A reflection on the article ‘Silent Music’ by Andrew Kania[1]

The question of whether a ‘silent’ piece can be considered as music is central to Andrew Kania recent journal article Silent Music. In an attempt to draw the line as to where music ends and only sound remains, the author first argues for the importance of silence within music, then moves on to consider John Cage’s famous 4’33” alongside other less well-known candidates for a silent piece.

While Kania’s analytical description of “measured”, “quasi-measured” and “unmeasured” silences seems logical in theory, I find it hard as a performer to draw even such sketchy lines between them.[2] Pauses within a movement of a symphony are indeed measured, but measured at the discretion of the conductor or performer’s musical inclination. By contrast, the ‘unmeasured’ pauses that frame works are at times as integral to the performance as those that are internal. In 2010 I played in a concert of Mahler’s 4th Symphony conducted by Simone Young. From the very first rehearsal, she warned us that the final pause would be held for a while, much longer than the final note (a morendo in the double basses) would sound. Ms Young’s goal in this, I believe, was to make the audience question where the sound ended and the silence actually began. Did Mahler intend such a long pause? Is this a measured or an unmeasured silence? I think that most performers, if asked to describe the duration of such a silence, would say only that it was what felt right.

The subsequent discussion of totally ‘silent music’ presents difficulties from many angles. Kania argues that “4′33″ is not a piece of music, since Cage intended the sounds audible at its performances not to be listened to under traditional musical concepts”[3]. Can this intention fundamentally separate music and non-music when the composer cannot be sure of what the audience is actually listening to? In our society, we generally expect to listen to or for something, and I feel that in the absence of musical sound we are much more likely to listen to ambient noise than to attempt to focus solely on the silence of a performer (in the Mahler, the audience were listening for the double bass note even if it no longer existed). Even if the audience of Kania’s Composition 2009 #3 were instructed to focus on the ‘music’ of the silence, I wonder whether some of their attention might not be taken up still with ambient noise.

[1] Andrew Kania, “Silent Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and art Criticism 68 (2010): 343-353, accessed March 24, 2012, DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-6245.2010.01429.x.

[2] Ibid., 343.

[3] Ibid., 348.