Throughout the History of Music, silence has been associated exclusively with its metric figure: the pause. The concepts of expressiveness, intensity and pureness, as well as spirituality, have been connected with the audible sound and therefore the meaning of sound has corresponded with the meaning of tone. As a consequence, until the mid-twentieth century (and still today for some composers) the music was composed by thinking of the relations between one tone and the other: tonal, atonal, dodecaphonic music, etc. All this has generated a tragic misunderstanding between writing and playing.
The non-consideration of silence (pause) as a container and stainless foundation of the musical structure has deterred the composer from what makes Music an art: the elevation of the Ego towards God.
As long as music had the function of elevating the listeners towards the Creator and played its most important role, that is the sacred role, composers paid more attention to the relationship between silence and sound, where silence was the container and an instrument to separate the sound (see for example the vocal counterpoint technique in the 1500s).
Johann Sebastian Bach himself, in his huge production of Sacred Music, attaches a great importance to pause, silence and breath. Indeed, he uses the pause as a container of audible sound phrases (see Ach Grosser Konig Choral 28 or Herr Unser Herrscher Choir 1 of the Passion According to John BWV 245, to mention only some examples). The highest expression of spirituality is to be found between one sound and the other, between one chord with fermata and the following one, and in that short instant of almost exhalant breath both the musician and the listener are pushed and guided towards the Almighty like in an initiation into the Unutterable.
This sound container, where the extremities Alpha and Omega converge in the creation of a Metaphysical Art, has remained exclusively in the performance praxis and only rarely in the conception of the composition. Musicians became less and less interested in the religious function and started to explore new technical and expressive frontiers, thus the relationship between silence and sound gradually disappeared. During the tonal period and until the late 1800s, only a few musicians kept the dialectic between these two poles alive. Among them were Ludwig van Beethoven and Johannes Brahms, in particular Symphony No. 5 in C minor Op. 67 in the first composer and Symphony No. 1 in C minor Op. 68 in the second one, where the pause (silence, breath) is particularly important and generates such a tension and pathos in the human soul that, still today, even the most inexpert listener, after listening to them only once, is completely attracted, like an ascetic or a sheep to its shepherd.
Although the twentieth century radically changed the auditory habits of many listeners and even destroyed the relationship between musician and audience, perhaps because of a continuous technical and harmonic alteration, it was in this century that composers started to reconsider silence as a musical part of the musical structure. During the last century, the interaction with the artistic thought played an important role in this significant reconsideration of the Absence as Presence, for example Vasilij Kandinsky, who underlined in his Writings the importance of the combination of black and white, and Kazimir Severinovič Malevič, in his pure sensations of the monochromatic absolutism (Black square against a white ground and White square against a black ground). Starting from the Variations Op. 30 by Anton Webern, where the pointillistic sound material is contained in the silences that precede and follow it, a series of composers began to investigate the Sound Object in its entirety, by bringing music research closer to the highest expression of spirituality, that is the inaudible.
The pause (silence) has always been used by the player to concentrate before the entry, as if the sound comes from Above, in order to reveal the splendor of music. Silence has always been used by the listener to establish a symbiosis with the musician and enjoy the spiritual elevation between one sound and the other, in the breaths, till the end of the score. (M.M.)
