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Saturday morning quotes 4.17: Silence

September 6, 2014

Living off-the-grid tends to reinforce many of the reasons to inhabit the sound world of the past.  The notion of a complete state of silence is absolutely foreign to 21st-century musicians and even to those who listen attentively to music. But experiencing historical music with understanding requires embracing and using silence.

Silence, or the absence of sound, is nearly impossible to experience today, unless achieved either through unfortunate or artificial means. A necessary component of contemplation or meditative practice, silence is thwarted through the constant hum of modern electronic noises, however packaged.  Of course, noise of some sort is always present unless we intentionally distance ourselves.  Even in the woods, the nightly screaming of the crickets, the thunderous pounding of chipmunks as they crack open acorns at a distance of 200 meters, the deafening roar of the freshening breeze across the treetops; there is no end to the type and manner of intrusive sounds.

When attempting explore the sound-world of the past, we have to acknowledge that there has probably never been a period of time in human existence when the world was free of noisy distractions.  But in what might be called the better sort of poetry and music, silence must be managed as a component of literary thought and musical effect.

“Silence beyond all speech a wisdome rare…”

– John Dowland, “I saw my Lady weepe,” Second Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1600

Even though we read about the street noise in 18th-century London, that sound-world has no bearing whatsoever on the experience of the cultured and expressive music associated with the lute:

“This instrument requireth silence and a serious attention.It is used commonly at the going to bed of the Kings of France, and that time is the time of most rest and silence.”

– “Miss Mary Burwell’s Instruction Book for the Lute:” Thurston Dart, The Galpin Society Journal, Vol. 11 (May, 1958), pp. 3-62.

With the exception of theatrical indulgences (however necessary) by modern “ren-fayre” types, the lute is simply not an instrument to be played out-of-doors and before throngs of listeners.  Throughout history, the quiet lute has always been an instrument that focuses attention on the finer details of sound, and therefore the intricate details of music, inspiring composers who know how to manage the subtleties of sound and silence.

Even in later times, the deeper thinking sort of person has always understood the value of silence.

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

– Aldous Huxley, Music at Night and other Essays. London / Garden City, NY: Chatto & Windus / Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1931.

But is it an entirely futile exercise to attempt to recreate the aesthetic of the the past?  Is it worthwhile to deliberately disassociate ourselves from the more harmful elements of life in present times? Can we even attempt to understand the minds and motivations of our ancestors?

“You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures & documents, relics & prints, as much as you like — the real thing is almost impossible to do, & in its essence the whole effect is as nought. . . You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman, — or rather fifty — whose own thinking was intensely-otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force — & even then it’s all humbug.”

Henry James (1843 – 1916), from a letter to Sarah Orne Jewett, 1901

As for our ongoing endeavor to probe and understand those unrecoverable bits of human understanding and interactions from the past — whether the meaning in the music, or even simple daily perceptions of life — we have to ask, quorsum haec?  To what end?

I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

– KJB, 1Cor 14:15.

Yes, we think it’s worth the trouble. The understanding must be attained, the spirit informed through contemplation.  Silence must be sought.

  1. Chlovena Byrd (Metzger) permalink

    Silence: I find it the greatest and most unexpected gift of old age and solitude–a true treasure!! But take care of your precious ears, lest your silence be accompanied be an ugly and intrusive background hum or ringing–one of the unexpected legacies of our noisy modern milieu!


  2. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:

    “Silence beyond all speech a wisdome rare…”

    – John Dowland, “I saw my Lady weepe,” Second Booke of Songs or Ayres, 1600

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