The Colour of Silence
Can the enchantment of music be explained?
I often wonder out loud about the colour of silence. In a world that seems to be becoming louder than ever, the answer to this question may be more elusive than we realise.
Silentium est aurum sounds and looks beautiful to my ears, but my word feel conjures up little more than the reprimand of a grandparent wanting peace and quiet but having no tools left other than whisking out a proverb, song title or lyric. That children should be 'seen but not heard' is also filed under gold, although with Gran and Doctor this was deliberately misquoted as '..should be obscene but not absurd', which we all laughed at every time. At whose expense was the joke, and did the alchemy of noise ever really alter?
White presents great potential to be the perfect colour of silence. Even when using a computer a blank page is still white; a perfect sheet of undisturbed snow where the greatest of possibilities gradually take form. I knew a musician who was very connected to white noise, walking around with his Sony Professional Walkman and big expensive headphones accompanied by various tracks of it. I'm frightened to google this because I can feel already that it may yield some sort of burgeoning therapy industry... An ever intensifyingly new-ageist girlfriend once went on a silent retreat to northern Italy for ten whole days and nights. She called to Germany in pre-mobile days from a public phone and we spent twenty minutes listening to one another in a white silent telecommunication of static, echoes and that twitching twisting sound of undersea cables. Today, even when switched to silent, can we really claim that texting is a silent form of communication? No, because it comes in loud bright letters augmented by vibrations, capitals, exclamation marks and animated emoticons.
Another person I met quite recently has no presence on the internet - veiled by thousands of others like-named, nothing google-able, and certainly no Facebook or Twitter involvement. I had to suppress my suspicion as to whether she even existed. She counters with: "all the beauty, all the all, lies in the in-betweens, the blanks, the silence amid all that noise". John Cage knew that too. Before sunset the other day took me on a sound exploration along Jawbone Reserve which is now a bird sanctuary on a reclaimed rifle range beyond Williamstown Beach. Cage's Music of Changes from the early 1950s are works for solo prepared piano that were written with the musical parameters left to the indeterminacy of a table of I Ching symbols. What I love most about having these sounds in my ears is the silence between the entries. These are the spots where my imagination, breathing, footsteps and plans all synchronise; this is where the music really is. Such writing would have come across as mechanical and contrived in its day, but I find it exceedingly beautiful. Silence, it seems, can be a very noisy place.
If white is the intense bright light that is seen shortly before death, then switching it to black may then be the ultimate colour of silence - in a blackout everything ceases to be. Silence can become a type of violence. Waiting for an answer: a "yes", even a "no", anything, as in Schoenberg's Erwartung. I wait at the dentist and at the lights while stuck in traffic. We lose all sense of proportion - a minute becomes an eternity, and it's solemn and anxious. I don't answer the phone if somebody else rings because I don't wish it to be engaged [from Roland Barthes - "A Lover's Discourse: Fragments"]. Hours later when the call arrives I feign nonchalance and construct a day's worth of activities to hide my having wasted all this time waiting in the dark. Silent like black ice on the road, or a quick spreading sonar crack across a dark frozen lake that sounds like nothing I've ever heard before. The white earphones on the trains and trams should really be black because these are dark glasses for the ears; music cancelling sound cancelling noise. Headphones go hand in hand with social media - our lives are simultaneous oscillations between being always available, tagged and online where patience or waiting have no place, and being wired up but utterly incommunicable. Our choice between Beethoven and One Direction merely symptoms; it is our use of music and noise that indexes our cultural well-being. For this reason, and as a composer, I am becoming more interested in the sounds that emerge from a community or location rather than portrayal using the concrete and steel of conventional composition.
In orchestras these days there is a crisscrossing maze of baffles and perspex screens to dampen and deflect the unwanted sounds. When you work with people on a daily basis, you don't really want to hear them up close anymore. The screens mop up the residual sounds that the alcohol, sudoku or Words with Friends don't filter out. It's got nothing to do with overstepping decibel levels, it's our sense of taste that is infringed. Sometimes it does get loud. A colleague and I were booked to augment the European tour of Eros Ramazzotti in the mid 1990s. The touring band were all beautifully set up with their in-ear-monitoring. We went in to battle without any protection - the stage volume was so high that I could not discern pitch and there were tears streaming down my face while I was playing. Different from those that flowed from some players in the Melbourne Symphony last year after a performance of Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony that ended with a pause of approximately 45 seconds before the applause started. Time is suspended, and within this silence exists nothing and everything - it is the ideal envelope of potential. The listeners suddenly very still, reflecting on what they have just witnessed with absolute enchantment. The moat between stage and audience dries up, and audience and orchestra become a beast with massed spatialised sets of ears and a million nerve endings, and we all know, at least for a few seconds, that all is well in the world.
