by Daniel Barbiero
Silence is an essential part of music. This is true whether we consider it in its syntactic function — that is, in its role as an element constituting and making plain the order of musical events — or in its semantic function, which is to say, its role as an element contributing to the musical meaning of a piece. With his short bookPlaying with Silence: Introduction to a Philosophy of Silence, Italian composer/improviser Mirio Cosottini considers silence not only as an aspect of music, but as an important element at work in our interactions with environment and with others.
Cosottini’s multidimensional perspective on silence arises naturally from his background in academics and in musical performance. A graduate of the Academy of Music in Florence who subsequently pursued a doctorate in the philosophy of music from the University of Florence, Cosottini has composed music for dance, theater and film, and is an improvising trumpeter who co-founded the Gruppo di Ricerca Improvvisazione Musicale. His practical and philosophical sides are both well represented throughout the book.
Cosottini’s initial focus is on ways of thinking about silence in the context of performance practice. But he is just as interested in the implications of the many meanings, functions and possible uses that silence has in our lives in general. His book is thus a kind of user’s manual for silence in its different qualities and applications. It consists of a set of questions, suggestions and exercises formulated to stimulate the reader to think about the nature of silence — what it is, or can be, or can mean–and to incorporate the resulting insights into his or her artistic practice as well as everyday activities. Cosottini structured the book to contain one thought or exercise per page, and in order to allow the reader adequate space for reflection, recommends that he or she read one page per day. What emerges is a philosophy of action informed by the role silence can play in orienting us in the world and in relation to each other.
It may be that someone involved in creating and thinking about music is best positioned to ask more penetrating questions about silence. Music provides a firm and often revealing point of reference for framing questions about silence. It’s often through music that we confront silence as something to be confronted. In those gaps between notes, harmonies and other musical sounds, we become aware that the apparent nothingness that is the absence of sound is in fact something — a structure of experience that goes beyond music and permeates our lives, whether as a way of being aware of time or as a way of being receptive to the environment and to other people. The phenomenology of silence — the way a thing or situation appears to us as being silent or containing silence — is correspondingly complex. It may even be that for us silence just is a matter of phenomenology — an appearance emerging from the way attention is directed, for example, to contrasts within the audio field, as when we hear a silence in the aftermath of a musical crescendo, even while ambient sounds are present. Silence plays different roles and carries different meanings under different conditions, and many of Cosottini’s exercises are pointed towards letting the reader imagine or enact some of these different conditions in order to understand silence’s effect within them.
During late winter and early spring, Mirio and I conducted a transatlantic email conversation about silence and its implications for music and beyond. In a few instances, I’ve included Mirio’s Italian terms in hard brackets after the English, where I thought it might help amplify his meaning. This is part one of a two part series.
PSF: Silence I think is a fundamental aspect of music. To use an agricultural metaphor, it’s the ground on which music is cultivated. There’s a temptation to think of it as an empty ground, but if we approach it more closely, it turns out to be something rather full.
Mirio Cosottini: I fully agree with you, if we take the agricultural metaphor. We realize the imaginative richness of silence, if we reflect on its phenomenological value. Mostly, silence was regarded as a pause between sounds (showing the “grammar” function within the musical discourse). Yet it may also turn out as a different mode of manifestation of the sound, the sound in a different form. To make a geometric analogy: a square is different from a rhombus, but starting from the operations of projective geometry, the square and the rhombus are essentially the same figure, a figure that has undergone a unique transformation, but that did not compromise the fundamental invariants. From the point of view of perception, the same thing happens. Sound and silence manifest their essence when considered according to certain structural invariance. The richness of silence is another way of seeing the richness of transformations that we can operate on sound.
PSF: I think that’s true. Consider how silence in the context of music takes on a musical color. At what point does silence uncolored by the memory of the music that has just taken place take over from the silence that still is colored by the music? At what point, and how, do we draw the boundary between silence as an upsurge in music and the silence that surrounds us in daily life?
MC: In my opinion your question focuses on the ways in which silence is manifested. There is not a unique kind of silence, but many ways in which silence occurs within the musical process (compositional, executive, interpretive, improvisational, etc.). First of all, we must consider our musical action [agire], such as that of an improvisation. What does it mean to catch the beginning of an improvisation? What does it mean to perceive the end of an improvisation? The answers to these questions shed light on the difference between “silence-music” and “silence-other.” Does the beginning of an improvisation coincide with the first sound? What is the difference between the beginning and the initial attack? What does it mean to catch the beginning of an improvisation? Similar questions can be asked with respect to the end of the improvisation.
Imagine a situation of this type: the dashed line indicates silence, followed by a sound starting mezzoforte, which decreases until it disappears (a) before increasing again until mezzoforte, and finally silence again.
Therefore, there is not a moment when the sound becomes silent, but there are ways in which the musical perception manifests as sound or as silence. What we need to describe are the differences in structure between these perceptions within the improvisational process (or compositional process, or interpretive process etc.). These differences are what gives meaning to our way of understanding what sound is and what silence is.
Interview by Daniel Barbiero, Part 2
During late winter and early spring of this year, Mirio Cosottini and I conducted a transatlantic email conversation about silence and its implications for music and beyond. The occasion of our conversation was the publication of Mirio’s book Playing with Silence: Introduction to a Philosophy of Silence. What follows is the second part of our two-part discussion; Part One appeared in the previous issue of PSF.
