Silence is an instrument.
The ecstatic reality of an ensemble that has learned how to effectively “play” silence is one that can’t be described by words. Modern composers, often laughed at, have played with silence not only as a tool among tools, a note within notes, but as an instrument in an of itself. Whether it’s Cage’s 4’33”, Klein’s “Monotone-Silence Symphony”, or even Schulhoff’s inexplicable “In Futurum” movement from Fünf Pittoresken, these pieces (and these composers/artists) boast an almost cult-like following.
A musician able to harness silence with intention and precision has literally learned to master half of their craft. For every sound there is a corresponding silence. Each breath, each shuffle, each emptied spit valve or slide, each turned page carries with it sounds that we don’t recognize as inherently musical, but they are. An ensemble that works with the keen awareness of an organism recognizes even these sounds as part of the music they are creating.
When an ensemble caters to the acoustics of a hall, playing to silence in a way that a live and resonant hall allows, the difference in the impact of the music is truly breathtaking. As a conductor signals the end of a fermata, hovering over the caesura while the tension rises in the audience and players and every last overtone rings from the ceiling to the walls to the floors, squeezed for every moment of its potency like precious oil from stone, there is a noticeable shift in the energy of a room, the moment silence happens. A good conductor, and a masterful ensemble, capitalizes on this moment of high drama whenever it occurs. It speaks of exultation, pain, anger, victory, sadness, despair, hope… only an ensemble that works together, that works as one organism, can express more than the simple sounds and lack thereof. Only a single entity can harness the power of that moment to express an emotion so powerful that time seems to stop.
So often much of our language around music consists of how and where sound interacts with silence. Do we ever truly dissect how our communication is thus, too? Cells communicate without sounds, organs function interdependently while remaining (relatively) silent. It’s a beautiful masterwork of teamwork and cooperation that relies on intuition and instinct.
As an ensemble learns to function as a single organism, it learns this silent communication. It learns how to play with or without the conductor, knowing instinctively where the heartbeat of a piece lies. It learns to play with dynamics that match not only the character of the piece, but the character of the ensemble itself. Most of all, an ensemble learns to play with silence, each member understanding that every moment of a collaboration is an intentional one that requires the utmost respect to both the sound and the silence the group is creating.
And the moment that an ensemble achieves it, much like the point of high-drama detailed above, is tangible, real, and a point of awesome accomplishment. Accomplishment that is available to every ensemble not only on the basis of individuals’ skill at their instruments, but also heart and desire to create something truly monumental.