Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Uses of Silence

Music is, to a large extent, the organization of sounds and silence. Much of the time, with much music, the silence part of this is scarcely present. All too much music consists of unrelieved droning and thumping with no silences whatever. But skillfully used, silence is a very powerful musical element and some composers have been especially good at showing this.

One of the earliest instances is found in a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, K. 544. This is the whole first half of the sonata:

As you can see, in the third staff the music comes to a stop on an ornamented V of V. This is followed by a whole measure of rest with a fermata. (The fermata is that half circle enclosing a dot, which indicates an unmeasured pause.) This prepares a restatement of the theme on the dominant. The same effect is used in the second half, but this time on the dominant to prepare a return to the theme on the tonic. A simple enough effect, but powerful nonetheless because it was not a device used to any extent in this era. I can't think of any other examples! Let's have a listen to hear what the effect sounds like. The harpsichordist is Trevor Pinnock:

Because the silence occurs in a logical place in the phrase structure, we might call this a structural silence, even though it has a dramatic effect. A purely dramatic silence would be one in a less-anticipated place, such as in this symphony by Haydn:

The unsettling pause at the end of the first four measures, along with the piano dynamic, gives this symphony opening an unusual dramatic tension. Let's listen to how that sounds.

In this period there were two typical ways of beginning a symphony for dramatic effect: one was with an adagio opening with perhaps intense harmonies or brass and tympani; the other was to begin with the allegro straightaway, perhaps with a piano phrase answered with a forte one. But to my knowledge, there are no other openings like this one, with its two dramatic silences.

Haydn made even more radical use of silence in his String Quartet op. 33 no. 2. It is nicknamed "The Joke" because he has, at the end of the last movement, six false endings, trying to trick the audience into applauding too soon! Here is that final page:

Audiences nowadays are prepped for this by either the program notes or by commentary from the performers, but imagine when it was first played. I think that the way to play this would be to preserve the joke and not warn anyone! Let's listen. This is a live performance by the Endellion Quartet from our own chamber music festival in 2010 and I was in the audience for this performance. The recording isn't the most professional, but still listenable, I think. The first silence falls at around the 2'29 mark:

One modern master of the silence was Olivier Messiaen. In the first of his Catalogue d'oiseaux, "Le chocard des alpes" (the Alpine chough) he uses silence very effectively. This bird lives and nests at high altitudes. Here is a picture in its usual environment:

Messiaen's Catalogue d'oiseaux is a representation, not only of the sounds of the birds, but also their environment. In "Le chocard des alpes" he captures the immense voids and distances between the mountains by separating each block of music with long silences. In this recording, the first occurs around the 50 second mark. There is another at around the 1:30 mark and many others. I don't intend that you listen to all of this clip, which contains the whole of the nearly three hour piece, but just the first piece (about the first ten minutes). The pianist is Yvonne Loriod:

Inevitably the example of John Cage's 4'33 comes to mind, which is a piece consisting entirely of silence. Ironically, while of considerable philosophical interest, this is of very little musical interest because it is nothing but silence. The musical drama only comes with the skillful juxtaposition of sound and silence.


Marc Puckett said...

Many thanks! am looking forward to listening to each of these during the arduous day of work ahead....

There is a final silence (four bars, I believe) at the end of the second section, Silentium, of Arvo Part's Tabula Rasa. Talk about not knowing when to applaud, ha.

Bryan Townsend said...

I didn't realize that, never seen the score! I had an interesting problem once. A solo guitar piece by Claude Vivier I used to play begins with a 40 second silence. How do you communicate that to the audience?

Marc Puckett said...

Oh, I haven't, either-- such things being terribly pricey-- but I read it somewhere. If I think about long enough I may remember where, there being only a limited number of AP pieces I've looked at online. The conductor doesn't let 'em rest, at the end-- at the beginning, in a solo piece... no idea. What'd you do?

Bryan Townsend said...

Much like a rock guitarist squeezing the last ounce of feedback from his guitar and amp, I raised my right hand high in the air and took 40 seconds to lower it to the string to play the first note. Couldn't think of anything else!

Christine Lacroix said...

That was a perfect gesture, wasn't it Bryan, raising your hand? Was it effective? I don't know what else you could have done.
This piece was just published on YouTube. Didn't you say you liked Handel? I thought of you.
I thought it ended quite abruptly but I don't know, I'd never heard it before.

Bryan Townsend said...

It was effective in that it indicated to the audience when the piece actually started. The other question is, was the 40 seconds silence aesthetically effective from a compositional viewpoint? That I'm not so sure of. This performance was quite a while ago!

That's a famous aria from an opera by Handel. You might compare that with this performance by Cecilia Bartoli. Stjepan Hauser is a fine cellist, no doubt, and he seems to be introducing you to some fine music.

Christine Lacroix said...

Yes Stjepan Hauser is a fine cellist. He was one of the last students of Mstislav Rostropovich who thought highly of him. And yes, he's introducing me to some beautiful music as are you! Thank you for that!

I listened to the clip you recommended then YouTube went directly to this version which I think is wonderful too....