PSF: You’re addressing the phenomenology of musical perception gets to what I consider to be the heart of the matter. Silence is phenomenal, which is to say a feature of the world to the extent that the world appears to us as we disclose it through our practical and cognitive activities. And in order to disclose something as silence or in silence, it seems a certain degree of receptivity is called for.
MC: Every perception implies a certain degree of receptivity, which has to do with the question of passive synthesis, and therefore of all those perceptual operations that do not depend on our judgmental activities. Even silence, as it falls within the scope of perception, is passively constituted, meaning it responds to rules of perception in general. But what interests us is to understand the way in which silence emerges and structures musical practice, and also the differences by which we distinguish the various types of silence. For example, how does one characterize the silence that precedes the start of a musical work and how do we distinguish that from the silence that follows the end of a piece of music? Undoubtedly, the work “conditions” the silences that precede and follow it. In addition, time and imagination (as that which does not belong to mere phenomenal data) play an important role in the perception of silence. All these considerations lead us to maintain that the perception of silence implies a certain degree of receptivity, but this does not exhaust the way a musician (or listener) perceives silence.
For example: a group of musicians are improvising. At some point someone plays a sound; everyone senses that the performance is ending. There follows a silence, and the performance is over. So this is a sudden ending that all the musicians take in while they are playing. It’s one of the most exciting endings as it comes unexpectedly and everyone realizes (with some surprise) that the piece is over. The last sound has a particular importance because it marks the transition from musical temporality to the temporality of silence. That sound belongs to one kind of temporality and then gradually begins to abandon it. The silence following maintains the previous temporality but at the same time doesn’t resist it. The weave of time breaks, as that sound announces a silence that is already present. In this silence, the imagination is enriched by the noises of the world that slowly transform it and dissolve musical temporality. Musical time finishes its run; it stops and reveals itself as the silence that we then perceive as a set of sounds–those of the chairs, the audience, and the musicians who are waiting for applause.
The transformation of sound into silence on the part of the musician implies a receptivity but also an act which constitutes and structures its perceptual content.
PSF: You’re mentioning silence in connection with temporality raises an interesting question. It seems to me that when we approach silence in the context of time we uncover something essential about the way we experience time–as a continuum in which we seem to be a stable point, or as something “lumpy” and variable in the way it moves, even to the point of appearing static. All of which would seem to have implications for the way we experience music as listeners or participants.
MC: I agree with you. That lumpy [grumoso] character you speak of depends on the way in which consciousness experiences the contents of consciousness, and that determines different types of temporality. Imagine various kinds of emmitted sounds, different ways in which sound can take form. Guy Reibel, in Jeux Musicaux(Volume 1) lists some of the them: “Held sound,” immobile, which has no form, and is open-ended in time;
“percussion-resonant” sound, in which energy is communicated initially and takes the form of “attack-progressive decay-release;”
a “rising-falling” sound that intuitively corresponds to the paired qualities flux/reflux, appearance/disappearance, inhalation/exhalation, etc;
the “backwards sound,” like the inverse profile of the “percussive-resonant” sound;
and finally the sound that accelerates and slows,
in which sound rises and diminishes in volume, not with a constant speed but in a wholly unnatural way. Well, each of these sonic profiles determines a silence completely different from the others.
For example, the “held sound” tends to dilate time; the listener isn’t able to predict when such a sound will cease; the development of sound itself seems to be arrested (“held” [tenuto] also means “stopped” [trattenuto]). The flow of sound evidences time as static. When the flow of sound ceases (the sound stops), time rebounds and strongly pushes forward, pulling the contents of consciousness ahead, in the vortex of the present. Here, the silence that follows consumes the future and is characterized by exercising a strong forward tension: that “chunk” of silence inhabits a temporality quite different from a static one.
The silence that follows a “percussion-resonant” sound inhabits a completely different temporality. The sound has a sharp attack and gradual diminution (until it disappears). Shortly after the initial attack, the listener can predict the course the sound will take, in other words, can imagine the sound profile and attribute to it an unfolding in time. The sonic attack impresses time with a certain pacing; with the diminution of sonic intensity, time slows; at the moment in which the sound disappears, time has run its course. The sound consigns the end of its time to silence. Silence now is a lump that absorbs the contents of consciousness in its own static temporality. Silence is static, looks behind, toward the retentive structure of the present.
As can be seen from just these two examples, a chunk of silence can assume various forms and temporalities, which confirms what you said, and from the fact that listening to silence determines the way we perceive music as well as the time it inhabits.
In Playing with Silence, Mirio presents silence as a multifaceted, multivalent possibility. Not (necessarily) as a kind of thing, roughly speaking–an event, for example, or an intentional object–or a quality of a thing, but often as a figurative way of describing how one can related to oneself, one’s environment or, in a performance situation, the unfolding performance and one’s fellow performers. For our conversation, though, we tended to focus on silence as a secondary quality or phenomenon. Which is to say as an aspect of the world as it appears to us or—and this is nearly the same thing–as we take it.
Both ways of looking at silence seem to be complementary moments within a larger structure. In order for silence to be present to us we must be present to it in a certain state of attentiveness—a state that, in addition, covers a spectrum of receptivity and correlatively, a spectrum of what is received. Silence turns out to be a complex thing–a matter of degrees that takes on different qualities in different contexts. And we can imagine the “silence” in “playing with silence” as both the object of play and the quality of the playing.