I fell into a cauldron of hallucinogens at a party while I was in my first year at university. Somehow, on a base of VB and little food, combinations of toxins reached my blood and brain in a way that provoked a startling experience, and one that has left me hyper-aware of the effects of mind altering drugs ever since. Standing at the bottom of the stairs in an inner city terrace house, I felt a cushion of warmth travel from my toes up to my head. It came with a noisy rush that knocked out my vision: everything was dark then suddenly silent but I was still standing and totally aware of where I was and what was happening. I put my beer down by feel on a ledge near the stairs and gently climbed my way up to the second floor. My mind was calm - I was completely accepting of my new state and my blindness was not accompanied by any panic or worry. I felt my way into a room of some sort, opened the window and breathed in the night air. I'm not sure how long I was up there - we lose all sense of proportion - it could've been a minute or it could've been two hours. When I opened my eyes, my vision had returned.
Now that I've climbed into this dripping solipsistic cave, it is time to mention (colour) synaesthesia. The research into this is undergoing a boom of sorts, mainly due to the work of Richard Cytowic. Duke Ellington and Olivier Messiean were both synesthetes, as were Vladimir Nabokov and Wassily Kandinsky. I am comforted that synesthete composers (notably Liszt and Rimsky-Korsakov) did not agree on which colours correspond to which notes/keys, but I am concerned about a tendency of neuroscientists (who are the mainstream researchers) to rely heavily on brain "lighting up" data. This, to me, ignores the sense of wonder and reflection associated with this phenomenon, and gives an impression that there exists an aim more widely amongst researchers for "music" or "art" to be explained, decoded or even validated by brain imaging. This approach is, of course, music to the ears of the silver-tongued failed musicians and retiree composers who occupy senior academic and bean counting management positions in the music departments of universities. Data is good - it lets itself be documented as research which translates into attaining outcomes, maintaining benchmarks and the whiff of dollars. Even better if you rub shoulders with something relevant and vocational (i.e., properly funded) like neuroscience. Real musicians don't need to see some snazzy map of the brain to understand the benefits of music, and we are hitting up against a wall if we need to invoke this as proof that music is good.
Syncopation is a mechanism of silence. Where we expect a beat, there is a gap and that gives us a momentary shock but drives us forward until it happens again but in a different spot. If you were to magnify fast syncopated rhythms by slowing them down, the silences become gaping canyons of stomach dropping anticipation. I have a typewritten, photocopied sheet of a page copied from a 1776 music theory manual (Joh. Phil. Kirnberger: Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik. 1. Abtheilung. Berlin und Königsberg 1776) that sets out the various emotions that are apportioned to all ascending and descending intervals. To these I have, in intuitive discussion with a synesthete artist, assigned colours to each interval so that the gaps - silences? - between notes of a piece of music can be coloured in. The page takes on a very different look and is suddenly more than a representation of pitches and phrases, becoming a map showing points of climax reinforced through their surrounding hues, regions of harmonic resolution and exploration appear and meld, and the interpretation is infused with a new angle of insight. My next compositional project will begin with a network of coloured arrows - musicians will freely translate these into the elastic notes and flexible lines of their music.
Finally, on the train today I watched a wonderful little two year old boy. He was chatty, observant and keenly aware of his surroundings and his short sentences consisted only of commentaries on the sounds (e.g., station announcements) and the light & colour changes (e.g., entering/leaving stations). These were his whole world and they were inextricably linked and defining experiences for him, all encouraged by a gently spoken parent. When I stare at the stars I feel sublime - I need not know how many moons of Saturn that I can name. Then the feeling turns to realising how very small and insignificant I am, but that in turn shifts to being eternally grateful to be alive and here. It is a silent, abstract and musical moment of profound understanding.