Silence Within Acousmatic Music

Silence, its function and its meaning in music is a fascinating, yet vastly unexplored topic. Often, silence has acted as a philosophical discourse for the unsayable, in that we can never know its meaning (Losseff, 2007: 1). Sounds leave traces upon which we can form meaning- a `something' that both defines and yet limits what we can say in music: that is to say sounds have spectromorphological characteristics that define them as identities. For example, pitch can imply a relational architecture as in tonality or structures based around pitch class sets. In contrast, the qualitative and quantitative dimensions of silence are more difficult to define. I will argue that silence cannot be packed into a simple definition; for example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines silence as `a complete absence of sound'. Musically speaking, however, silence can be considered as a multi-faceted `object'. Silence has an abstract appearance in both a musical score and a digital audio file but, most importantly; it has a punctuative function in musical grammar. Cooper (2011) points to musical functions of silence as being structural or dramatic, where structural silence is that which articulates sections of a work or individual phrases and dramatic silence has a disruptive effect, for example to delay the continuation of a phrase for expressive purposes.

There is a strong sense of relativity about silence and what we might regard as silence in everyday as well as musical listening. This is perfectly exemplified in the work of John Cage, who suggested in his Doctrine on Experimental Music that silence is an aperture, which results in the listener being more aware of ambient sound around them. (Cage, 1957: 13-14). Silence could be considered the object of a discourse between the act of sound production and the overall frame of listening. For instance, sound dying to a very low level may imply silence, so that we are aware of silence as an object without necessarily experiencing it. It is linked to the idea of `voice' in ensemble music, for example, a soloist resting whilst an ensemble continues to play, means that the listener might be aware of the soloist's silence within an otherwise sonorous fabric. Furthermore, the notion of silence as an object can be felt in the relationship between sound and reverberant spaces. A sound in a reverberant space may cease such as that we perceive the instrumental agent as silent while the sound `lives on' in the natural resonance of the space. Thus silence is something that we can experience as a physical state or something implied as in the anticipation of the cessation of sound.

adrian 2015-06-03