Saturday, 26 February 2011

Silence | Music+Painting | Time Heals All Wounds, Time Heals All Tunes

I’ve posted this video on Silkworms before, during the Heathrow Airport debacle that ruined poetry editor Phil Brown’s Christmas – I figured then that Peter Broderick’s take on airport travel was more compassionate than, I don’t know, Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. But I’m posting it again because it also represents the most thrilling use of one of the most thrilling tropes available to the intelligent musician that I came across all of last year. Namely, a moment of absolute silence. A moment of absolute stillness that forms the centrepiece of a song – three minutes and thirty six seconds in, to be precise – and which has a profound impact on how one listens to what comes after it, and how one remembers what came before. Over to Peter:

There are a couple reasons why this particular silence smashed me between the eyes (insofar as silence can smash) so effectively the first time I heard it. The fact it follows immediately on from another extraordinary play on dynamics, the whispered refrain of ‘time heals all tunes.’ The fact I was lucky enough to be watching Peter live at the Union Chapel in Islington, a space which doesn’t so much host silence as gather it up, rolling it around its stonework and shadows until it has swelled to three times its original size.

But mostly because it is what it is, a seam of silence cut into the melodic core of a song. That is, a contemporary manifestation of an only-ever-half-expected spirit which has haunted pretty much every genre of music there has ever been, from Gregorian chants to jazz improvisations, blues rhythms to trance anthems – you know, when that breakdown happens, the one that goes beep beep beep beep beepbeepbeepbeep beeeeeeeeeeeeeeep *half-second’s silence* crash crash everybody’s dancing aren’t these narcotics splendid crash crash etc. etc. There’s an excellent piece, indeed, about ‘how a pause can be the most devastating effect in music’ over at Slate magazine, which does a decent job of tracing a chain of creative silences from Handel’s hallelujah chorus through to John Cage’s 4’33” via Wagner and, best of all, Debussy in Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, within which ‘the faun’s burgeoning dream is punctuated by a sultry silence, like a breath held in reverie.’ Oh my.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Jan Swafford’s article is its entry-point, though, a Vermeer painting entitled Girl Asleep at a Table centring on an empty doorway, a ‘void’ that was originally inhabited by a man who was quickly painted out. ‘Vermeer understood the power of withheld information,’ Swafford suggests. ‘Composers have a similar understanding that in shaping sound, a nothing can be just as expressive as a something.’ Let’s have a look at Vermeer’s painting:

Swafford’s point is a good one, but it doesn’t go far enough – Vermeer’s painting is full of voids, from the creamy jug in the foreground to the decoration on the back of the chair, like a torn-out hole. And when one acknowledges that these solidities also represent voids of sorts, Swafford’s reflection that ‘nothing be just as expressive as a something’ suddenly appears shortsighted – surely nothing can itself be ‘a something’, and vice versa. A constant exchange and inversion of something and nothing, nothing and something seems to me to be what generates the peculiar serenity in, say, Morandi’s still lifes, surely in their way inheritors of Vermeer’s peacefully domestic atmospherics (not to mention their overt focus on, well, jugs – see his Milkmaid, for example).

Indeed, Morandi’s work represents proof of the fact that painted silences – white space, basically – can sometimes represent the densest part of a composition, in that he has a habit of plonking a big goddam wall right in the middle of a street-view piece and working panoramas around it. Here is space and silence as obscuring, as deafening even. Silence isn’t necessarily withheld information, it can also be a glut of it.


What say we draw upon these brief reflections on painting and music in order to reread some of the great spaces, pauses and silences in literature…

Tristram Shandy

The moment of silence in ‘Hello To Nils’ is so effective because it cuts a swathe of emotional intensity through lyrics that are enjoyably low-key on either side – ‘old news: I like the food here’ before, ‘hello hello hello hello’ after – whilst at the same time abruptly halting a melody that is only just beginning to resolve itself into something genuinely affecting. This latter effect is not unlike one of Swafford’s more effective examples, Haydn’s ‘surprise symphony’, what with

his ability to convince you he’s nice and predictable, while he actually sneaks around to kick you in the pants, and the presence in a slow movement of a pause that ends a rather dinky little tune. As soon as we’ve concluded we know how this tune works, things go boom.

I recommend listening to it over at Slate. It’s the antithesis of Broderick’s technique, but a product of almost identical motivations. Consider, in the light of this, not necessarily the lead-up to Sterne’s infamous marbled page, his most elegant pause-for-thought – ‘you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) that the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths that still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one’ – but its extraordinary aftermath: ‘My nose has been the making of me’ etc.


You want a literary equivalent of Debussy’s pausing faun, written into the very cadence of a sentence, physically tangible whether you read it in your head or with your mouth? How about the tiny silences of this:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

The Dream Songs

You want a literary equivalent of Morandi’s big fucking walls? Try reading the following as though you would read, I don’t know, smoothed iambic pentameter:

–Black hair, complexion Latin, jewelled eyes
downcast…The slot beside her       feasts…What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?

See, I always used to read these Tab­-like holes in the Dream Songs as gashes, as chunks of language that’d been taken out of Henry. But now I see Berryman has placed them there, as extra obstacles besides the awkwardness, futility and so on that haunt Henry’s experience. Berryman is making life difficult for Henry at the conception, rather than the expression stage. It’s all gloriously self-defeating, rather than self-lacerating.


Or is it? Is it not also therapeutic? As Peter Broderick whispers, time heals all wounds. Time heals all tunes. Silence heals wounds. Spaces heal tunes.

E.E. Cummings is capable of sculpting a ‘body’s idiom’ in a way his peers are not because he composes ‘curves’ out of ‘yellows, angles or silences.’ He is repairing the failures of his prolix predecessors by allowing for the spaces beyond which, ironically, ‘nothing is.’ He is changing and saving himself:

some ask praise of their fellows
but i being otherwise
made compose curves
and yellows, angles or silences
to a less erring end)

myself is sculptor of
your body’s idiom:
the musician of your wrists;
the poet who is afraid
only to mistranslate

a rhythm in your hair,
(your fingertips
the way you move)

painter of your voice—
beyond these elements

remarkably nothing is....

It is this concept that makes Broderick’s use of silence so breathtaking, I think. For having established that it is precisely time – or perhaps time stopping – that changes art for the better, that heals, that forges lasting friendships, he stops himself for a couple of seconds. And sits. And listens. And in doing so, changes his song from within, in ways he couldn’t possibly enact from the irrelevant silences without.

Sam Kinchin-Smith
Music Editor

1 comment:

  1. Hello
    Very interesting post with an excellent song by Peter Broderick - thank you. Exhibition at Shandy Hall later this year based on that marbled page. Glad you showed the first edition with the page on [ 169 ].