Archive for Sunday, September 25, 2005

The art of silence

Meaning arises in the stillness between notes, movement, images and words

September 25, 2005


Some commonly held truths:

Music is sound.

Art is image.

Dance is movement.

Conversation is words.

Right? Well, sort of.

It's also true that what's "not there" in a song, a painting, a ballet or an argument is often as important as what is.

Just as the silent partner in a business venture can mean the difference between its success and failure, quiet - whether aural or visual - defines our creations.

"A lot of the expressive quality of either singing or playing an instrument comes from the silences in between what you're doing," says Kip Haaheim, assistant professor of music composition at Kansas University. "Silence in a piece of music can emphasize what has just happened or create a great expectation about what is going to happen."

American composer John Cage famously illustrated this principle in his most-remembered piece, "4'33"" ("Four Minutes, Thirty-Three Seconds"). At the 1952 premiere of the work in Woodstock, N.Y., musician David Tudor, decked in a tuxedo, sat down at a grand piano as if to play. During the course of a few minutes, he opened and closed the piano lid several times and flipped the pages of the score, but he never played a note. And after four minutes and 33 seconds, he rose, bowed and left.

"Now this goes beyond the normal usage of silence in a piece of music, and it creates a comparatively severe response," Haaheim says.

But the reactions to this and other performances of Cage's composition - which have ranged from amusement to fascination, frustration to outright anger - underscore the impact of silence. Artists can use it to their advantage, but it's a delicate, challenging balance that Haaheim, for one, considers when he writes music.

After a pause, if the music comes in too soon, he says, "then it creates a feeling of anxiety or crowding. And if it comes in too late, it's either boring or you've lost the energy."

Quiet and uncluttered

Indeed, there's an art to using silence effectively, and it carries into the visual realm as well. White space around images or text can create a sense of quiet on a page.

"We have the concept of form and counterform - that for every element that you put on a page, it makes a corresponding impact on the negative space or the white space," says Patrick Dooley, a graphic design professor at KU. "In a good composition, you have to have dynamic arrangements of the positive elements, and you also need to have that active counterform or white space.

"It's just kind of a yin and yang thing. You can't have one without the other."

Emphasis on white space seems to have intensified in the 20th century as a reaction against the frilly, cluttered aesthetic of Victorian design, Dooley says. It also carries a connotation of cleanliness, sophistication and luxury.

The smartest designers use white space, when appropriate, as a cunning communication strategy in a fast-paced world.

"When everybody's trying to shout louder, after a while it becomes difficult to gain attention by just turning up the volume one more notch," Dooley says. "To say something quietly can be a very effective way to deliver a message."

Moving with purpose

The equivalent to silence in dance is stillness, which Lawrence choreographer Susan Warden refers to as a "fertile void."

"In the middle of a dance, if you have a silence, it becomes very interesting because when will movement begin again?" she says. "There's this very heightened quality of anticipation that occurs."

She echoes composer Haaheim's sentiment that the duration of the silence is paramount.

"It's often nanoseconds," says Warden, artistic director of the Lawrence Arts Center's 940 Dance Company. "We're not talking crude amounts of time here. It's very subtle, and I think that's because human beings respond in some very profound way to stillness or silence. And they recognize something instinctively in silence when it has gone on too long or not long enough."

During a recent 940 rehearsal, Warden asked the company to move improvisationally - not in response to music, but to the noises all around them. When a car alarm tripped just outside the window, the dancers moved frenetically. When the harsh noise subsided, many of the dancers stopped in their tracks.

"It was just beautiful," Warden recalls, later adding: "One of the real components of a mature dancer is their ability to be still - completely still."

Healthy communications

Outside of the art world, silence can be employed artfully in countless circumstances, including everyday conversation.

"Our silence can help us to truly listen to other people, without getting defensive, without having to jump right in to correct distortions, inaccuracies, exaggerations or to prove our point," says Harriet Lerner, the best-selling author and clinical psychologist with a private practice in Lawrence. "The capacity to be silent and truly listen to another person with an open heart is the ultimate spiritual act."

Stillness is also intrinsic to communicating with oneself through the practice of meditation. William Hale, a psychiatrist with Mind-Body Health Professionals in Lawrence, explains that maintaining external silence during meditation promotes internal silence by turning off the inner dialogue created by relating to other people.

"And through internal silence we can access creativity," says Hale, who practices and teaches meditation. We also can learn to "let go," he says.

"The benefits of letting go are that we are no longer as driven or as compelled by our own desires and aversions and fears," he says. "Instead of being driven by our own impulses, we have more choice that we can exercise, which means that we are free from our 'psychological stuff.'"

The real sound of silence

Interestingly, it may be just this type of getting in touch with oneself that makes unexpected moments of silence and stillness uncomfortable for some people.

In the concert hall where pianist David Tudor "performed" for four minutes and 33 seconds, composer Cage's thought experiment came to pass: There was no true silence.

No doubt audience members rustled their programs, squirmed in their seats, coughed, chuckled and groaned. Perhaps the low buzz of the lights and exit signs suddenly became audible. Maybe a disgruntled patron cursed under his breath - or louder.

But a kind of natural music arose from the stillness. And there was something more.

"A lot of times the silence isn't dead," Haaheim says. "It's not blank. Maybe one way to put it is it's filled with you. It's filled with your mind.

"When there's silence, suddenly what you're left with is what you are at that moment."

And sometimes that's not what we want to hear.


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