Silence is something which interests me, both in- and outside of music. In December 2015 my band Nakama released its debut album «Before the Storm» which in essence is a comment on the phenomena of silence in music, using silence as building blocks for the four pieces on the record. I had some ideas about the topic before we did the record, but I have done some more thinking on the subject in retrospect and I decided to share some of these thoughts here.
First of all, just let me confess that I have no idea whatsoever of what I am talking about. In relative terms I have a lot to say about silence and silence in music, but in absolute terms I am hanging from a thin thread. The reason I mention this is because silence is a word we use for an idea which in its ideal state exists only in our heads. Words can only point to it, but never actually pin it down. Sound needs a medium to travel in, so although it is true that the scientific understanding of silence does exist in vacuum, we never experience it as such. Just as we will never find a perfect circle in nature, we will never find a place in time and space which match our idea of what silence ought to be, simply because the observer (we) are standing in the way of the absolute experience of the phenomena we want to observe. Even if we were to find ourselves in a completely silent place, we would begin to hear the loudness of our own thoughts, and even if we could rid ourselves of these, we would soon (or probably even before) discover all the sounds of our internal body. We are never speaking of negative sound (although that is an interesting thought), we are just speaking of degrees of silence in relative terms, just as we use different references for measuring temperature. The zero-point reference for sound is usually (not always) the lowest sound the human ear can detect, and is measured as 0 dBA (decibel). Sounds lower than that are measured as minus dBA, but the actual pressure level in pascals would still be a positive value. With all of that covered, the point I am trying to make is that silence is just an idea, it's only a word we in various ways use to communicate and label our understanding of this world. Still I am fascinated by how some ideas seem to be innate in us, as if they were something we have inherited from the very source which made us think about them in the first place. And to me silence is one of those ideas, one of which we seem to carry within our subconsciousness at a very fundamental level.
In our western culture we are accustomed to think about silence as nothingness, pause, void. But my own experience tells me that it is anything but that. It is no coincidence that I used the word building blocks in the first section. Silence is not something which is not happening, or without content. When placed into a musical context, it expands in time, and can therefore be said to occupy a musical event. If we examine the phenomena of silence in music thoroughly, it tends to be the exact opposite of what we thought it to be. Even if it is true that silence is lack of something else, it doesn’t mean it is nothing. If we use pauses or stops as an example, this becomes very tangible: Say you have a pop-song with a steady rhythm, and you decide to place a quarter note pause at the beginning of the first bar of the chorus (sorry for getting too technical here). That pause will have a major effect on the music. If you make the pause occupy two quarter notes instead of one, the effect will be totally different. In both instances we are just talking about silence, but the overall result could be compared to that of a major versus a minor scale. What if we gave the silence three quarters, or what if we gave it two bars? One minute? I am in other words talking about a repertoire of different silences which each effects its musical counterpart respectively. Now, this goes the other way around as well; the not-silence ingredients are coloring the silence as well. Above I used a pop-song as an example, but what if the music was a sparse minimalistic ballad-like piece in rubato? Placing silence in a piece like that would have a totally different effect than in a pop-song. This may all seem obvious, but I am just trying to point out that silence in music is not something which only occurs on the beginning or the end of a musical piece, but rather as an active content-shaping ingredient.
And «active» is the keyword to start off this section (and aren’t you glad there was a break in-between that long section and this one to give your eyes a little breather? I’ll be sure to make the next gap a little wider to illustrate what I am actually talking about). Another prejudice that silence often falls into is that it is passive. Silence is used only for the sake of what is preceding and succeeding it, pushing and pulling, thus in a way it always appears inferior to the rest of the music. It is like silence equals waiting. When I listened to «Before the Storm» a couple of weeks after we recorded it, I noticed that silence is a highly active, and highly potent musical ingredient. If we give silence enough space, it takes on a totally different role. Left to itself, with little or without any musical content relying on it, it is what occupies the silence which becomes interesting. What do we hear when we listen to silence? Do we hear the background noise? Our own thoughts, perhaps? Or do we hear a wide selection of possible outcomes which the music might take on next, which really is nothing but a direct confrontation of our own intellect and its calculating processes which it has accumulated throughout our lives? Or put in another way: do we hear our own limitations? Now that is the real shit, right there! Silence equals potentiality. Even though we can’t hear it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Everything is audible in silence! And this is exactly why I think silence is an active agent, namely because it confronts the listener in a totally different manner than other musical content does. It allows the listener to reflect and question the music. The music modulates from the music itself and into the listener’s head. All of a sudden, the music is happening somewhere else. It goes from being something external to something internal. From out there to in here. It goes without saying that this takes some effort on the listening side. We are so accustomed to experience and think about music as series of notes or chords in successive order, that having a real chunk of silence thrown at us is like a frontal attack on our psyche. So if we listen really carefully, we are confronted with our own prejudices about what ought to be, and maybe we can just let go of all that and let whatever is be whatever it is?
