The Colonization of Silence



Andrew Waggoner

The colonization of silence is complete. Its progress was so gradual that even those who watched it with alarm have only now begun to take stock of the losses. Reflection, discernment, a sustainable sense of tranquility, of knowing where and how to find oneself—these are only the most obvious casualties of marauding noise’s march to the sea. Much more insidious has been the loss of music itself.

But wait, this can’t be: Music is everywhere; we have more of it, available in more forms, more often, than at any time in human history. I can go to the web and find O King of Berio, Baksimba dances from Uganda, something really obscure like Why Are we Born (not to have a good time) of the young Buck Owens, even Pat Boone’s version of Tutti Frutti; I can find all of the same at the mall. Surely this is a good thing. I can find renewal of spirit in Sur Incises of Boulez or stand aghast at the toxic grandiloquence of Franz Schmidt’s Book of the Seven Seals. Music is everywhere. Long live it.

Just give me five minutes without it; that’s all I ask, perhaps all I’ll need to bring it back into being for myself. Imprisoned by it as I am now, assaulted in every store, elevator, voice-mail system, passing car, neighbor’s home, by it and its consequent immolation in the noise of the quotidian, it is lost to me as anything other than a kind of psychic rape, a forced intimacy with sonic partners not of my choosing. When music is everywhere, it is nowhere; when everything is music, nothing is. Silence is as crucial to the musical experience as any of its sounding parameters, and not merely as a kind of acoustical “negative space.” Silence births, nurtures, and eventually takes back the musical utterance; it shapes both the formation of its textures and the arc of its progress through time.

And, of course, since silence—unless one is in an anechoic chamber—is never wholly silent, its presence, its expression, allows us to distinguish between sounds that are and are not music. Thus is not-music given entry into music; Cage aside, the sounds in the hall, in the street, in the club, are not music, though they become part of the shared discourse that is; they are the fragments of conversation overheard but not comprehended by speakers of a different language, passionately engaged in their own dialogue amidst the whirl of an alien culture. Thus is music’s wonderful strangeness amplified by a silence that is always trying to tell us something. Exactly what it tells us can be very precise, at least in musical terms.

A few examples: The spaces that enfold the last phrases of Webern’s Three Orchestral Songs of 1913-14 open a door for us into an understanding of “O neige Dich, O komme wieder, Du grüst und segnest…” (O incline to us, O come back…You greet and bless\The breath of evening takes away the light\I see your dear face no more) that most of us cannot access through a reading of the text alone. We are drawn into a time-sense that seems to pull us across an event horizon, where things seem both very big and very small. Thus, with the solo whispering of “Du grüst und segnest,” the surrounding silence amplifies the softness of Du, the sibilance of segnest; the intimacy of this direct entreaty is made almost overpowering, embarrassing even, by the varied acoustical richness of each syllable. “You greet and bless” becomes a sacred utterance of hushed sensuality that transforms the “Mother of grace” whose “dear face [we] see no more” into a departed lover.

In Webern’s Variations Op. 30 something wonderfully different happens. At the work’s outset, individual attacks are set off from each other by the silences that separate them. Our sense of the attacks, their lengths and intensities, is determined by the lengths of the silences. As we move through the piece and individual attacks are layered with others of varying durations, finally yielding extended lines, our apprehension of shape is fueled by the recollection of past silences in our present, echoic memory, on that level of consciousness where past remains present; we continue to experience silence through the welter of polyphony, a silence of varying degrees, each given its own feeling-tone by the different sounds that eventually overtake it. This form-giving potentiality of silence, that is to say the active memory of silence as an agent in the musical discourse, is so important in Webern’s music as to be generalized as a basic principle.

This can be said of much other music as well, of course, really of all musics on some level. But what was a tacit understanding for most composers before Webern became for him a core expressive value. Thus we can say that without a silence within which to develop, and in which the listener is deeply immersed, Webern’s music only half-exists at best.

This is true also of Morton Feldman, in whose late works a different—but no less dynamic—sense of silence is at play. In For Samuel Beckett, to take just one example, a massive texture unfolds slowly, almost imperceptibly, with columns of sound fanning out inch by sonic inch, their relationships to each other constantly changing through a gradual process of temporal displacement. The effect at first could be described as prismatic, with shafts of light intermittently piercing the slow turning of these huge shapes. Further on, however, it begins to feel as if the texture is breathing, with dynamic swells resulting naturally from the juxtaposition of different timbres. Listen further still and we now find silences parting the texture and defining the large-scale motion of the piece. In constructive terms these silences are the result of ever-widening spaces created by the gradual slowing of the canons that run from the work’s beginning to its end. The affective sense, however, is just the opposite: It is silence that drives the work’s pulmonary rhythm; silence asserts itself with greater and greater confidence, with a stronger sense of self, until it clears away the texture and is left with only itself, only its own perfect wholeness. For those who love Feldman’s music and are able to stay with it to the end the effect is tonic, serving to endow one’s own cluttered life with a sense of space.

