These are two related facts which become increasingly apparent to me: Silence is valuable, and the world is getting louder. Together they do not paint a very pretty picture, and so here in the 2000s, one of the biggest issues of generalized musical composition will surely become how to create silence. People sometimes say I am cranky for complaining about the loudness of things, but think just how loud much of it is! Here in the city, there is the noise of cars & trucks & trains & airplanes. The airplanes are often quite loud and the car noise is there continuously. When luxury cars put in more soundproofing, the emergency services make their sirens louder so that drivers can still hear. They are earsplitting, perhaps quite literally. When I went camping in the Fall, we did not make a big effort to get away, and so I was in a campsite next to a group who played a radio loudly into the night. My in-laws' house out in the hills can be eerily quiet, even if one can still hear the low drone of electricity or the calls of animals, and so I suddenly realized: This is how the world was most of the time! It is not a difficult realization, but it underscores a few points. For one, early music traditions did not arise from a saturated soundscape. There was a stillness out of which they could be conceived, and it was stillness they consequently animated with sound.
Much of the harried feeling which seems to dominate society today arises from two related things, the near-constant churning of engines & electrical equipment, and the nonstop stimulation of radio & television. I insist the first is important, even if one becomes less aware of it, due to the way those sounds set one physically on edge. The second is more a matter of choice, although a very addictive one. The simple random noise of a crowd of people going about its business has a different dynamic; oddly, I find myself retreating to a noisy bar for a sense of calm. That is one way to drown out the mechanical & prepackaged sounds, although surely not a very practical one over the long term. One can also get away to the wilderness, although there are other practicality concerns. Indeed, if one believes the television ads for off-road vehicles, the wilderness must be getting steadily louder. Another idea is to create silence out of noise, by neutralizing it somehow, and that is where musical composition comes into play. How does one create silence? It seems that one might create a certain sort of acoustic space, and perhaps use other sounds to "cancel" (as waves) the remaining outside sounds. Alternately, one can perform the "canceling" in the musical domain, even while the other sounds may be audible, by somehow calming the mind. This is certainly part of the impetus for the emerging "musical healing" field in which medieval music plays a large role. Ultimately, whether one can reduce the long-term impact of constant stimulation by adding more stimulation is a very open question.
Both the hectic quality of my life, as well as all the other noises or even music in the supermarket, have apparently contributed to a growing appreciation for terse & concentrated musical works. Regular readers will certainly sense that I have little taste for the expansive. The more interesting question is: How does it happen that a world saturated with noise places more emphasis on shorter works (and popular music is made of mostly shorter works too), i.e. works whose dimensions are similar to early music written in relative silence? It was the early industrial age which generally saw the most expansive music. I will suggest that at the time the world was getting louder, so musicians got louder to continue making an impression. Ultimately such an approach does not really work, like soundproof cars and louder sirens, and so our century has seen it fall apart. Much about these events can be described as a transformation of ritual, in the creation of the self-conscious concert hall setting. What has been lost is too often the communal focus of music-making itself (as opposed to its passive apprehension). When people came together in a quiet world to make some noise, they did it for the pure act and as much to ease their real physical fears as to create any abstract art. That act, of willing sound out of silence, must remain at the heart of music as art. Much of the "classical" music of the late 1900s became about being quiet, and along with it a release from the self-consciousness in which musical composition had enveloped itself since Beethoven.
John Cage and his "chance" compositions were at the center of this phenomenon, and of course Silence is the title of his book. I agree with many of Cage's philosophical points, and I also find that much of his music is effective at what it seeks to do, namely still the mind. His mature works are not, however, really something to hear repeatedly on recording. Once the spontaneity is gone, so are they. Nonetheless, I would like to hear something such as Cage's I Ching as supermarket music; I think that might make the world a better place. The idea that chance composition allows one to remove self-consciousness from the equation and consequently to create mental stillness (which is, I claim, the virtue of silence) is a valid one. There is, however, no guarantee that chance techniques will accomplish (or even seek to accomplish) that end. Other composers have used aleatoric principles in different ways, and with different results. Likewise, chance has no monopoly on creating a feeling of stillness. I have always found Scelsi's music effective in this regard, and it is worth noting that he disclaimed the "composer" moniker in favor of "messenger" — a related stance. The elemental, mythological character of his music from the 1960s can often leave one completely still. Among world traditions, the Chinese guqin also includes a prominent element of stillness, and of course Cage himself was inspired by Chinese philosophy if not Chinese music. What these selections have in common is a heightened sense of nature, of humanity's larger place in it, and of the magic of sound.
I have claimed that the principal value of silence is to allow the mind to be stilled. There can be no maturity without stillness of mind, and from the perspective of television culture, maturity is undesirable. It would mean buying fewer toys. The power of these social forces is such that keeping one person agitated usually means that his toys will be making noise to help keep the next person agitated. In a sense, it is the grand battle of the day, and music plays a central role. It is not an easy role to realize however, since music's power to still requires participation rather than (as some might assume) passivity. Simply bathing in sound is as likely to add to overstimulation as to relieve it. Yet, there is also something about the very human noise of a crowd of people, each doing something different. The Internet may eliminate the physical marketplace, and with it one of the loudest of purely human noises, but it seems incapable on its own accord of replacing the noise with a benevolent silence. One can hope that it lessens traffic, but even silence must be communal on some level to be effective, and the high squeal of a computer is not a communal silence. Relieving the noise burden will require the active participation of people whose domain is sound & silence, that is to say musicians, and may lead to a new relevance as the population at large grows increasingly frustrated with current noise management.
To TMM Editorial index.Todd M. McComb