The Sound of Silence

The space between the notes is as important as the sound those notes make.

The relationship between silence and sound in classical music is definitely skewed towards one side of the two. Whereas music can be described as warm, flowing, melodic, beautiful, shocking, violent - silence is only ever described as silence.

But without silence, there is no structure. Without structure, there is no music.

The most obvious aspect of this is the beginning of the concert, where a sizeable audience of people gather to experience the performance, each with their own expectations of what is to come. Perhaps the repertoire to be performed is their favourite piece, perhaps it is the audience members first ever live classical music experience - either way, the silence that pervades the hall just moments before the performer enters is palpable, it is electric. The musician enters. If a pianist, they sit at the stool after the applause, raise their hands to the keyboard, and hesitate just for a moment before that first sound, anticipating and preparing for what is to come in the ensuing hours. A recent performance art collaboration between Marina Abramovich and Igor Levit in New York City explored this concept, with the audience and pianist both sitting for half an hour in complete silence with noise-cancelling headphones, before Levit came and performed the first notes of his programme. The contrast would have been both challenging, and exquisite.

Further, the silence that follows the final note of the evening is one that pays homage to the joint experience that performer and audience have shared. There are two ways to end a typical classical concert - the large and grand finale, with the incredible build up to the final cadence that leaves the audience in (hopeful) raptures; or the slow diminishing of sound which conversely, builds the tension. My favourite work to conclude concerts with last year was Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suite, with the final of ten movements titled: X. Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell. (Fun fact, Prokofiev changed the ending of Shakespeare’s tale to have the two lovers farewelling each other for life, as opposed to dying together. What a tragic thought!! Apparently Stalin was a fan of the original ending, as Prokofiev was then forced to change the ending for the Soviet good). The entire work, lasting around thirty minutes, comes to a huge climactic swell of passion, fire, and warmth in the final movement - only to be suddenly taken away, to the most heartachingly desolate and cold finale. The monotonous and repetitive figure, interspersed with the odd accented note is shadowed by the echo of a light B flat minor chord, ending with the softest possible striking of the final three notes. The notes decay, for around twenty to thirty seconds, before the overtones of the open strings start to shimmer in the silence that eventually encompasses all. When playing this work, I would hold this silence for as long as possible - up to two minutes or longer, defying the audience to break it with applause.

… Either that, or they just weren’t that impressed, hence no forthcoming show of appreciation. Moving on…

This form of silence in classical music is one that is often overlooked, especially by performers. What is the point of focussing on silence, when there are so many notes in between that need learning? It takes an extremely courageous or brave performer to embrace the silence that occurs not only after the final note, but during the pieces. Beethoven is famous amongst musicians for the long drawn out silences that almost seem to be a challenge to those performing them. My personal favourite is the bridge between the first and second movements of the second Cello Sonata, Op. 5, No. 2. After an immense build up in the slow first movement, he brings the melody down to a series of cadences, each hinting at what is to come, but refusing to deliver. The most extreme silence can last between eight to twelve seconds - the longer, the more courageous the musician - as it literally suspends all action in between, as both audience and performers urge the long awaited resolution.

But as musicians we find ourselves constantly battling this desire to continue making sound. With the relentless anxiety and stress often found in performance, this is not unreasonable. We are constantly thinking of the next notes, how we will shape what is to come in the future, that it is perfectly understandable that silences are ushered through as necessary evils. But it is precisely this silence that gives everything else legitimacy. Just as there would be no concept of beauty without the contrast of disgust, as a perfect meal is complemented by a sweet dessert after the savoury main course, the perfect balance between sound and silence is integral in the music process.

The most prominent composition to explore and exploit silence of course, is John Cage’s 4’33. A piece in literal silence for the duration of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, it is met with mockery at the satirical nature by most audiences. But more than a commentary on the relationship of silence and sound, this seminal work of 20th century avant-garde music is in fact a statement of the opposite. That there is in fact, no silence. Because even in the most silent setting, it is the sound of the world around us that become the music. Even in an anechoic chamber (where Cage conceived the piece), we begin to hear the blood rushing around our heads, echoed through the acoustic of our veins and brains.

So what is silence, if in fact it is impossible to actually achieve to those of us fortune to hear? Far from being the antithesis to sound, I believe it is the space in which we can think, contemplate, and prepare for what is to come. It is the balance to music, that necessary space which gives every one of us the chance to appreciate further the power and beauty of music.