What do Webern and Feldman have to tell us about our lives and our time? Do they speak directly to the experience of life in a century of clanging metal and unabated trivia? Or does their work simply tell us about them? For Webern it seems to have been the composing-out of a singular view of art as the willful emanation of nature, the incarnation in pure, formal sentience of the structural purity of the cosmos, that constellated his unique sense of the delicate and the hushed. Feldman’s view was equally rich and evocative, colored as it was by his friendship with Cage, though expressed in more workaday terms (he once remarked that like a tailor, he was a craftsman, committed to quality of detail; “the suit fits better” he said.). On a personal level one could conclude that Webern, a small, modest, and introspective man was born to write small, quiet music. How then to explain Feldman? Big, garrulous, fun, brilliant, obscene, he seemed to present a persona that defied connection with his art.

Whatever their sources in the personal histories and genetics of their composers, the musics of Webern and Feldman (and countless others from recent years) make possible for us a relationship to silence, and the room it gives us, that would seem otherwise impossible in a deafening age. The properties in their musics that accomplish this are not unique to them, of course, any more than the perception that the world is getting louder is unique to us as moderns. These are both matters of degree. It is probable that in two hundred years—if we are still in a position have this discussion—the level and din of information exchange, aural, digital, and (who knows) psychic, may make our current age seem a veritable Walden. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a problem.

For us to be able to enter the world that music creates for us, we need a silence within which to listen. It will be said in response that in many cultures music is not presented as an object of veneration within a temple of adoring quietude, but rather as part of the rush and tumult of everyday life; thus we should not need the expectant hush of the concert hall ourselves in order to go into our music. These are valid points that do challenge the clear subject/object separation that classical music traditions have tended to enforce.

In many world societies, however, there are still spaces—if only interior, or metaphorical, or temporal—set aside for contemplation, for noiseless recalibration of the soul, and in contemporary American culture there are almost none. Our social rituals are constrained by the incessant soundtrack imposed in our public spaces, and our places of worship, by and large, have given themselves over to a muzak-based sense of liturgy that tells us at every step of the way what to feel and with what intensity. Many of us, turning away from both mainline- and mega-church, have sought peace in new-age bookstores, but these, even with their palmists and meditation rooms, surround their patrons with a noxious haze of synthesizers, pennywhistles, and Inuit drums. But beyond shopping, what primary experience are we having here? Are we listeners seeking an archetype of beauty or seekers listening for the godhead? It turns out we are neither—though we may have been duped into one or the other conviction. We are simply consumers. The hope is that, like dairy cattle, we will become more productive if encouraged in our purchases by this kind of marginal musical discourse.

This, of course, is the common denominator in all the examples above, and it extends beyond the ritual into the political. If we frequent any number of the hipper clothing chains we will find ourselves buoyed by emo or hip-hop beats that serve to wash away the sense of complicity we feel in supporting a sweatshop economy; the music is telling us that we belong here, that we’re different, we’re aware, we’re not the problem. We’re down with all the world’s peoples, with the losers and dreamers, with the left and the right. We’re down with EVERYONE; we don’t want any trouble, we just want to buy a pair of cargo pants. Once again, the absence of silence makes it impossible for us to decode the onslaught before we’ve succumbed to it. And this is not just a function of capitalism. It’s worse.

We find ourselves as a culture unable to assuage our loneliness except through the ceaseless accompaniment of our everyday actions. In such a world buying a book or a shirt is not merely to acquire a thing, to fill a need; it is, rather, to participate in the forced scripting of our lives according to commercial archetypes that tell us, through the imaginary film score by which we buy, eat, make love, crap, worship, and, eventually, die, not who we are but who we wish we were, who the music tells us we want to be. Even our sense of time becomes hopelessly distorted, as we float through our lives according to the dreamlike spans of musical phrases rather than the waking rhythms of clock-time. Thus our capacity to be present for our lives, for our work especially, is compromised by a time-sense that is artificially constructed along unconscious models in order to give perspective on the conscious experience of time’s passing, not to replace that experience entirely. In losing silence, and the corresponding potential for musical discernment that silence engenders, we lose ourselves, our native sense of our motion through life.

