The meeting of sound and silence

Essays > Culture

Musician and choir master Chandra explores the gaps between the notes, the ‘general pauses’ as they are called in classical music.

Sound and Silence

As a musician with a great love for classical music, I listened up attentively when I heard Osho speak about the spaces between the notes, the “gaps of silence.” The following quote in particular made me look at the so-called ‘general pauses’ in classical music in a way I had never thought of before: from a mystic’s rather a musician’s view. And I could then experiment with it.

Music does not consist, in the first place, of words, language. It consists of pure sounds, and it consists of pure sounds only to those who don’t know anything beyond sound. Those who know silence – for them, the whole gestalt changes.

You see my five fingers, but somebody can see the five gaps between my fingers. Ordinarily you will not see the gaps, you will see five fingers. But the gaps are more real: fingers may come and go, gaps will remain.

Between sounds of music there are gaps of silence. The authentic music consists not of sounds, but of the gaps. Sounds come and go; those gaps remain. And music can make you aware of those gaps more beautifully than anything else; hence I have to say that music comes next to silence. But it is possible that even the musician may not be aware of it, unless his music is his meditation too. Then, soon, the shift from sounds to silence.

Osho, The Great Pilgrimage: From Here to Here, Ch 18

In classical music, ‘general pauses’, also called ‘grand pauses’, are the gaps, the sudden stops, composers often add in their music. Here some examples:

Mozart sometimes uses these pauses like pitfalls (in the literal sense of ‘falling into a pit’). Suddenly we fall into them and before we know it, we find ourselves in another world. After these moments of silence, literally anything is possible in his music; you never know what to expect, what he will come up with next.

For example in his opera, Le Nozze di Figaro (Figaro’s Marriage), the climax of the 3-hour masterpiece is a long general pause, a moment of emptiness, shortly before the end.

A complicated story of intrigues, jealousy and misuse of power comes towards its end when Figaro, his bride-to-be Susanna, and the Countess conspire to embarrass the Count and expose his scheming. Finally, the Count’s mind is completely shattered by a sudden recognition of his stupid games. For the first time he feels his heart and can sincerely apologise to the Countess.

We start listening at around 2.40.40 to sense the impact of this moment, at 2.44.02. (This sequence begins after Figaro has played a prank on his fiancée Susanna to confirm his honesty. Then, together with the Countess, they execute the trap for the Count.)

Haydn also loves general pauses and has lots of fun with them. He surprises us, and makes us laugh. In the final movement of his Symphony Nr. 90, this rascal simulates an ending – but it’s not! The audience falls for it and then, after a moment of confusion, recognises that this was a trick and dismisses it in delight! If you’re short of time start around 21.40 – and enjoy the music:

Handel very often composes a long general pause, an empty moment, as a climax before he sets the musical end point. What a difference it makes if we change the gestalt of perception and focus on this silence rather than on his euphoric music! The most famous example is the general pause before the end of the Hallelujah from his Messiah (at 3.47).

These general pauses can be found in countless works composed from the 16th century onwards. A mind-blowing piece from 2013 is 4 PM, written and played by composer Conrad Steinmann on the treble recorder. This incredible performance is a real celebration of sound and silence.

In my work as choir director I love to focus on both: silence and music. I began to realise that this not only provides access to meditation, but also increases the perception of music, in its beauty and depth. So, I let the singing group consciously experience the silence before the music starts and after it ends. Or in pieces where the music is ‘interrupted’ by general pauses, I extend them in length in the rehearsals.

Like this, the singers not only become attentive to the silence, but also gain awareness of how they breathe, how they start and end the sounds, of their body posture and of the synchronicity of the whole group. Basically, there is a big shift from singing mechanically to singing with awareness. And I always notice the joy on their faces!

On one occasion, I had a choir perform a few short 16th-century a capella pieces, all on the theme of jealousy.

The first piece, Orlando di Lasso’s Quand mon mari, is about a woman who is in rage and fear of her old husband because, when he comes home, hits her with a kitchen ladle. During the second piece, (Pierre Certon, La la la), the choir walked into the audience singing, gossiping about a cheated husband. To this piece I added an unexpected Stop, as we know it from Dynamic Meditation. After this sudden silence, standing in the middle of the audience, they sang a very quiet song (Pierre Certon, Quand j’entends) about lovers’ sufferings. The silence in the hall was tangible.

This year, the upcoming Spring Concerts in Langenbruck, Switzerland, where international top-class musicians will perform and where I will also facilitate a workshop, has the theme: Zwischen den Tönen – Musik und Stille (Between Sounds – Music and Silence), a title which I had proposed. It is high time we bring this incredibly important aspect of music, the silence, to both musicians and audiences!

And this summer I will be in Finland for a one-week workshop. We will not focus on classical music; it is rather a joyful and playful exploration for everyone, using the voice, singing, listening to music, to sound and silence. I am looking forward to that!

Chandra

Chandra is a musician, choir master, and photographer, presently living in Switzerland. dolcefarcanto.comrolfmaederphotography.com

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