Go back to article: ‘Organising Sound’: how a research network might help structure an exhibition

Workshop 1: ‘Silence and Music’, Dana Centre and Royal College of Music, London, 25–26 February 2015

This first workshop examined how, in our post-industrial age, some new music genres have incorporated silence to such a significant degree that their works are often more silence than sound. In the introductory session, participants demonstrated the power of silence with objects and ideas that they had brought to share. Composer John Lely played a series of bursts of noise interspersed with periods of silence, proposing the silences as a pause in which the listener will anticipate or ‘forehear’ the sounds to come. Trevor Pinch brought the memory of his own sociological study of the role of silence in the act of selling, whereby the most effective salespersons used silence at crucial moments during the sales pitch. Prospective customers could not help but start talking to fill the resulting awkward silence, more often than not talking themselves into a purchase.[4]

For the first provocation, composer James Saunders provided a fittingly contentious talk entitled ‘Wandelweiser and the Contingency of Silence’, which also served as an introduction to the music to be played at the concert that closed the first day. Wandelweiser is a loose collective of composers from Europe and the USA, emerging in the 1990s to form a record label, music publisher and website (http://www.wandelweiser.de/). Their work is characterised by very long silences and very few sounds, although there is considerable variety within their scores. This consideration of silence is at the heart of Wandelweiser composers’ activities, leading to an ‘architecture of silence’, and creating ‘space […] which can only be opened with the disappearance of sound’. Shifting the balance towards silence in music thus brings with it a ‘physicality of silence’ (Frey, 1998).

The music and philosophy of the Wandelweiser group had a mixed response from the workshop participants. Although seeking intersubjectivity, Wandelweiser’s music was thought, by George Revill, to create a shared experience only at a very formalist level, and the extreme quiet and stillness of Wandelweiser concerts was compared by Hillel Schwartz to early puritan gatherings where silence and attention among the congregation would be enforced by a church Deacon using a long ‘puritan stick’.[5] It was noted that, whilst it is tempting to think that quietude in new forms of contemporary music is simply a response to ‘noisy modernity’, it is often created in polarity to current musical practices and norms. Inspiration can also be drawn from past musical influences, in Wandelweiser’s case, from the New York School of experimental music composition.[6]

The first day of the workshop concluded with an evening concert at Holy Trinity Church in South Kensington. Curated by John Lely, the concert took the form of an hour-long continuous performance of works sharing ‘an appreciation of silence, duration and listening’.[7] The opening work by G Douglas Barrett, A Few Silence (2008), explored the notion of transcribing sounds and ‘[bringing] the act of verbal notation into the realm of performance’ (Lely and Saunders, 2012). The piece consists of the instruction for performers to ‘listen to the silence’ of the performance space and respond with their own written scores.[8] The second half of the piece was the simultaneous interpretation of these individual transcriptions of sounds that occurred in the space, on a variety of instruments, objects and sound-making devices. The remaining works in the programme were by members of the Wandelweiser collective; Jürg Frey’s Wen 3 (1999/2000) interpolated solo violin with periods of silence, while Stefan Thut’s two (strings) and boxes (2012/13) made use of spatialisation as instruments were moved around the audience on resonating cardboard boxes, allowing listeners to hear from varying perspectives. Finally, Antoine Beuger’s aleatoric Kiarostami Quintets (2004) also used space by placing musicians in opposite corners of the church and augmented the chance-generated nature of the piece by giving the players free rein to microtonally alter the given pitches.

In a concert where softly played sounds and silence were performed in equal measure, the interruption of quietude and reflection by outside traffic noises was striking but wholly apposite to the forthcoming discussions, as the subject of environmental noise would be a recurring theme throughout the workshop series. Both the concert and Saunders’ preceding provocation made a clear case for music scores to be incorporated in the proposed exhibition, illustrating how composers have conceptualised silence and noise through conventional musical notation, verbal instructions and graphical representations.

