A stillness on the ear

At 17:00 on April 30th con­tem­porary music group Psappha will per­form a new work of mine, Wege & Waldstille, for cla­rinet, hand­held per­cus­sion, piano, cello and elec­tronics (see event listing). In writing it I thought a fair amount fur­ther about si­lence and near-silence in my music, how it can be­have and how it can be­come a con­struc­tion ma­terial in its own right. Here are a few more thoughts on that subject.

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland ob­serves that, ‘Silence has no nar­rative. Silence in­tens­i­fies sen­sa­tion, but blurs the sense of time.’ Silence was one of the first things I came to ex­plore when I started having music per­formed. Before I had ex­per­i­enced the grip­ping va­cuum at the heart of Helmut Lachenmann’s Gran Torso, be­fore I had heard Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille sparkle on the ho­rizon, be­fore I knew how Salvatore Sciarrino’s music can totter and weave on the brink of aud­ib­ility, even be­fore I had read John Cage’s Silence or un­der­stood 4'33" in any real way, si­lence was some­thing I dis­covered, un­covered and loved.

Why this isn’t a para­dox­ical at­trac­tion for a com­poser to have is simple: as Cage real­ised, there is no such thing as si­lence, at least not in that pure sense of a com­plete ab­sence of any aural stim­u­la­tion. Instead there is this im­mensely se­ductive still­ness that ‘in­tens­i­fies sen­sa­tion’, which, if em­ployed well, draws a listener in, heightens their con­cen­tra­tion and brings to the fore sub­tleties, struc­tural pos­sib­il­ities and novel ex­per­i­ences. So, the German ‘Stille’ and ‘Ruhe’ are per­haps more pre­cise here with their mul­tiple con­nota­tions cov­ering not only ab­so­lute si­lence, but also its less ex­treme mani­fest­a­tions: peace, quiet and still­ness. In the first piece I had per­formed in the UK, Sketches in Silence, I found through thought ex­per­i­ment that given the power­fully expectation-thwarting quality of si­lence in a con­cert hall con­text it was pos­sible to sus­tain a min­imum of ma­terial for quite ex­tended periods. This achieved, I think, an in­ter­esting duality of ex­per­i­ence as the audi­ence found them­selves reaching a sort of med­it­ative stasis but also en­tering a zone of heightened aware­ness al­lowing them to dis­cern more ob­lique struc­tural pro­cesses. The latter is I sup­pose akin to the ad­just­ment of our eyes as we hunt for out­lines in the gloom, but aur­ally that which we hear at the ex­tremities seems to bear a crisp­ness and a pres­ence that does not equate to the im­paired blur of darkened sight.

At the outset this in­terest drew on a couple of in­spir­a­tions. The idea of sub­verting ex­pect­a­tions came from my first thor­ough edu­ca­tion in Classical ton­ality. I reasoned that the re­pet­itive and re­l­at­ively static ma­terial found in min­im­alist music (spe­cific­ally that of Steve Reich, whose music I still find fre­quently ex­cel­lent) shifted the ex­pect­a­tions of the audi­ence and al­lowed for the use of ten­sion and re­lease that mirrored in some sense that of Classical ton­ality, but func­tioned in terms of re­pe­ti­tion and change rather than har­monic pro­gres­sion (which is ar­gu­ably a learnt set of signs re­quiring edu­ca­tion to per­ceive). Of course, this is some­what simplistic as Reich’s music can also have a strongly har­monic drive, but I felt that my ex­per­i­ence of it was grounded in the re­pe­ti­tion building ex­pect­a­tion of change (ten­sion) which can then be re­leased in various ways providing a com­pel­ling mu­sical dis­course. Having at the time re­cently read Jerzy Pietrkiewicz’s Other Side of Silence: the poet at the limits of lan­guage (OUP, 1970), I was in­flu­enced by his sug­ges­tion in re­la­tion to po­etry that

Silence re­sembles a listening com­panion rather than a place emp­tied of all sounds. It has the at­tentive quality of a person. What is un­spoken may be in­tended and there­fore imply meaning.

So, the idea of Sketches in Silence, which was def­in­itely largely an ex­per­i­ment, was to ex­plore the po­ten­tial of si­lence to act sim­il­arly to the re­peated ma­terial of Reich: the listener goes to a con­cert, ex­pects sound, seeks and con­structs meaning from sound, in the ab­sence of ‘per­formed’ sounds  (they are few and far between in this piece) the listener will con­tinue this pro­cess in­deed per­haps ima­gining some sounds which aren’t there. To push the pos­sib­ility of listener-constructed nar­rat­ives, I also in­cluded some genu­inely si­lent ges­tures for the per­formers to see whether those might be­come trig­gers for either ima­gined sounds or for sound to be­come dif­fer­ently source-bonded.

After Sketches in Silence, si­lence be­came less of an ex­plicit focus for me and more an area I felt an af­finity to, some­thing I felt needed ex­ploring, but not in sol­itary con­fine­ment, in­stead along­side other kinds of music, within less ex­treme situ­ations, giving it weight not as ‘an ex­per­i­ment’ but as an in­tegral part of a wider lan­guage. How does one achieve still­ness, spaces for re­flec­tion without losing ten­sion? How do you reach si­lence without it re­taining its tra­di­tional mean­ings of closure (be it final or inter-movement)? Can you give si­lence a nar­rative or a lin­earity? All these ques­tions have been part of my re­cent work to various ex­tents and this con­tinues in Wege & Waldstille, but I feel as if I am at some­thing of a turning point. I am ex­cited about the start of re­hearsals to hear how what is on paper comes across and to work with the fant­astic players from Psappha. It’s al­ways fas­cin­ating to see what you’ve done wrong.

Wege & Waldstille will be per­formed by Psappha at 17:00 on 30th April 2010 at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama in Manchester.

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Thursday, 15 April 2010 at 2:52 pm, filed under Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted Tuesday, 20 April 2010 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Mark Slouka on si­lence — a rather nice set of mus­ings that’s also printed in the ex­cel­lent book Audio Cultures: Readings in Modern Music…


  2. Posted Wednesday, 21 April 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

    Interesting. I don’t look upon things in quite such an ag­gressive fashion. I think if si­lence had pre­vi­ously been so com­mon­place and is only now being leached out if the world, it wouldn’t have been of such im­port to civil­isa­tions mil­lennia ago. There’s a reason si­lence has played such a part in mon­astic prac­tices be they Trappist or Zen Buddhist.

    I also sus­pect that si­lence is not truly an acoustic phe­nomenon. There is some­thing too in­tensely psy­cho­lo­gical in­volved. This is prob­ably why people al­ways im­me­di­ately think the city is noisy and the coun­tryside si­lent, but realise on re­flec­tion that the latter is as filled with sound as the former.

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  1. […] This post was men­tioned on Twitter by Chris Swithinbank. Chris Swithinbank said: New work Wegen & Waldstille will be per­formed by @PsapphaEnsemble at 5pm, Friday April 30. Come listen! More de­tails: http://bit.ly/ceF67d […]

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    Chris Swithinbank is a British-Dutch com­poser who works with both acoustic in­stru­ments and elec­tronic sounds. He is cur­rently a stu­dent at Harvard University with Chaya Czernowin.
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