In the 1950s, the Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda wrote a piercingly beautiful poem called ‘Keeping Quiet’. It imagines a world where everything stops and a newfound stillness slices through the relentless busyness of our lives. It begins like this….
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
I thought of this poem as the ‘sudden strangeness’ of the pandemic took hold. Most musicians find themselves in disquieting and disconnected times. An unnerving void opened up as concert after concert was cancelled, festivals were postponed and venues closed their doors. Many of us responded by pouring music into the abyss… performers serenaded from their gardens and living rooms, phones and PCs became makeshift stages and concert halls, choirs sang together-but-not-together on digital platforms. And a heartfelt, curated cacophony emerged as we tried to make sense of the present by adapting the past, filling up the liminal space with sound behind panes of glass, a membrane between musicians and audiences. But the vital connection with other people is missing… who is listening? How are they responding? We don’t really know. Like the Dōtaku bell, a 2000-year old Japanese bell that was built to be mute, there is new kind of enforced, sacrificial silence to our music making.
Neruda imagines that this hushed pause would make us look at the way we live our lives and the impact on the world around us…
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
It took me a little while to fully acknowledge the rupture… initially closer to home, then on a national and global scale. I think it was the birdsong that first brought it into focus; no matter how much music we continue to make in isolation, you can feel the world getting quieter and the spring chirruping seems louder than before. In cities, the hum of public life has vanished along with the dependable rhythms of trains, buses and people pounding the pavement. The hushed landscape (‘without rush, without engines’) is a poignant soundtrack to the roar of 24-hour news, politics, opinions and to the countless lives and livelihoods being torn apart.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
Neruda’s words are reminiscent of the atrocities he had witnessed during the Spanish Civil War under dictator General Franco. Now, in the press, war clichés clamour in the ‘fight to beat’ the Covid19 pandemic. Silence too, can be noisy and oppressive under certain conditions. It is shouted for in schools, enforced in courts, in political protests, by governments. But silence can also be liberating and aspirational. In her fascinating book SILENCE: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Jane Brox compares the medieval order of the Cistercian monks who structured their lives around silence (as a means to redemption) with the Eastern State Prison in Philadelphia (opened in 1829) where silence and isolation was also thought to be a means to redemption. It turned out to be one of society’s darkest experiments in silence. Whatever the context, silence is never a passive state.
How do sound and silence inform one another? Musicians have a deep understanding of this: to listen fully to music requires silence. Sound and silence belong together and silence is a powerful intensification of the things around it; even when nothing is happening, something is happening.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
Music itself is full of active silences. Powerful, towering silences – like the six exhilarating hammer-blows bringing Sibelius 5 to a monumental close… Heart-jolting silences in the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica… Tiny silences, such as the brief, breath-like media distinctio pauses in psalms sung in Benedictine monasteries, a singular moment of perfect unity between music, text and acoustic space.
Webern’s music feels as if it belongs more to the realm of silence than sound. The Six Bagatelles (each movement under 2 minutes) emerge and retreat fleetingly… exquisite sonic glimpses from a tacet hinterland. There are punctuated, angular silences scattered across Takemitsu’s Voice for solo flute and there are soft-edged shimmering silences in his 1974 brass quintet, Garden Rain.
There are mute, theatrical silences in the music of Kurtág and Gubaidulina… There are long stretches of near-silence in Helmut Lachenmann’s early vocal compositions Consolation I and II. Arvo Pärt’s Psalom for strings is like pebbles being dropped into a dark pool… the silence around the musical phrases is a space for invisible, inaudible ripples.
And there are liminal silences…. those that bridge the shadowy gap between sound and silence, clinging to the edge of what can be heard…. the achingly slow ending of Mahler 9, which Bernstein describes as a process of release through silence (‘…just spider web strands – barely holding onto life…and then that lets go…’). There are murmured phrases and hushed clusters in the music of Feldman and Sciarrino… thin, watery, transparent sounds on the verge of vanishing.
Perhaps one of the more surprising discoveries of silence in music comes in the late music of Luigi Nono. The string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima (1980) is a fragmented, differentiated conglomerate of painfully long pauses and barely audible sounds. His final work (1989) Hay que caminar, Soñando for two violins wanders though a hazy, dream-like landscape, interrupted by unpredictable biting snippets. And this fragility and inwardness comes from a composer who had been producing intense, confrontational music with revolutionary political overtones for over two decades.
Had Nono discovered something new in the silence? In 1983 he put forward his ideas about silence in a lecture called Error as Necessity concerned with the difficulty of listening to silence and to others (rather than projecting your own ideas) and the limitations of the concert hall. He wrote; ‘Perhaps it is possible to change this rituality, perhaps it is possible to try and reawaken the ear, the eyes, the human mind, the intelligence, the utmost of externalized internalization. This is what is essential today. …’
In these final works, Nono drew attention to the act of listening itself, as a space to rediscover ourselves and our relationship with the world. Towards the end of ‘Keeping Quiet’, Neruda is equally embracing the opportunity for change that the introspective, soothing element of stillness and silence brings….
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Space gives us time to reflect. Whether it is silent spaces in music, enforced space, oppressive or liberating space, space offers room to stop and think. Historically, pandemics have forced people to break with the past and imagine their world anew.
What will our musical world sound and feel like after the pandemic ends?
What if we allowed new music more space? More room to develop, grow, breathe…? What if funding bodies exponentially rewarded repeat performances of new music, incentivizing not just 2nd or 3rd performances, but 10th, 11th, 12th performances so that the work stands a real chance of maturity, of becoming everything it was intended to be, of being heard and reprogrammed elsewhere? What if we ditched the concept of single-performances altogether?
What if we refocused energy on the gaps in our programming … the pockets of music that are overlooked and marked by their absence more than their presence? I’m thinking particularly of the ‘middle aged’ music of the 70s and 80s….no longer young enough to be exotic and not old enough to be rediscovered… yet here is a wealth of mostly-silent music that is extraordinary, finely-crafted, witty, pioneering, beautiful and enthralling.
What if we poured the music of living composers into the cracks in music education? What if there was a concerted effort to do this via primary and secondary schools, children’s television, examination boards, instrumental tutor books, music hubs, orchestras, summer schools and junior conservatoires? Imagine, then, a generation later, a world where programmers and venues were no longer afraid of what they thought might be ‘a tough listen’ for audiences… my mind boggles at the array of events and programmes we could freely curate….
And if we do this, we would also be able to help rebuild the livelihoods of composers and ensure that out of these dark times, we create a bright legacy for the future. The old dead composers are going to survive this pandemic just fine – the living composers need our help.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
Kate Romano is Artistic Director of the Goldfield Ensemble, a BBC Radio 3 writer & presenter, clarinetist & producer. A major force in British contemporary music, amongst her many achievements is the Goldfield Ensemble’s premiere portrait album of composer Erika Fox’s music. ‘Paths’ spearheaded the revitalisation of Fox’s international reputation, receiving widespread praise and featured in The Sunday Times Top 100 Best Albums of 2019.
Main image: detail from Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles for String Quartet.