‘Silence is not nothing. It is not the null set’. Music in performance exists between two silences – the expectant pause before the first notes and the instant before the applause. Music and silence are in dialogue, mutually dependent. Silence is inscribed in the music, like its breathing. To put it another way, sound echoes silence, puts into words or music what was implicit, and the two bear traces of each other.
In 4’33”, John Cage’s best known and possibly most important work, the composer developed a ‘fully positive concept of silence’ (Visscher, p. 259) which required openness to the integration of all possible sounds. For Cage, silence is temporal and spatial. It’s the place where sounds appear, ‘made up of all the sounds that exist in permanence (=life) and which surround us (=place).’ (Visscher, p. 262). Cage explained that ‘we call it silence when we don’t feel a direct connection with the intentions that produce the sounds’, i.e. the ambient sounds that are constantly present. 4’33” is a way of experimenting with one’s relation to the external world, silencing music in order to hear the world. For Cage, ‘it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life’. (Visscher, p. 264).
Cage’s piece invites us to hear all of these ambient sounds, and those that drift in from outside – sirens, wind and rain, traffic noise – or from the building – the air conditioning, the creak of floorboards – not as intrusions but as the work itself. It’s as difficult as any of the ‘difficult’ 20th century composers, and it bothers people. The commonest responses are either that it is a joke (yes, the way it challenges audience preconceptions is funny, but at heart it is serious, as Cage’s statements make clear) or that its acceptance in the musical canon (at least its avant-garde experimental subset) is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, that the piece is essentially empty of meaning but given spurious significance by critics.
And even if one disagrees, it is an unsettling work. Where we expect to hear a performer and (apart from the performer’s footsteps, the creak of the piano stool or lid, the turning of the pages) instead hear ourselves, our neighbours, the building we’re in, we are uneasy. We know that in a concert hall we are expected to be still, to minimise the rustling, shuffling, and throat clearing sounds that we perversely become desperate to make as soon as it’s taboo to do so. We suffer agonies of embarrassment if a coughing fit can’t be held back, our stomachs rumble, or we applaud at the wrong moment, and we turn judgemental glares on those whose mobile phones ring.
Silence is a weighty thing for an absence. It fills with everything that isn’t being said, all of the sounds that aren’t being heard. Recently researchers from the Australian National University have tuned very sensitive light detectors to listen to vacuum – a region of space that was once thought to be completely empty, dark, and silent until the discovery of modern quantum theory and have discovered that vacuum has virtual sub-atomic particles spontaneously appearing and disappearing, giving rise to omnipresent random noise.
If Cage’s concept of silence was positive, our experience of it, our associations with it, are often more problematic. Collective, imposed silence, for longer than a few heartbeats, tends to create physical, visceral tension and anxiety, rather than a tranquil meditative state. And as soon as one considers the notion of collective silence, one encounters other, more troubling associations.
Silence became one of the dominant metaphors for the Occupation, a blanket of silence over all kinds of enquiry, an emptiness that filled up with fear (Butor described the feeling that ‘nothing was happening, but that this nothing, at the same time, was bloody’). Silence here could betray or protect, could be resistance (as in Vercors’ Le Silence du Mer) or (active or passive) collaboration. And when liberation came, the imposed silence was replaced by a chosen silence, as a generation (because of guilt, or horror) chose to regard the Nazi era as a nightmare that could be put to one side as an aberration. Thus for Butor, silence is something to be fought against – he sees writing, words and music as resistance, every word or note a blow for life.
For Sebald too, silence carries a terrible weight of complicity and conspiracy. Schlant has described West German literature since the war as ‘a literature of absence and silence contoured by language’. Sebald’s fiction has been characterised as presenting us with a ‘Holocaust in absence’ – ‘the edge of darkness that Sebald’s fictions repeatedly bring us up against: a place and a time in which the ordinary constraints of history give way to an immense penumbral continuum of human suffering, exile, and “silent” catastrophes that take place “without much ado.”’ (Anderson, 121). His references are often oblique – in After Nature, Sebald imagines the clouds into which ‘without a word the breath Of legions of human beings had been absorbed’ (96), and in the first of his ‘Poemtrees’, when the landscape that you pass in a train ‘mutely … watches you vanish’ (p3), because it’s Sebald, we think of the trains that crossed Europe, taking their passengers to annihilation. As Ian Galbraith says, ‘Sebald’s landscapes are never innocent’ (p. 189), citing the references to Landsberg and Kaufbeuren in ‘Cold Draught’, and to Turkenfeld in ‘Somewhere’ (Across the Land and the Water, pp. 57, 135)
As George Steiner writes, the points where words fail have traditionally been seen as the points where music begins, or where we fall silent in the presence of the divine, but there is a more recent phenomenon, where ‘language simply ceases … The poet enters into silence. Here the word borders not on radiance or music, but on night’ (46). Is this silence, a ‘suicidal rhetoric’, nevertheless a valid and moral alternative when ‘the words in the city are full of savagery’?
Mark M Anderson, ‘The Edge of Darkness: On W. G. Sebald’, October, 106 (Autumn, 2003), 102-21
Michel Butor, Curriculum vitae: entretiens avec André Clavel (Paris: Plon, 1996)
Thomas Clifton, ‘The Poetics of Musical Silence’, Musical Quarterly, 52, 2 (1976) 163-81
Paul Griffiths, Modern Music: A Concise History from Debussy to Boulez (London: Thames & Hudson, 1990)
Jean Guéhenno, Journal des années noires, 1940-1944 (Paris: Gallimard, 1947)
Florence Rigal, Butor : la pensée-musique (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2004)
Florence Rigal, ‘De la polyphonie à la monodie: Butor, une voix politique’, L’Esprit Créateur, 47, 2 (Summer 2007), 33-42
Ernestine Schlant, The Language of Silence. West German Literature and the Holocaust (NY; London: Routledge, 1999)
W G Sebald, After Nature (London: Penguin, 2002)
W G Sebald, On the Natural History of Destruction (NY: The Modern Library, 2004)
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (NY, Atheneum, 1982)
Eric de Visscher, ‘”There’s no such a thing as silence…” John Cage’s Poetics of Silence’, Interface, 18 (1989), 257-68