This, perhaps, is what Ligeti had in mind in the fourth movement of his Piano Concerto, where silence eventually succombs to madness. As in all of Ligeti’s music, spaces in the work, both textural and temporal, are gradually filled in through a dizzied layering of canon and pitch-cycle. In most of his later works, however, there is always space through which to “view” the process; the greatest premium is placed on clarity of both gesture and phrase trajectory (such is the case with the other four movements of the Concerto). In the fourth movement of this work, however, early silences of anywhere from six to eight beats are gradually compressed, until by the movement’s climax silence has been obliterated through an orchestral canon of nine parts, which eventually spins itself into nothingness. Ligeti provides no program, but the effect is that of any number of daily contemporary situations wherein sound is deafening but sense is absent.

Sense may seem to return, of course, the moment we strap into our iPods. The “personal music system” makes available to us conditions that are near-anechoic. Crowned with headphones, we plunge into a total aural void, within which the silences of Webern, Feldman, Ligeti, Haydn, Ravi Shankar, or a templeful of Tibetan monks become real and rich for us once again. This would seem the ultimate solution to our problem, the most perfect means of apprehending music’s symbiosis with silence, until we consider two discomfiting realities: in voluntarily wearing headphones we are agreeing to the taming, by actual, physical sound, of our own interior landscapes, and we agree to go the process alone, for no one can reach us when we are plugged-in in this way. In this state, we become slaves to a jealous god who seeks to rob us of our deepest capacities for expression and relationship. For the silences of Webern, of Feldman, Haydn, Beethoven, Miles Davis, and Jimi Hendrix were conceived of as shared fields of sonic space. It is only now that they are being parceled off and sold, one by one, to individual buyers. The unanimous hush that fell with Hendrix’ final, plaintive, nightmarish phrases in the live new year’s eve 1970 recording of Machine Gun, has now receded into the ether; the sense of wonder it inspired has long since been replaced with a knowing sense of style, an aesthetic shorthand of narrowing signification. This is fundamental to the transformation of any art, of course, and is not necessarily a terrible thing. What is pernicious here, pernicious simply because of the ease and semi-conscious assent with which it is happening, is that the common sense of “Oh my God” that greets the best work of any artist is now more likely to occur as a singular, individual event, outside the frame of any human relationship. The hush that Hendrix inspired, the result of genuine stylistic, technical, and expressive transcendence acted out in the real presence of an engaged community, has little to no counterpart in today’s media culture. Instead we are offered unlimited choice in our listening, unlimited as to what, where, when, and in what format, but alone, all alone, outside any cultural frame other than that of the marketplace.

Thus is the communal experience, the sharing, of music made a solitary enterprise; thus is the antidote for the poison of unwanted sound made an instrument of isolation and estrangement; thus are thoughts which once sounded only in the imagination drenched in a shower of tones; thus is music rendered impotent to the point of non-existence; thus is the colonization of silence complete.

What then to do? On the level of culture, my hunch is that with the implosion of the CD industry and the (probably coincident) resurgence of so many different kinds of live performance, serving so many different constituencies, we will, not as one mass but rather as a linked set of smaller musical communities, find our way back to a shared musical life. Indeed this is already happening, in every genre of contemporary music, at least in cities and in virtual communities defined by specific musical tastes. What it will mean for the society as a whole, however, for the exurbs, the strip malls, the churches, even the edge of the wilderness (where canned music is increasingly common) is difficult to say; no definitive answer is on the horizon.

One thing is certain: No luddite sensibility will save us; we’ve come too far, too fast. Even as I write this angry missive I, like every other musician I know, am striving to hear through the noise and find what is essential in it, what speaks uniquely of my and my neighborhood’s experience and to sing of that in my music. To hate the media is to hate ourselves: we all want the big medicine in the magic box to touch us, to dazzle us, to heal us. We know that ultimately it can’t, but we simply don’t know how or when to stop, we’re children eating Skittles; our mouths are full and we just want more. To pretend otherwise is, I think, poignant at best. But, at some point, stop we must. For now perhaps the best we can do as individuals is try not to be complicit in the occupation of our lives by music made noise. We don’t have to listen to music all the time; we still have some, though not much, degree of choice when it comes to the quantity and quality of sound we experience in our everyday world. Exercising that choice wisely, with an ear for the complexity of the aural environment and the need for space within it, will constitute a big first step toward righting the imbalance.

In the meantime, the problem of silence remains.

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Andrew Waggoner‘s music has been commissioned and performed by the orchestras of Los Angeles, St. Louis, Denver, and Zlin, in the Czech Republic, the Corigliano, Cassatt and Degas Quartets, Sequitur, the Empyrean Ensemble and Ensemble Accroche Note of France, among many others. His 4-’cello concerto Stretched on the Beauty will be premiered by CELLO and the Syracuse Symphony in November of 07. He is Composer in Residence at the Setnor School of Music of Syracuse University and divides his time between Syracuse and New York City.

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