Sounds of Silence


When a composer includes silence in a solo work, it cannot tossed off as a neutral medium for spacing out notes or phrases. One has to ask, is the silence an arrested motion, or is it a mere suspension of action? Determining the type of silence one wants to create is crucial.

This is why I often think of silence in as colorfully characteristic terms as possible:

  • the very tense, pregnant “Japanese” silence, a sumo wrestler poised for the lunge
  • the brief, contemplative silence that can fall between a “question” phrase and its “answer”
  • a peaceful, empty silence
  • the silence that covers “hidden action”, as a stream disappearing beneath the earth, only to resurface elsewhere
  • the conscious, present silence, in which the music stops and one expressly becomes aware of extraneous noises

The possibilities are numerous.

Another interesting interpretation of silence is to see it as YOUR turn now to listen to the audience. I read about this but can’t remember to whom this idea should be credited!

The type of silence you create will be determined not only by how you move, or how still you are, but how you breathe during the silence. It is interesting to see how Heinz Hollinger composed silences in his solo flute piece (t)aire(e) with specific durations and written directions such as “hold breath as long as possible”, “inhale slowly”, and “inhale imperceptibly”.

This kind of choreography plays an important role in interpretation, and not only during the silent parts! Allow me to make a negative example: Peter Lloyd likes to tell of a student of his who played the Berio Sequenza beautifully. However, the constant languid, swaying movements of the student distracted him, especially since such movements are appropriate only momentarily (if at all) in the Sequenza. This is an important lesson. While you are busy giving an audience a well thought out interpretation, make sure your body does not betray you by telling a conflicting story!

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