The second day of the workshop began with a visit to London South Bank University’s Acoustics Research Centre. Attendees enjoyed guided tours of both anechoic and resonance chambers led by Luis Gomez-Agustina. Each small group had several minutes to adjust to the ‘silence’ of the anechoic chamber, and John Kannenberg made a field recording of four minutes and thirty three seconds of the ‘sound’ within the chamber – a reference to John Cage’s silent work 4’33’’, as well as Cage’s oft-recounted story of his own anechoic experience which led him to declare there was ‘no such thing as silence’ (Gann, 2010).[9] This recording was later played for workshop attendees at RCM, accompanied by the sounds of musicians practising in neighbouring rooms.

The second day of the workshop comprised three provocations. The first of these was an improvised performance of spoken texts and pre-recorded sounds that spoke less to the absence of sound than to various ways of silencing – of preventing someone or something from sounding. Daniela Cascella and Salomé Voegelin incorporated texts by authors including Daniil Kharms, Brandon LaBelle, Frances Dyson, and Samuel Beckett along with sounds from films such as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. The pair spoke about silence as an action as well as a condition, most viscerally when Voegelin increased the volume of the playback sounds to drown out the sound of Cascella’s recitation.

David Toop’s provocation began with a discussion of etiquette, drawing on ordinary representations of silence, such as ‘silence cloths’ – pads used underneath tablecloths to dampen the sound of tableware. In this way, he introduced the notion that, just as dirt is matter in the wrong place (Douglas, 1984), perhaps noise is just sound in the wrong place. Complementing the previous provocation, Toop used a mixture of readings, storytelling, and pre-recorded sound to provide examples of silences and silencing from around the world and throughout history, while insisting that silence is an impossibility since one’s consciousness is always engaged with something we ‘hear’ inside our heads, making even the alleged silence within an anechoic chamber an impossibility. To end his provocation, Toop presented a set of bells acquired on a trip to Laos; at a Hmong village he visited, women and children were forced to perform the degrading task of selling useless trinkets to tourists while the men of the village sat inside a house, using the very same bells in a ceremony. For Toop, this was an overwhelmingly sad, extremely powerful experience of silencing. During the following discussion, Toop expounded upon this experience; it made him aware that silence is a situation far too complicated to ever be resolved ethically. Salomé Voegelin responded by raising the gender issue implicit within silence: silence tends to be conceived as an idealised state only attainable by men. Similarly, it was noted that men often appoint themselves as custodians of perfection within culture, particularly in the era of mass production. Ultimately, one can argue that it is the urge to define and classify noise and silence that is gendered, rather than noise and silence themselves.

The noise of almost nothing – sounds barely perceptible by the human ear and consequently not amenable to processing without discomfort or insanity – are intimately connected with humanity’s shifting relationship with the environment, according to Hillel Schwartz who gave the final provocation of the workshop – ‘In Audibility: A provocation concerning phenomena that wobble at the elusive, possibly illusive, intersection of music, silence, and noise’. Starting from Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’, (1768, exhibited in the National Gallery, London), Schwartz discussed the barely audible noises of terror: the ellipses, commas, and dashes of Gothic novelists; the spirit voices allegedly heard on magnetic tape in ‘Electronic Voice Phenomena’;[10] and the quest to hear the voices of single-celled organisms via sonocytology. Humans are keyed by anxiety to be more disturbed by the just noticeable rather than by the blatant, according to Schwartz, leading to a mixed sense of liveliness and loss when confronted by the noise of almost nothing.

Subsequent discussion focused on what we are intended to ‘hear’ in Wright’s painting – is it more about the conversations provoked in the observers rather than the silencing of the bird in the bell jar? And why the enduring popularity of this – to modern eyes – rather grim depiction? The best answer seemed to be that it tells a compelling story, which is what curators seek to do when choosing objects for display. This idea encapsulates what this first workshop in the series brings to the concept of a music exhibition. Schwartz was struck by the notion of ‘provocation’ and suggested that it should be incorporated into any resulting exhibition, since its etymology translates into ‘to call forth’, and surely any exhibition should ‘call forth’ a reaction from its audiences.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170814/002