A Single Sound

I wish to search out that single sound which is in itself so strong that it can confront silence. It is then that my personal insignificance will cease to trouble me.

—Toru Takemitsu, “A Single Sound,” from Confronting Silence

Often, when I’m stuck while beginning a new project, I find myself returning to the above quote. Somehow, in two very short sentences, Takemitsu summarizes many of what I believe are the most important elements of music composition.

The function of silence is much greater than as a frame within which we place our musical thoughts. It is an unattainable ideal—even in an isolation chamber or when outfitted with earplugs, we still hear our pulse and breathing (deafness would be a different concept of silence because it would exist without the possibility of the resumption of sound). Still, this Platonic notion underlies every aspect of music making, for the true subtlety of our art can only be experienced when placed within the quietest possible environments. Some of the greatest moments in music are the spaces between the notes: the expansive rest after the first iteration of the “Tristan” chord finally reaches the dominant seventh; the breath before the long held E in AbĂ®me des oiseaux; the entirety of 4’33″.

For me, the main consideration when creating a musical silence is determining the character of the space. At times, as in the Wagner example, I wish for the tension created by the preceding gesture to carry through until the resumption of sound. Other times, I want to feel as though the music itself is fragile enough that it’s in danger of being subsumed by the surrounding chasm. But a single sound that can confront silence itself? This would be as impossible as the creation of true silence. My attempts to imagine what such a sound would entail invariably either expand to the point of becoming entire compositions or contract until they disappear into the abyss.

By creating a sound that can confront true silence, a composer would transcend the possible. If we cannot experience true silence while our pulse and breathing continue, then it would appear that silence and death must somehow be conflated. And therefore a single sound that confronts silence would provide the possibility of immortality. No wonder why the creation of such a sound would lead him to where his “personal insignificance [would] cease to trouble” him. It’s clear that Takemitsu wasn’t seeking an actual solution to this question but rather felt that working toward this goal would allow him to discover unusual paths toward the creation of more interesting musical ideas. The impossibility of the quest leads me to believe that he actually accepted what he called his personal insignificance.

With the start of each new piece, I begin to perceive new sound possibilities. Over time, they gradually gain greater and greater clarity. Then and only then can I begin to shape them within the silence.

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