On Music

Silence

As a child, I was fascinated by silence. That is not to say the times in which I was quiet were plentiful; quite the opposite in fact – even as a child it was difficult to shut me up, much to the eternal frustration of my mother. Despite a propensity for singing and chatting, at times even with myself, I was fascinated by the idea of silence.

An early memory, is of a sponsored-silence held at Sunday School. For those unfamiliar, a sponsored-silence was an opportunity for children to raise money for charity by simply sitting quietly for a set period of time – not an easy task for some. A blessing, though, for those beleaguered teachers, group leaders, or parents that had the, albeit temporary, gift of a roomful of quiet children. Children would tour aunties and uncles and parents and grandparents, and if they were really lucky, teachers and family friends too, all asking for a pledge of £1 here, £2 there, a jackpot if someone pledged a fiver! All for sitting in a room with your pals and keeping your mouth shut for a pre-determined measure of time. It’s harder than it looks.

Another memory and oddly enough also church-based. Each year, from the earliest memory through to leaving the Boy’s Brigade at 15 years old, I would attend church on Remembrance Sunday. After marching in the flags, 11am would arrive and the congregation would sit in contemplative, commemorative silence for 2 minutes before the service would begin.

In the Sponsored Silence, as I sat in a room full of other 7 year olds reading books, doing puzzles, playing games, all without speaking, I would focus on the sounds I could hear in the room. At the time, there was a smug feeling of victory, I had discovered a flaw in the system. Mark isn’t being silent because his jacket is crinkly. Amanda isn’t silent as her colouring pencils are scratching the page. Only I am silent, I think, as I sit quietly biting my nails. Damn it.

In church though, as I sat solemnly taking the concept of remembrance too literally, struggling to remember anyone of whom I knew had died in the wars, my mind would wander and I would listen to the coughs, sniffs, and movement from across the pews. There would be the creaks of the wood, the hiss or clunk of the heating system, the sneaky crinkling of a Werther’s Original sweetie wrapper, or the distant sound of roadworks or a car horn.

Even from a very young age, I realised things were never truly silent. It was many years later that I discovered how integral silence is when used within music. I won’t pretend that, even nowadays, I’m a fan of jazz but the quote attributed to one of the few jazz icons that does fascinate me, Miles Davis; “Don’t play what’s there; play what’s not there”, that’s a wonderful statement on the importance of short moments of rest, or indeed silence, in composition. In truth though, there are countless musicians who have made equally apposite quotes, but it was avant-garde composer John Cage that opened my, and I’m sure many other, eyes to how silence – or the lack of true silence – could be used.

In each of the three movements of his 1952 piece 4’33, Cage instructs his musician with a single word: Tacit. While often misinterpreted as four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence, the piece invites the listener to consider the sounds of the immediate, and sometimes distant, environment in which the performance takes place. My first experience of this piece, transported me immediately back in time to the small rooms, or the nave of Jackson Church, listening to the small sounds invading the silence.

A few years ago, while working on a solo post-rock record, and having yet to find my own voice as a singer, I took to using interviews and other spoken word artefacts in the music. One such was this insightful interview with Cage in which he muses on the idea of silence, and the activity of sound. It’s a beautiful sentiment and one that I think about often; particularly in moments of “silence”

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