Form and Silence

In art, the formal value of presentation is taken very seriously. Frames, white walls and empty spaces exalt the significance of the contemplated object to the point that after Duchamp’s urinal, almost any trash that falls on a pedestal is worthy of an aesthetic reading. The staging of the piece, the artist’s dialogue with the void surrounding it, is so powerful that it sometimes usurps what was formerly called talent.

In music we have the concert ritual, the sacred space of silence that surrounds the event, focusing attention on the discourse. Although the first to strip this ritual, placing an empty frame in the sound gallery, was John Cage in 1952 with his work 4’33” (forty years after Malevich’s non-painting The Black Square – music is always late), prohibiting musical sounds for 4 minutes and 33 seconds ironically revealed the importance of formality, since the dawn of music, in the creation of the object. But silence was not always part of the framing ritual. Music used to be an ingredient in very noisy multimedia entertainment: Greek tragedy, gladiators (strident organ, percussion and wind orchestras were famous accompanists of blood in the arena), masses, coronations, and opera, where feasting went on during the shows. Gradually, music distilled the tool of silence as it was freed from liturgical or dramatic functions, preserving its sacred, solemn character: the power to congregate. The privilege of transmitting, within a frame of silence, on the wavelength of the sublime or the divine.

Something didn’t work when the famous violinist Joshua Bell did an experiment in a Washington, DC subway: incognito Bach partitas played beautifully in tunnels for uninterested listeners who would have paid $50 to hear him onstage. He got pennies – nobody was ready for ecstasy without prior notice. It proved the importance of the concert ritual, the strength of the commandment that forbids the extraction of a musical object from its frame, from its liturgy, without losing it; a law condemning sound to the same fate as coral reef fish whose brilliant colors fade when they are caught. Formality also has an extremely important educational function. The strength of Venezuela’s first youth orchestra 35 years ago would have served for nothing had Maestro Abreu not begun the saga with a formal concert, a basic teaching resource he has perfected over three decades.

A strict, formal appointment with an audience in a hall became the principal instrument in a revolutionary pedagogy – the ultimate justification of all the individual and scattered efforts, the full realization of each person’s role, all crystallized into a single, simple, precise event, scheduled on a regular basis: the concert ritual. Educating musicians simultaneously educated the public, and in return the increasingly keen and attentive listeners strengthened the concert. Within this collective ritual lies everything for music. And outside it? The proliferation of never-ending musical noise without frame or pause; a commercial scrap mill that exerts undeserved authority over precious silence with ubiquitous, disproportionate loudspeakers. Artistically unacceptable technological power – one of the subjects of a strange and interesting book by the Frenchman Pascal Quignard, which we’ll talk about another time: Hatred of Music (La Haine de la musique).

Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland

About pauldesenne

Composer / Writer
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