Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Silent Music

Lately I've been reading a new collection of essays from academia entitled Silence, Music, Silent Music. The title suggested a certain amount of interest, but for the most part the dozen essays seems to have been designed primarily to help associate professors get tenure. I skipped the two essays on film sound because I decided long ago that I wouldn't pursue an interest in film as an art form (mainly because the camera movements in experimental film make me nauseous, and I would hate to study an art form only in its most commercial forms). Half of the essays discuss Christian mysticism, including three that discuss St. John of the Cross, an early mystic and poet who wrote specifically, albeit allusively, about silent music. Two essays dealt with Cage, one in relation to Susan Sontag and one in relation to William James. I've never had much interest in either of Cage's designated foils, so I read both articles without much engagement. Two articles discussed Olivier Messiaen, which would have been great except that one of them was also a St. John article. While it is an interesting question as to how much of the composer's intention is required knowledge for the listener, if the question is worth answering (I'm not entirely sure it is), it will vary for each composer and each listener. I don't share Messiaen's Catholic beliefs, nor do I share his sound->color synesthesia, so an article that blends these two qualities limits its audience. I also object strenuously to the suggestion which permeates the book that most people listen to tonal music exclusively.

One of the articles about Messiaen discussed one of his early organ works, Le Banquet céleste, brought a couple of insights on static music that are worth noting, if not necessarily unique or groundbreaking. The author selects this piece because Messiaen wrote it specifically for the communion period during mass, when the congregants one by one approach the alter and participate in the sacrifice at the heart of the rite, and spend the rest of the time in quiet prayer and contemplation. The piece is appropriate for this part of the service. It begins and ends in near silence. The organ can sustain indefinitely and without any perception of human intervention (as opposed to the strings, which can sustain, but always with a slight variation when the bow changes direction). Messiaen's harmonies were specifically designed to counteract the linear resolution of tonal music, to create a suspended, floating effect, suitable for slowing the perception of time and creating a space for contemplation.

These insights pertain to many contemporary sound artists whose work bears a certain relationship to silence, and one of the major drawbacks of this collection is that these artists are completely overlooked in favor of the very narrow western art music tradition. For example, many sound artists use microtonality; does microtonality disrupt the feeling of forward motion that we might otherwise get from tonal music? Work like Thomas Koner's has such a broad harmonic spectrum that there is no pitch center at all, just a wave of sound. A consideration of silent music that omits somebody like Francisco López, Bernhard Günter, or Richard Chartier isn't really trying. Recently I listened to López's Untitled #89, which slowly builds to a roar like the inside of a jet engine, then abruptly falls silent for the last third of the piece — merely one example among many. A great deal of sound art is designed to color the silence (which, as Cage taught us, doesn't really exist except as an abstract concept), to provide a different sort of sonic atmosphere.

But on the other hand, silence in concert music (that is, any music intended for concentrated listening) is a blessing because it allows time for personal reflection, hopefully based on whatever the music has said up to that point. For several of the authors of the essay collection, silence brought to mind a Christian meditation (a welcome corrective to the more strident religious messages brought to us by mass media). If my background sends me in a different direction, so be it. Its virtue is its emptiness — silence accepts all questions, but provides no answers.

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