The year was 1992. Deep in the bowels of “The Tower” at Brock University, Dr. Peter Landey seated himself at the battered Steinway in the front left corner of his bleak, beige classroom.
For the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds he did absolutely nothing. The class sat, watched, anticipated, waited and fidgeted. A suppressed giggle answered the annoyed scrape of a metal chair leg on the institutional tile floor.
Once finished, the room erupted in blistering discussion around the definition of music and the roles of composer, performer and audience. Twenty-five years later, after much reading and discussion, my ever-evolving interest in these topics continues to shape my thoughts about teaching, performing, and listening.
Dr. Landey’s performance of John Cage’s 1952 composition 4´33˝, consisting entirely of sounds of disgruntled responses to confusion, was not the first time I experienced the piece. So I had the advantage of context over my fellow students. But it didn’t matter. Each experience is unique. Last time, chickadee descant accompanied the thrum of traffic. Before that it was the crinkling of soft rain on parked car windshields over a pedal point of car tires slithering on wet asphalt.
At its foundation, music is the interplay between the presence and absence of sound, within a prescribed time parameter. Everything else is contextual.
Musical sound is the complex interplay of pitch, timbre, pulse, tempo, dynamics, texture, rhythm, density and articulation. By contrast, the absence of sound in music is relatively simple. It is subject only to the length of its silences and their placement within the musical (sound) line.
Rests are used to provide a moment of pause and to slow the pace of forward movement within a composition. They are also used as an articulation devices. Placing a rest (silence) on either side of a sound (note) effectively accents the sound, not unlike the unexpected guffaw from a reader in a quiet library.
Composers manipulate sound and silence within a specific form such as a folk song, raga or symphony to inject novelty into their music and in this way contribute to the cultural evolution of sound.
Musical forms are often related to cultural practices. This is reflected by the venues in which they are typically performed. Deviations from standardized forms or uses of standardized forms outside of their cultural contexts are often steps along their evolutionary paths.
Various musical forms have evolved and continue to evolve over centuries, across a myriad of cultures, based on how they are used to frame context.
There comes a day for each of my students when I must break the news to them: those notes on the page are not music. They are just ink on a piece of paper. It’s up to the student to turn those markings into something worth listening to.
Music does not exist until it is performed. Composer and performer are co-creators. To be a fully involved member of this co-creative team the performer benefits greatly from understanding the historical, social and personal context within which the composer made creative choices.
So much of that understanding comes from examining the rests and how to play them. Hopefully the performer is sufficiently self-aware of how their own perceptions, technical skills and the circumstances of the performance create an additional context for the composition. After that, the choice of how to co-create the music is up to the performer. In my opinion, as long as performers can account for their choices, their performances are valid, even if I disagree with those choices.
Traditionally, composers learned their craft by apprenticing with seasoned composers. The role of the music teacher is not unlike that of a museum guide. Starting in the front hallway, the student begins to learn the basic practical elements of the craft. As their skills and understanding increase, more doors are gradually opened.
There are wonders from the past and the present. There is the music of different genres from many cultures. New rooms are added all the time, as composers and performers create.
There are always new ways of listening to and thinking about music, always a new perspective, a new context. Each student comes with their own set of strengths and interests. They will choose to simply glance into some of the rooms. Other rooms will grab their interest and they stay there awhile, closely studying each detail.
The joy of teaching is opening the door to each of those rooms for students and watching them learn that, yes, that too is music.
The more closely the student is acquainted with the tools of good musicianship, the more profound and enjoyable their musical listening experience will be, as well.
To learn the language and practice of music, students need an emotionally safe environment where then are free to explore and to make errors as they hone their musical skills. Learning any language is a gradual, long-term process.
They key in all of this is to actively acknowledge the absence of sound as keenly as you do its presence. Like spoken language, musical ability is innate and universal. It ranges from the practical to the poetic. There is a place for everyone along that spectrum. As students develop their musical skills and understanding, they can slip and slide along that spectrum in any direction, at will. But, to truly express and appreciate music they must first learn to listen to silence.