If you know me, you know I have a deep affinity for music, both listening to it and performing it. One of the earlier of the profound lessons I’ve learned through music is that the silences are as important as the notes, if not more so. My understanding of this has been fairly simple in the last likely 20 years since I first heard this idea from someone else. My idea was that the silences help define the notes—they are a container or a border for them. That when silence is there to delineate the notes, you are more cognizant of the “music.” Or I’ve had a rudimentary idea that silence can be used to raise anticipation or allow you to catch the aftertaste of a work before the applause or the next song.
But from now on I can no longer conclude there. Now I see that silence is what makes Music—Art. It is what connects music to the audience members’ souls, not just their eardrums. And I became aware of this not while hearing or making music at all, but through watching a dramatic production—not something that typically resonates with me artistically.
As the beginning of my Waldorf teacher training, I’ve been doing a year-long set of seminars on the foundations of anthroposophy, the spiritual philosophy of the Waldorf schools’s founder, Rudolph Steiner. Our latest seminar was led by actor Glen Williamson, and he commenced with a one-man performance of his play “The Incarnation of the Logos.” (He has a trailer for this production here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULmjSobEZQM if you want a sense of what Glen’s storytelling is like and an introduction to this particular one.) I’ll try not to spoil too much of the plot in case you have the fortune to see him do it some time, but I must necessarily spoil the most striking moment for me, as that’s what I’m here to talk about! The subject is the incarnation of Jesus into his earthly vessel—from conception to baptism. The moment that I can’t get out of my head was when Jesus is telling his mother his troubles and she listens and advises him to go see his cousin John.
The way Glen related this conversation was hypnotic, with his voice, pace, and gesture of his arms sinking lower and slower with each inexorable moment of falling into the well of infinite sorrows that Mary bears within her. I felt this must be what silently drowning feels like. Was I experiencing a legitimate hypnosis? With each pause between words the meaning sunk in deeper and then we were asked to go deeper in, and deeper still. Without the pauses I would not have been let alone with my thoughts. Without the silence, I would have stayed on the surface of the story, appreciating it as a mere observer, and I would not have become personally, intimately drowned in the compassion and wisdom of Mary and in the passion and yearning of Christ.
So this, then, is why music needs silence from time to time. It’s not just an accounting device to make the beats line up. It’s not just a utilitarian pause for breath. It’s not just to make you anxious to hear the music start again. It’s to let you sink into the music, hearing the echoes of it before you even consciously realize it, creating a void by your experience of nothingness that engenders your authentic human response to what you just heard. And then you create the container for how the piece comes through to you. You create the context in which you will hear the next part, if it comes, or if the song is over, the melody will linger on and the rest of your life is created by you, at least in some small way contingent on the music you have just experienced.
There is also music that never stops to take a breath. I can think of many examples that are music of oblivion or ecstasy. Something that takes you out of yourself. The effect can be transporting and mesmerizing in its own way. This can be artificially created in clubs and dances where a DJ spins one song into the next without a pause. The party never stops, and you are never led inwards to face yourself—likely just what clubgoers are seeking. In the best of the sonically full compositions, you can visit the ethereal, and when you tumble out of the cloud afterwards that is when you can let what just happened sink in, as when waking from a dream if you work to recall details from the dream it leaves a deeper impression than if you’d let it just dissolve into the mists. For a hint of this ecstatic journey, try Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri, the amazing tabla artist: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZF32UPLzHe4 For mastery of the emotional interplay of silence and sound, the sequence in Verdi’s Requiem of Dies irae-Mors stupebit-Liber scriptus is so rich: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AZRIwD09IW0
Whether you are invited into silence during the piece, or led, gasping and panting for it at the end, it is this resonance of the piece within you, where your soul works on it, that creates the Art.