Monday, June 18, 2007

The Rest is Noise, too.

Silence has been on my usually unquiet mind: the quality of silence, which is often complex; the need for silence, which I often ignore; and the pleasure of silence, a New Yorker’s dream.

Silence is one of music’s raw materials. The actual sounding of no sound creates punctuation, drama, and color. To indicate a duration of silence, the composer writes a “rest” in the place of notes. However, “rest” hardly describes it. Keeping track of where you are when not playing is a complex rhythmic skill. Ask anyone who’s played Webern.

In the symphonic music of Mozart, I’m often as impressed by the trumpeters as the violinists. Whereas the violins carry the main melodic material and are prominent almost every moment, Mozart gives the trumpets mostly rests. Their few entrances, often in unison or octaves, tend to be declarative fanfares announcing structural junctures. The concentration and calm needed to execute such far-spaced entrances are performance skills with their own special techniques and anxieties.

Within a piece, composers sometimes indicate a pause before introducing new material. Some of the most esoteric conversations in chamber music rehearsals concern the time such silences are allotted. On stage, however, they are magical moments, the tension palpable as the silence stretches.

The founder of Helicon, Albert Fuller, is one of America’s great harpsichordists. Harpsichords are not “touch-sensitive” instruments, meaning that the strength with which a key is depressed does not affect the loudness or softness of the sound. Albert explained that modulating the silences within a passage creates the impression of dynamic variation. A note played after a split second of silence is heard as louder than one within a musical line. Silence gives strength to utterance.

I loved the quote by composer Carl Nielsen, Alex Ross posted on his indispensable blog The Rest is Noise, last Friday.

"If music were to assume human form and explain its essence, it may say something like this: '...I love the vast surface of silence; and it is my chief delight to break it.'"

When in a quiet room with good acoustics, I often imagine filling it with music, but I am learning how much there is to hear in the sound of silence. A rest is noise, too.

The photo of Albert Fuller teaching in his studio is by Peter Schaaf.

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