Wednesday, April 13, 2011


“Music is the silence between the notes.”

This quote may or may not be familiar to you, but, if it is, you know that it slipped from the lips of Claude Debussy. Music is thought of as organized sound, and in some cases organized sounds and silences. This quote, while seemingly cliché/generic, is quite interesting when said slooooowwwllllyyy. Is it really the silences that make the music? Would it still be music without them?
This quote came to mind after seeing the Thai movie “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” Almost like a meditation itself, “Uncle Boonmee” is the story of a Thai man with pancreatic cancer who is slowly dying. Among other surreal happenings, his deceased wife materializes during dinner to help him, and his son returns after begin missing for years, only in the form of a “monkey ghost.” He ends up trekking through the forest to a cave where his first life began. Glimpses of his past lives are given, such as small vignettes of an ox and of a catfish. Though this sounds like a recreation of Where the Wild Things Are, I couldn’t stop thinking about Gabriel García Márquez (and 2001: A Space Odyssey, slightly).

Uncle Boonmee, aka the ox and many other animals 
But this isn’t a movie review. What really stuck out about “Uncle Boonmee” was the expanses of time where the shots were dormant—there was barely any panning, and no where could one find a Aronofsky-like montage of quick shots or Dod Mantel-style cinematography. Accompanying these seemingly endless shots was—nothing. To make sure, I searched “Uncle Boonmee soundtrack,” and the 1 sample I could find on Amazon was as quiet and mundane (yet spiritual) as the silences in the movie themselves. Despite this ambiguous mp3, there was no evidence of edited-in music whatsoever (it was three tenths of a Dogme 95 movie), besides the natural sounds coming from the Thai forest and from the soft-spoken actors and a pop song playing in a restaurant at the end. These were the sounds that shaped the movie and gave it it’s distinctively stream of consciousness feel. At the time, walking out of the theater, my friends and I didn’t really know what to think. But looking back on it, I didn’t fall asleep, which might have happened if the movie wasn’t put together well. But because these silences were so well placed and shaped, they made their own music and kept me interested and calm, but not bored.

Veil of silence 
Works like “Uncle Boonmee” make us realize that silence is as much of a malleable medium as sound is, and it is certainly not an untouched one. Schoenberg’s set of pieces for solo piano, Sechs kleine Klavierstücken, in fact begins with a rest. Inside the (relatively, but not actually) empty sound waves that circle the pianist, there is a divide between them for this rest to take place, even though they are identical. Though it could be perceived that the start of the piece is after the written rest, Schoenberg obviously thought that the realm had to be entered within this silence before the music began. Why? He once said:
“This multicoloured, polymorphic, unlogical nature of our feelings, and their associations, a rush of blood, reactions in our senses, in our nerves; I must have this in my music.
It should be an expression of feeling, as if really were the feeling, full of unconscious connections, not some perception of ‘conscious logic’.”
Human nature most definitely includes silences. We’ve all felt awkward silences between us and people we have just met, between us and people we haven’t met, perhaps sitting next to them, uncomfortably saying nothing (as is happening to me as I type this). When in a verbal or emotional exchange with someone, a silence can mean the world. Okay, okay, Schoenberg’s rest is academically needed for the score, but reading this quote makes one think that ol’ Arnold wasn’t all equations and calculated phrases.

Ligeti’s “Three Bagatelles for David Tudor” is, in fact, completely silent (like the I-though-it-was-obvious-enough-that-I-didn’t-mention-it “4’33” by Cage). Though it might seem like a piece that just beckons looks of annoyance and “C’mons,” (and it does in some cases), the piece says more than any actual sound could in a matter of seconds once the idea of the piece has been processed. David Tudor is an experimental pianist, and it seems as though the expanse of silence is the only way of really attributing him. In the case of Tudor's homage, silence hits more of an emotion than organized sound would. You can buy the blank sheet music here for $14. C’mon.

It's worth it.

The last piece I am going to mention is one that isn’t associated with silence, but one I am very familiar with all the way down to the nooks and crannies. Debussy’s “Prélude” from his Pour le Piano definitely can be taken as a wall of sorts of sound. The piece, with tritones and perfect fourths being amorphously outlined, leading up to triumphant chromatically cascading chords to glissandos, never seems to get a break. However, there is a crucial moment while the wall is being built when the pianist stops for a quarter rest in between descending couplets of sixteenth notes. Not only did I have to learn to orally make it unexpected, but my teacher coached me in my body language to make sure that I wasn’t swaying in any ways that foreshadowed the rest. I performed the piece recently—afterwards, my friend came up to me and said, “I thought you made a mistake!” After practicing the piece a lot, I’m 99.9% that’s how Debussy wanted it—to shock the audience back into the world of perception, because the murky build up of tritones before the surprising snap is almost hypnotic.
Many aspects of music are ambiguous, and silence is a definite aspect. Music can even be looked at as continuous expanses of sound pierced by silences, instead of the more common vice versa way. All I know is that “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” would have been terrible with generic movie sounds invading it. Its soundtrack was the absences of those, as is the day-to-day soundtrack of many lives. I can’t imagine a world without music, but I can’t imagine one without silence either. Especially when monkey ghosts are in the picture.  


  1. I enjoyed your thoughtful musings. Other art forms are such a rich well for learning about composing. You're of course right that music has a rich relationship with it's silences going back a long way. Silences certainly have many functions, but I think allowing the body and brain to absorb is a big one. There's a theory that blinking is the mind's way of parsing the onslaught of incoming visual data. Like periods at the end of a sentence. Silences in music (full of reverberation, expectant sound, and the visual tension of hands, bows and instruments in air) are sometimes parsing mechanisms as well. But sometimes they are grander, more like the empty page at the end of a chapter, allowing us to think, process, remember, reexperience. And there's nothing like a sudden silence after an extended fortissimo to remind you that music is a bunch of pressure waves entering your body.

    I think you elude to an even more complicated phenomenon (prevalent in a good bit of contemporary music today), which is the sound that feels like silence. One learns in electronic music quite early that a barely audible sound can feel more like silence than an actual, literal silence. I've personally been very fascinated by music which uses a kind of inner quietness that feels like a meditative silence. Often dipping down just to the noise floor, these pieces demand vigilant listening. I'm thinking of Rebecca Saunders, Alvin Lucier, late works by Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, and several younger-generation American composers.

    Anyway, a very compelling topic to dive into.

  2. Peter--
    The way you phrased that is perfect, because I do think that silence is in a way like infinity or "doing nothing"; it's such an ambiguous/almost nonexistent concept and is almost impossible to achieve. However, it also enters the world of abstract, artistic concepts, because it can be formed into many different theories and uses.

    White noise (or barely audible sound) most definitely sounds like silence. For example, the clock in my room makes a loud ticking sound, but I have had it for years and now it feels like silence to me. When I sleep somewhere else, the overwhelming absence of that sound is more intruding that the definition of "silence" allows it to be. Eternally interesting.