Sunday, November 4, 2012

Silence in the concert hall

A painter paints his pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence. We provide the music, and you provide the silence.” - Leopold Stokowski

A lot has been said and discussed in this class about the role of the audience in a musical performance. As we have seen, audiences of the past were drastically different from the ones we experience today. I have shared the well known quote by Stokowski because it demonstrates a common thought shared by many musicians. We expect silence when we perform. We have trained our audiences like we would an animal so that we receive a conditioned response when the house lights dim. I attended a fascinating concert this past weekend that really drove this point home, but I want to talk about the idea of silence first. 

It has been said in the past that there is no such thing as silence. Even in our attempts to make no sound, sound is still present. When silence and music are discussed, people invariably bring up John Cage. How fitting that it was a concert of his music on November 1st that has inspired this post! By now most musicians seem to say, "yes, we get it. John Cage wrote a piece that featured silence!" And while Cage shook up the musical world with pieces like 4'33", he isn't the only composer to explore the idea of silence. One of my favorite composers, Arvo Pärt, also treats silence and emptiness as their own musical voices. 

So how does silence affect music on both sides of the stage? What is its nature? What does it mean for silence to be purposeful or expected?

On November 1st, I attended a concert by the Callithumpian Consort at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Before the concert even began, I found myself annoyed with my fellow audience members. The first piece on the program was Cage's Postcard from Heaven for 12 harps. The harps were scattered about the multi-leveled hall, and for the half hour before the concert, we were treated to an aleatory prelude. Sadly, not all of the audience members realized the concert was in progress. For the duration of the piece, the audience talked, joked, and generally drowned out the fragile sounds produced by the harps. I sat there stewing as I wished they would simply shut-up so that I could hear the fascinating music being played. I should point out, a friend of mine was playing one of the harps. I sat there unable to put how I felt into words. Then I saw this clip, and it perfectly summarized how I felt.

By the way, this actually occurred in Spain quite recently.

So was the audience at the Cage concert guilty of desecration on the level of Mr. Bean? I'm certain some would say yes. Initially, I was one of those people. Had that been my music being talked all the way through, I would have been upset. But then I talked to one of my professors at Longy, Dr. John Morrison. He said something that really put me in my place. When I told him about the chatting audience, he simply said, "Cage wouldn't have minded."

Would Cage have minded?

When I think about Cage's ideas of music, Dr. Morrison's observation makes sense. Cage might have simply seen the talking as a unique contribution to the performance of the work. Suddenly, I was aware of how my ideas of silence are informed by my own conditioning. I still value silence, and would like silence in the performance of my own works, but I was wrong to impose it on another composer's work. Be that as it may, I still would have liked to have clearly heard what the harps were playing that night!

Here are the proposed topics for Wikipedia project. 
1. Toccoa Symphony Orchestra (my local symphony)
2. Athens Master Chorale (regional choir from my home state)
3. Athens Youth Symphony (ensemble I played in while in high school)

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