Spirituality and silence in the Italian music from the 1950s to today (Some examples)
The Italian modern and contemporary musical production is characterized by some typical and archetypal examples of the use of silence and pause to express a spirituality which is both generically “transcendent” and totally connected with the human sphere and its potentialities. The main example is the production by Luigi Nono, with particular reference to his last “practice”, ranging approximately from the late 1970s (…sofferte onde serene…dates back to 1976) throughout the 1980s, also amplified by the electronic experimentations carried out at the Freiburg studio. By taking inspiration from Bellini, Skrjabin, Varese, Debussy, Strauss and Wagner, Luigi Nono considers pauses and silence (with the use of long fermatas) as nothing else but an opening towards a variety of meanings and possibilities, a sort of “suspended moment” full of tension towards the audible and most of all towards the spiritual tensions of the inaudible. In this sense, the composer himself draws some precious analogies derived both from the Jewish thought, according to which the divine word is “silent” (since, with the destruction of the first temple, also its vocalize has disappeared) and from the “musical” and fundamental poetics of Hölderlin, who (like in a pause) considers the “theophany of the twilight” as a privileged moment. It is between silence and sound, between light and obscurity, that the poet becomes a mediator between a disappeared world (of the ancient gods) and a world still to come. Indeed, in 1980, Luigi Nono dedicates to Hölderlin (with his silent quotations) his famous quartet “Fragmente stille, an Diotima”, where, through a huge variety of fermatas and pauses, he makes the listener sensitive to any imperceptible sound by opening up the scene to the imaginable “symbol of the possible”. (Example 1). In 1984, Luigi Nono, together with Massimo Cacciari, turns silence into a real “dramaturgy” with his Prometeo, tragedia dell’ascolto. In this “work”, the need to give shape to the requirements of the inaudible involves other spatial and philosophical issues, that is to re-educate to the possible-silence, to listen to colours and spaces. This is best clarified by the words of Luigi Nono himself written on the last pause with fermata of the contemporary A Carlo Scarpa, ai suoi infiniti possibili (1984): “Tenere corona lunga (come) per continuare a ascoltare presenze-memorie-colori-respiri” (to take a long pause (as if) to continue to listen to presences-memories-colours-breaths). (Example 2)
There exists a whole series of composers (I will mention only a few examples), whose thoughts are influenced, more or less directly, by the Venetian composer. Gilberto Cappelli, mentioned at that time by Luigi Nono, still considers the pause (silence) as “wait” and “boost”, also in an expressionistic sense. However, the elements, which tend to the pianissimo in Nono’s work, are oriented towards the lacerante in Cappelli’s work, by pointing to the extreme (even physical) possibilities of the performer. (Example 3). On the contrary, Massimiliano Messieri, former pupil of Cappelli, among others, considers the pause in a spiritual and liturgical way, as both a physical and metaphysical “vital breath”. The pause is a place never delimited by the “space-beat” alone, where the sound originates from the “pneuma-gesture-life-saliva” and where it then disappears with the indefinite and always “possible” contours of silence. In Messieri’s work, these sonorous and silent epiphanies appear as genesis and life of an almost primordial sound-klang, which becomes subjective (and in this sense sacred), also because connected with the performer’s possibilities and characteristics, as well as with the potentialities and catharsis of hearing in its most extreme dynamics. (Example 4). Finally, with Gualtiero Dazzi, whose points of reference are G. Scelsi and Luigi Nono, the pause assumes the indefinite aspect of a noise-inaudible-sound, thus multiplying the possible varieties of hearings according to the performer’s gestures and breaths (Scelsi). Also Gualtiero Dazzi works on tone excursions ranging from the indefinite or hyper-indefinite nothing (Nono) to the most sudden fortissimo. (Example 5).
Besides the above-mentioned examples, there exist other essentially complementary ways of understanding silence. One example is providing by the Tuscan composer Sylvano Bussotti, according to whom the pause is “played” in a more “profane” and liberating context. The dialectics between silence and sound is frequently understood in a clearly gestural, almost theatrical way, and spaces between the notes are often fundamental to free and stimulate the performer’s creative skills. (Example 6).
To conclude this collection of uses of silence and pause, I would like to make another example, which is par excellence outside any school or thought, not only in Italy, but also in the entire Western world. Indeed, the music and philosophy of Giacinto Scelsi cannot be connected with a European trend and, what’s more, because of his training and affinity, it is outside time and in an almost archetypal geographical and historical space: in particular the East, but also the Christian, Hindu, Chinese mysticism, as well as the gnosis and the Zen. In every score of the Italian composer the context becomes totally sacred: approaching his music is like approaching a temple. It is here that the ritual alternation of pause-silence-sound becomes the microcosmic rhythm of the origin of the things and the universe, and hence image of life and energy which is also inside man (like the transcendent rhythms of Yoga breathing). (Example 7). This is a supreme example of how music and silence form a physical and spiritual unity, which goes beyond things, cultures and human affairs. (M.S.)
Massimiliano Messieri and Michele Selva
composers, music critics /Italy/