a discussion with a young composer friend regarding the importance of silence to music set off this ramble....I hope I got the links to come through properly.
Sounds of Silence – a philosophical rambling
It may be that there are many things contained in silence. There are many spiritual groups that believe that silence is the key
to the inner self
. Among these, the Buddhists and the Taoists stand out and are obvious choices. And, of course, there are those who insist that the visual arts speak only in silence and here’s a commercial example
. The irony is that Christianity may be one of the spiritual paths that has the greatest reverence for the power of silence, for its impact, for what can be called its presence.
Various schools of thought, most notably that of theosophy, have attempted to use the “mysteries of the East” to explain this concept of inner silence
and its importance to spiritual enlightenment. Silence is often related, perhaps equated, with death in the West. Some examples of this are the traditional view of burial
and our reflection that those who are silenced
are as if dead – they are excluded from the community. Exclusion, however, does not necessarily equal emptiness or dearth. We also tend to make a connection between silence
, in political terms
in the West.
In the American historical sense, silence has often been associated with oppression and deceit
. Both of these can be seen as gross betrayals of trust; hence, breaking silence
usually connotes a positive, or honest, portrayal of facts. Silencing has been used as a technique to keep various groups within our society from women
to slaves from disrupting
the norm, the standards set by the dominant group within society. Silence is often also taken as a form of agreement
, or lack of disagreement, a de facto
In terms of science, silence seems almost as if it is a problem that requires resolution, a barrier
that must be overcome. Being locked inside of one’s own silence, as in autism
That there is power in silence seems indisputable, an accepted, if generally unproven, fact. Some would view this as a possible means
to power. Within the Christian tradition others view, or have viewed, silence as a requisite for feeling God’s presence. These latter folk believe that silence itself is necessary to “feel” God’s immanence. The Rule of St. Benedict
has bound the Catholic cloistered religious to an appreciable level silence for centuries because talking invited sin into the lives of the monks and nuns.
It may be, or may have been, that silence itself is the only state in which we humans, with our endless delight in communication, can manage to become aware of and acknowledge the presence of God. In St. Denis’ Prayer
from about the midpoint of the 14th century, the author wrote “…all God’s secret matters lie covered and hidden under darkness both profound and brilliant, silent and wise.” Silence is most often representative of a very strong spiritual and religious tradition in both the East and the West.
That is, of course, the tradition of mysticism. By their very natures, mystics do not comply with “known” patterns, laws, or assumptions. The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing
(written in the aftermath of the devastating plague we familiarly call the Black Death in the 14th century) discussed the silence of contemplation as a passive state, but not an empty one. The silence is full of communication between the contemplative and God – it exists in some other space than that inhabited by sound. According to this author, the contemplative should live in as close to a perfect state of silence as possible – prayer itself should be a “communication with God,” not words or sounds.
This would seem to be very close to the relationship of silence and music. A passive versus an active state – but definitely not empty or void seems to be the conclusion regarding the meaning of silence by Christian mystics. Thomas à Kempis, the author of The Imitation of Christ
, a 15th-century guide to personal spiritualism that would allow the ordinary individual to bring the profundity of Christ’s life into their daily activities, believed that truth, God’s truth presumably, was only to be found in silence. The refrain in one of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s poems from the 16th-century advised the reader to hush and be patient to hear news of God’s power – “esperen, aguarden, que yo lo diré.” In the course of Dante’s instruction in poetry, La Vita Nuova
, it is clear that he believed that the rapture of love could not be felt in the noise of the world. Once again – silence is immanent – for Dante, with the power of love.
J.L. said: “White is the foundation of color. White so wishes to be seen, it accepts a form of limitation - the colors - to more fully enter into our world. Without the colors to shape & contain it, white is free. Quiet is the absence of sound - the absence of color; silence is the presence of silence - white is the presence of white ... fully tangible & immediately available (and always benevolent - waiting for us to invite it in).” (taken from a letter to the author)
Hhhhhuuum – well, regarding the visual comparison I would see “clear” – an obvious visual state – as the equivalent of quiet. Clear as an absence; quiet does not seem to qualify as absence. Quiet is more like muting. Silence is “absent” of sound – it is full of itself just as one could argue the idea that white is white – it is “absent” of colors. Is white a foundation of color? This appears a much more complicated idea, in actual physical terms. May silence be a foundation for sound?
And, finally, there is the matter of silence and music. Cage’s work is an example of silence as sound
and though I am not persuaded by the manner in which he used silence, although some have been to a largely ridiculous extent
. Does silence frame the sounds of music? Is it merely a setting, like a setting for a jewel, lovely but incomplete without the music or the jewel? I would argue against that. Silence is its own unique state of being. Not sound, but not empty. A thing unique to itself which is impossible to describe fully because it exists in that same dimension as total darkness, or purest light – an absolute we can only approximate in our world. After all, in the deepest silence we can achieve, we still hear ourselves, do we not?
In the end, though we know what silence is, it cannot be defined and remains a mystery – like life, or love, or hope….
It is precisely because our present life is so inseparably linked with desire that we must make use of desire’s tremendous energy if we wish to transform our life into something transcendental. -Lama Thubten Yeshe
There are two ways to look at life. One is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is. -Albert Einstein