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5 minutes reading time (937 words)

Winds of Change

​"Hello chatter, my old friend." So wrote ​New York Times​ columnist Maureen Dowd, who in calling attention to the new silent film ​The Artist​ last December 7, 2011, took on much more (all quoted paragraphs below come from her column). 

"The sounds of silence are a dim recollection now, like mystery, privacy and paying attention to one thing—or one person—at a time."

My students will tell you that I insist they hear the silence before playing music. That I repeat myself on this point so often suggests they may already be immune to silence.

"As far back as half-a-century ago, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard warned: 'Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,' once as natural as the sky and air."

During a student summer in Austria, I remember visiting an area in the Salzkammergut, far from the noise of modern life. The inn in which our group stayed was nestled against the mountains on an Alm, or Alpine pasture. I walked alone from the inn out toward the horizon that promised a view of the valley below. The farther I walked, the quieter it became. When I reached the edge, I realized I could hear nothing but the wind. I also realized that this was the first time in my life that I had experienced true silence. No furnace blower, no jet overhead, no traffic noise, no voices. When an occasional cowbell clanked in the distance, its clarity, delimited by mountains and air and the absence of other sounds, was incredible.

"There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called 'moments of being,' intense sensations that stand apart from the 'cotton wool of daily life.'"

In my best-of-all-possible worlds, music is a conduit to such experiences. I speak not of the music that is the soundtrack of modern experience (radio, TV, iPods, Muzak), but only of music that comes from silence and returns to it. Think of the opening of Mahler's First Symphony: that five octave A hovering in space played by the strings is itself an evocation of dawn's quiet, a primeval hush against which awakening birds announce their presence. Music that begins with a bang can be just as effective— Beethoven's Seventh Symphony whaps the listener upside the head with a sforzando A major chord played by the full orchestra; the solo oboe is left holding the tonic pitch, turning it into a motive of four notes. Then whap—a sforzando E major chord from which a clarinet continues the journey. The message: Listen! This is important—even if you've heard the piece before.

All great music fulfills this definition. It requires silence to have meaning. Silence, in turn, is the sonic equivalent of zero. We understand "number" because we realize that there is also "nothing."

The catalyst for these ramblings was, of all things, a piano concerto competition. One after another, accomplished young pianists came onstage, sat down, and began their pieces. Keyed up to show their stuff, their performances came not so much from silence as from the last practice session, or from the memory of all the recordings they had ever listened to. It was as if each concerto already existed as an omnipresent sound-world, like traffic on the freeway, that simply became audible when they played. And was it ever loud!

The pieces played were the usual suspects, with a preponderance of Russian Romantics. We've all heard these pieces many times before. Students want to play them because, alas, they tend to win the competitions, and because all the other "good" students are playing them. They measure their value as pianists by the number of notes required per page. One wonders if these unfortunate over-used pieces can ever be heard as anything fresh, or whether their meaning is lost in the daily din to which they contribute. Today, the sound of your world will be honking horns, crying children, argumentative politicians, and interminable Rachmaninoff Seconds.

And yet, even that hackneyed piece in a great performance emerges from silence. A quiet F minor chord in the solo piano, mid-range, followed by a tolling low F, followed by a slightly different mid-range chord and another low F, the progression continues, harmonies changing in each bar, but the top of each chord (C) and bottom (F) remain constant, everything growing in volume, intensity, until the eighth bar when three notes move us to a roiling pianistic sea of C minor and a heart-wrenching, long-lined melody played by the violins and violas in unison. It can be extraordinarily powerful. Or it can sound like the last hundred Rachmaninoff Seconds.

As teachers we need to foster in our students an attitude of listening such that Maya Angelou's words in Gather Together in My Name would not need explanation: "Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness." This lovely metaphor reminds one of a Schnabel witticism: "I don't think I handle the notes much differently from other pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, there is where the artistry lies." A respect—perhaps even reverence—for silence brings us, ironically, much closer to the sound. Music is the sum total of both.

While we're at it, let's de-commoditize the standard repertoire. Poor Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff! Our focus on the same pieces year in and year out has created a Conservatory Muzak of Greatest Hits that makes Top Forties Radio look adventurous. We owe these pieces an immense debt of gratitude—without them, we wouldn't have jobs. The least we can do is give them a break now and then.

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