, John Lennon x 2, Sly and the Family Stone, Orbital, Slum Village) – and the remaining three are homages to Cage.

Which is not to denigrate the expressive power some of these tracks might have in their context (although, speaking personally, I find Ciccone Youth’s silence simply an annoyance on an album that veers dramatically in quality). As has been observed, there are three basic silences in music, all of them different: the silence before a note, the silence after a note, and the silence between two notes. And there are many more besides these three. Context is everything.

But Osborne’s list does reflect a somewhat limited outlook on the ontological possibilities of silence. Indeed, as Kyle Gann describes in No Such Thing as Silence, Cage’s own revisions to 4’33” altered the silence that it frames. The “silence” of 4’33” does depend quite a lot on which edition you are using. Within the quadripartition of composed music (composer–score–performer–listener) there are numerous points at which the responsibility for creative definition might enter, even when any sounding content has been eliminated or remains incidental, and thus numerous ways in which the nature of that silence might be formulated. Nine of Osborne’s examples were made for and exist only as recordings, suggesting that once you eliminate the score from the equation, you greatly reduce the aesthetic and philosophical possibilities.

In a work like Sergei Zagny’s Metamusica, the score is entirely defined, but the burden of interpretation lies with the listener, who internally performs it as they read. The fact that the score is recognisably based on Webern’s opus 27 Variations for piano – it’s the same piece, but with all the notes taken out, leaving only rests and articulation marks – adds something to that realisation. There is a resemblance here with the first version of 4’33”, which was essentially a series of rests, written on a conventional piano stave. (The length of each of the three movements derived from the accumulation of these chance-determined rests.) As David Tudor has made clear, the act of reading the score in real-time, as it were, contributed greatly to his early interpretations of the piece.

In certain works by Klaus K. Hübler, György Kurtág, Sofia Gubaidulina, Helmut Lachenmann and many others, performance actions are specified that can have no sounding result (by a process either determinate or indeterminate), creating a kind of dumb theatre. Here the silence occurs within a performed (sounding) context, and so might be considered more silent than Cage, since external sounds are pushed beyond the sphere of legitimate audition, and thus ignored.

In other works the boundary between performer and listener is dissolved entirely, with the listener assuming full creative responsibility for its realisation. This might take place in a private sense, as in the case of Metamusica, certain of Annea Lockwood’s River Archive pieces, Amnon Wolman‘s “imaginary pieces,” or David Dunn’s Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time (all of which take widely different approaches to the level of specification in their scores). Or it might take place communally, as in certain works by Pauline Oliveros. And then there is the work of Peter Ablinger (whose 3 easy pieces, as presented in Prague in 2007, is shown above), in which every conceivable parameter of the “listening piece” is explored.

Quite a lot of these works are text pieces (several of them discovered in Lely and Saunders’ Word Events), but not all. The fact that silence can be composed in words and graphics in itself suggests at least two axes of difference.

When I was writing my NewMusicBox article, I drafted a typology of silent music as a reference for myself. It proved surprisingly difficult. Such was the complexity of performing/composing/scoring/listening permutations available that it took many attempts before I settled on a way of representing the array of scores that I’d gathered on a two-dimensional diagram. There’s a lesson in there about the richness of Cage’s original concept.

If you find this sort of stuff interesting, keep reading. I’m hopefully curating an event next year in London that explores some of these ideas in a more practical way. More details to follow in the coming months.

4 thoughts on “Silence redux

  1. Fascinating stuff, Tim. Thanks for this and also the NewMusicBox article you linked to.

    Vaguely related – do you know Jennifer Egan’s novel “A Visit from the Goon Squad”? One of her characters, Lincoln Blake, is obsessed with pauses in rock and roll music; collecting them, analysing them and developing his own characteristic typology. Some of his findings appear in his sister Alison’s ‘power-point’ presentation “Great Rock Rock and Roll Pauses”, Chapter 12 in the book. The book is well worth a read anyway but I reckon Lincoln deserves his own footnote in any study of silence in music, even if he is fictional.

    Looking forward to hearing more about next year’s event.

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