Thursday, December 8, 2011


As I write this, it is early enough in the morning for silence to prevail. This is my favorite time of the day because the phone never rings, there is no sound of traffic, no dogs are barking...

Maureen Dowd in the New York Times, whom I almost never read (or the paper either) has a column with a promising beginning. She quotes Max Picard as saying “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence.” But then, alas, the column turns into a review of a movie. Picard, a Swiss philosopher and theologian, wrote an entire book on silence titled The World of Silence.

Of course John Cage also wrote a book titled Silence, published in 1961. Thomas Merton, the Catholic mystic, wrote a book about his conversion and life called The Seven Storey Mountain. He joined the Order of Cistercians who are particularly known for speaking as little as possible, living in an atmosphere of silence.

What is the appeal of silence? Well, what is the attraction of noise, I answer! We live in a noisy world which sometimes gives a rhythm, a sense of engagement, of excitement to our lives. But often, it's just noise. The Industrial Revolution brought the sounds of machinery into our lives. We live with the roar of motorcycles, the whine of jets, and everywhere, like a synthesized carpet of syncopation, the sound of recorded music.

A British study informs us that living in an "interrupt-driven" environment where the phone rings, a beep indicates the arrival of a text message, new emails are constantly popping up on the screen and so on, being in this kind of environment knocks as much as ten points off one's IQ, or more than having smoked marijuana. I suspect that a lot of people like, or at least, don't mind, this sort of environment. It's typical of most jobs.

But the thing is, that you can't really think, can you? You can't really read anything and follow the thread of the ideas because you are always being interrupted--hang on, just let me get the phone. Ok, I'm back. What were we talking about? Oh, right! You can't really think and you can't really listen. If you really want to hear a piece of music, you need uninterrupted time so you can focus. A big part of the training of musicians is ear training, part of which is called 'dictation'. One listens to a brief excerpt of melody, harmony or counterpoint and writes it down in notation. This involves listening very closely indeed. I was in an office once where one of the employees was listening to some annoying pop music. I wanted to say "please turn that off". I imagined a dialogue: "no, I'm listening to it!" "Oh yeah? Well, write out the bass line then!"

But back to silence. I think silence is the necessary ground in which music unfolds, especially for a composer. Richard Wagner had rented a room across from an ironmonger at one point and despaired of ever finishing the opera he was working on because of the noise. As a composer I often have some kind of music floating around in my head--usually the most mundane of sequences or some sort of earworm--but I prefer that to the chance music one hears in public spaces. Last night I had dinner with a friend in an Argentinian restaurant and had to suffer through tango music for a couple of hours. Nothing against tango, but I really would have preferred silence.

I like to listen to music. Specific music at specific times and I always prefer to listen to it with the score. Other than that, I really prefer silence, or as a friend of mine once called it, "God's music".

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