Monday, August 22, 2016

Why ‘Three Kinds of Silence’?

Silence has been a musical preoccupation of mine for a while now. I wrote the following blog post in 2011 and the ideas discussed in Thomas Clifton’s article led me to explore his way of thinking about musical silence in a new composition – Three Kinds of Silence – that was premiered in Edinburgh in early 2013 by Artisan Trio, who commissioned the work.  This is one of the pieces to be included on my new CD. 

PS If you would like to support the making of this CD, please consider making a tax deductible donation here through the Australian Cultural Fund.  Thanks!


Thomas Clifton’s ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, published in The Musical Quarterly in 1976, offers some interesting insights into the role of silence in music.  Although the essay is very clearly focused on the roles of silence in traditional Western Art music, the ideas developed can easily be applied to any kind of music or sound art.  Clifton sets out to discuss different qualities and types of silence and the effects these have on the listener’s perception.  He opens by comparing the study of musical silence to “deliberately studying the spaces between trees in a forest”: from the outset this essay has so many connections with my own work and preoccupations.  For anyone interested in the poetics of silence, this paper is well worth reading, but I’ll attempt to outline some of the ideas he presents.  Clifton’s work seems to give physical form to silence – he describes “hard-edged silence” where there is sharp contrast between sound and silence.  In other instances the boundary between sound and silence is almost imperceptible.  In his description of ‘Silences in Motion’ he outlines a kind of silence where sound “disappears below the threshold of audibility” but is still present, just out of hearing, until the sounds re-emerge above the hearing threshold once more.  He explores the idea of “Silences in Registral Space” – the idea that the sound space covers the whole range of audible frequencies, or register, and that sounds can drop out of a particular register, leaving a kind of sonic void that seems to wait to be filled.  One of the main points that Clifton makes is that one of the strongest effects of silence is to heighten our perception and awareness.  The introduction of silence makes us listen more intently, waiting for the return of sound.  The dramatic nature of this perceptual focus is clear in the use of silence to surprise – sudden silence, or to increase expectation – the tension of waiting for the next sound.  His essay also reflects on the nature of ‘ending’ – the quality of the final silence.  Silence can be approached by a gradual emptying out of the registral  space, a gradual disengaging from the composition: “the piece itself becomes absent”.  This type of prepared ending allows us to accept that the piece is indeed coming to an end and that the silence that will follow is final.   We had an interesting discussion about the impact of abrupt or unexpected endings in music – that these types of endings can be quite disturbing, unsettling and in some cases quite shocking.  I was reminded of a friend who always insisted on ‘fading out’ any music that was playing on the stereo before he left the room – he would NEVER just press ‘stop’, so extreme was his reaction to any unprepared ending.   The nature of ending is something that relates to so many aspects of our lives, and as is so often the case, music can act as a kind of sonic analog for things other than music.  Clifton takes this to its extreme when he draws a parallel between musical ending and Heidegger’s phenomenological description of death.  Clifton invites us to “consider the way music presents the essence of dying.”  A musical ending is in effect a disengaging with the possibility of further ‘relationships’.  The piece becomes ‘absent’.  “When silence intervenes… the piece itself passes over into nothingness.”  Such a powerful and beautiful way to think about the nature of ending, musical or otherwise.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A day in two parts

Part One.
A freezing cold morning.  I'm waiting for the train into town, sitting outside in the clear nearly-winter sun.  The train arrives and I get on, look around for a seat, find one and sit down.  The man opposite moves to give me more room and asks if I would like his seat; 'no, I'm fine thanks'.  I look down and notice he has bare feet.  'Are your feet cold?'.  'No, not really, I've got my warm jacket on.' And so our conversation begins.  I spend the rest of the train journey chatting to him, I ask him his name and tell him mine (I'll call him John, even though that's not his name).  We talk about gardening, growing veggies, how I never have any luck with broccoli, how much fun it is to have chooks, how sometimes they stop laying in their laying box and you have to hunt around the garden looking for their eggs.  John lives in a rooming house, the cost covered by his pension.  He says he likes where he is living; that he is happy there.  One of his favourite things is to sit in the garden with a cigarette and a cup of coffee.  He asks me where I am heading and I tell him.  'How about you?' - John says he is heading to his GP for his regular medication, as he has a mental illness  I ask him if he likes his doctor and we talk about how nice to is to have a regular GP that you know, that knows you, not like those mega-clinics where you join the queue for whichever doctor is rostered on.  John asks me about my children, how old they are, what does my husband do, is he a good sort.  He asks me if I have any illnesses and I answer no, so far so good.  We talk about John's school days, that he was a good kid but got a caning once for a bit of classroom mucking around.  He went to Melbourne Grammar.  Then he went to University and studied chemistry and mathematics and went on to work in the mining industry.  He got married, they had one child, and then he got sick.  His marriage ended, his wife and child moved away.  He misses them terribly and sees them sometimes.  But he says he is happy now, that he likes his life.  Sometimes he goes into town to beg outside Parliament house to make a bit of extra money for tobacco (he rolls his own cigarettes because it's cheaper).  He likes the company and the conversations he has in town.  Then our train arrives at Flinders Street Station and we say good bye to each other.  I feel really happy for having met him.

Part Two.
I walk from Flinders Street Station, past the NGV and along St Kilda Road to the VCA music building.  As I walk up I see my friend walking towards me with her cello, ready to rehearse my music.  We walk in to the building, having a quick catch up and a laugh, and make our way to another colleague's room, jam packed with not one but two grand pianos and are joined by two more lovely musician friends who have signed up to help make a CD of my music.  I always feel nervous and full of self doubt before a rehearsal - what if the musicians don't like the music, what if there are mistakes in the score (which there inevitably are when the work has only been played once or twice and not had the benefit of a sharp eyed editor).  Even working with musicians I know, I still feel this moment of anxiety.  We start by listening to some less-than-perfect recordings of the pieces we'll be working on - "beautiful piece, Chris" - and my anxiety fades.  We spend the next three hours working through three pieces, none of which has had more than two performances.  This is a first rehearsal and the notes are yet to sit under the hands but the musicians start the process of acquainting themselves with my music.  We have a break, a few more laughs and then back to work.  There is a set of pieces I've never heard played and I am unsure as to whether they are 'good enough' to go on the CD.  The pianist and violinist delve into this unknown territory and after a couple of sections I hear that the music DOES work, that there are moments of loveliness and subtlety.  "These are great! I really like them" says the pianist and I feel a surge of validation and satisfaction.  We finish up, people have places to go, meetings, classes, we say goodbye on St Kilda Road.  I feel happy and hopeful and I soak in the nearly-winter sun.