Before I conclude this essay with a rather philosophical and far-fetched section, I would like to once more turn to the use of silence in music as musical content. Scales, chords, dynamics, sounds, tempos, melodies. All of these are musical ingredients that I like to call content-ingredients; they are used to fill out the form, the form being defined either by other external ingredients (bar numbers, time signatures, graphical scores etc.), or shaped by the musicians’ (sometimes collective) intention. So we have content-ingredients and form-ingredients. If silence were to be put into either one of these (which ultimately are also just models, and in the end absolute gibberish), I would have to put it in the content category. This allows us to think of silence in the exact same manner as any other content-ingredient, which unlocks a whole new palette of using silence as both a compositional- and an improvisational tool. «Before the Storm» aimed at showing silence from different angles, and can be interpreted as a musical argument to prove that silence has more than one face (hopefully interpreted as good music as well). By no means am I saying that I am the first one to use silence extensively in composition, but I feel like silence as an improvisational tool with some sort of theoretical basis has been largely overlooked in the history of improvised music, and this is a subject I will continue investigating. If the reader has any information on the subject, or any personal experience, I would love to hear from you!
When does the music stop, and when does it end? On «Before the Storm» we tried to illustrate this in the piece called Yūgen. In this piece there is almost no input from the musicians. I guess at least 80% of it is silence. Not playing is of course also playing, but that’s a discussion I’ll leave for now. So when does the piece start, and when does it end? Could we say that it consists of multiple short pieces? Or could we just be very pragmatical and say that it starts when the CD-player goes from track 2 to 3, and ends when it goes from track 3 to 4? Of course, in a sense it does start and end like that, but the way I see it, there is another dimension to it. The very goal of a musical piece is not to get from 2 to 3 or from 3 to 4. If the point was to get to the next event as fast as possible, then the best orchestras would be the ones which could get to the last bars the fastest. Instead, the goal of a musical piece is in every single moment. The music is a stream of events where the next moment is a logical result of the former. Or we could say the music is purposeless. Music is just free. And (and here comes the far-fetched part) isn’t it also so with life? Or is life also just a CD-player changing from one track to the next? In terms of how we count and keep track of time in days, months and years, I guess it is, but that is not actually how we experience it. At least it is not the only way to experience it. When a concert ends, it is the end of that particular concert, but it creates a springboard for the next event. That may be the encounter between musicians and audience, or all the discussions about the performance, or something completely different. Either way — take that energy and use it! The interval between the concert and the next one attended, that can be called silence, a musical break. That doesn’t mean that the period in-between is void of content. It is our actual life we are talking about. Nevertheless, it is in the silence that life is actualized. The music doesn’t stop. I think it would be kind of sad if we only lived when we attended concerts or listened to music (or insert any other activity of your choice). And maybe it is only in life’s purposelessness that we can find true freedom? Purposelessness does not necessarily mean without direction, but that is also a discussion I’ll leave out of this already lengthy essay. I think it is funny how a seemingly far-fetched comparison like this is on closer inspection intimate and actual to each and everyone of us. Music illustrates this in a perfect microcosmos of sounds and silence. All of this is a matter of magnification. If we zoom out even further our life span on earth can be translated as a musical input in the big symphony of the universe. When our life is over and we die, does it mean the (universal) music has stopped? Imagine you hear a big gong being hit with a club. Eventually the sound fades out, but what does it fade out to? Rather than saying fade out to, I would say that the sound fades in to. It merges with all the other sounds that exist. If we can agree that every encounter we do is in actuality our life, then we take our world with us when we die. We take it into the very silence which we came from. Compared with the gong, we fade into the fabric of life, not out of it. And isn’t it also that very silence which allows life to continue? What about before we were born? Did we not exist? The potentiality of «you» or «I» had to be latent in existence somewhere, or else we would never have appeared in this world. We came out of silence, but that is not the same as to say we came out of nothingness. We don’t have to die to be born, and that is the real magic!
I said the last section would be the last, but it is not (depending on if you read this at all). Just think of this like a hidden track on a CD or LP. It is always nice to end with a quote, and this time I’ll take the liberty to quote myself. The following little phrase is taken from the lyrics from a piece called «Changing». I think it sums up what I have been talking about:
«Sound exists in silence
just as led does in diamonds»