Re: silence (Eliot Handelman )

Subject: Re: silence
From:    Eliot Handelman  <eliot(at)GENERATION.NET>
Date:    Wed, 5 Mar 2003 18:17:12 -0500

Harold Fiske wrote: > > "How is silence perceived in a musical context? Is > the listener's 'attitude' changed when a rest unfolds in > music? or, are sounds and silences so linked in music to > enable us to distinguish the two?" You could begin to think about this by considering the nature of silence -- if it does possess a nature -- in "real life," rather than music. A few examples leap to mind: The silence of unresponsiveness, as in, "she met my pleas with silence"; The silence of expectency -- "his life was a Beethoven pause" is a line from Beckett's early novel "more pricks than kicks"; A kind of "constrastive" silence, as when the pneumatic drill operator down the street finally takes a break. In music we have many "expectency pauses," ie the music stops unconclusively, but if you don't know the piece you perhaps may wonder whether the performers have forgotten how the music is supposed to continue -- a point which Polanski took dramatic advantage of in "Spielman's" perfomance of the Chopin Ballade near the end of "The pianist." The officer (and the viewer) is unsure whether Spielman really _can_ play and we understand his life to be in jeopardy because of this. In many 20th centuy compositions, eg in much of Ligeti's music, the piece "becomes" silent towards the end, achieving identity with its non-existence. Often a few extra silent measures are specified in the score, which the conductor is supposed to beat through. In the case of a solo performance, the player sits expectently until the "true" end, which he signals by demonstratively relaxing. The audience then knows to applaud in order to officiate this silence. So after these brief reflections, we see that there are many kinds of silence, some of which can be dramatically exploited in music, and certainly others can be invented by industrious composers. Now to the question of "linkage," ie, how and when can music make us apprehend a non-event as musical. Since many factors are at play, I think it's probably difficult or undesirable to attempt some sort of generalized conclusion about the perception of silence in music. Yet it would seem to me a sure bet that there's an "optimal" period during which silence can be encountered "as" music, in the sense that we do not feel it to be a disturbance of the process in music that engages our understanding or enjoyment of temporally sequenced events _as_ music. As an example, consider the opening of the famous Bach "toccata" in d minor. This begins with a very short opening statement, followed by a silence. I've heard this performed in ways that nearly go beyond something like a "plausible" duration. When stretched too far, the effect is one of hamminess, ie, of undue dramatic weight which the music, not yet fully "born," seems unable to carry. But how to specify the variables involved in this judgement? It seems to me there may be very many. Obviously the subject is a complex one, and I've barely grazed its introductory aspects. -- eliot --- Eliot Handelman, PhD Composer, theorist, etc., Montreal, Que.

This message came from the mail archive
maintained by:
DAn Ellis <>
Electrical Engineering Dept., Columbia University