Sound and Silence

Dmitri Shostakovich, String Quartet #8 in c minor, Op. 110, 4th movement

Tuesday evenings, when I stay downtown in Toronto in order to attend the SCA meeting, I have a bit of a ritual, developed over the past few months, of listening to Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony on the way home.  It is almost precisely the length of the GO train ride from Union to Burlington, such that the last, faint notes on the celesta are sounding right about the time I step off.  In fact, the chime of the train as it pulls into the station, if it’s timed right, feels as if it belongs to the symphony.  I recently acquired the new Andris Nelsons/Boston Symphony recording of the work, and the last couple of weeks I have been listening to that one instead of the Rudolf Barshai/WDR recording that’s part of the full set of the Shostakovich symphonies that I own.

One of the first things you notice when you have gotten accustomed to a particular recording, regardless of the piece you’re listening to, is the differences–not just in the conductor’s choices in tempo or volume, but in the sound landscape of the recording.  This includes things such as the timbre of the instruments, the effect the hall where the recording is being made has on the depth of sound, and–if the recording is a live one–unintended noises by the audience or the musicians.  In the Barshai recording, there is a point early in the first movement, during a woodwind passage, where you can hear a sizable portion of the orchestra turn the page of their score.  That sound is not there in the Nelsons recording, and to me, sitting on the train, it felt as if something were missing.  My brain had come to expect that sound as part of the work, even though I doubt that Shostakovich intended it to be.

I mused:  I wonder if any composer had ever included page turns as part of the actual sound of a piece?  Plenty of the more experimental 20th century composers have included “found sounds” as part of their works. (Shostakovich, too–one of his early symphonies includes a part for a factory whistle, later symphonies include parts for whip, and in the 13th quartet, the musicians are instructed to strike their instruments as a percussive effect).   This is where a friend brought up John Cage’s 4’33”.  This is perhaps Cage’s most famous (and most joked-about) work–one where the musician or musicians do not play a single note.  This is, quite literally, the “sound of silence.”  Depending on the interpretation, the only sounds made by the musician or musicians have included things such as opening and closing a piano…and page turns.  For the rest of the piece, for the audience, at least, the music is whatever ambient sounds might be heard–thus, a person in the audience who shuffles their program or coughs becomes, in effect, part of the performance.

(Here is a recording of one performance of the piece.)

But this intrigued me further.  As someone who has not only listened to music, but also has played it and sung it, there is another side to the performance of any piece:  the internal state of the musician in reading and then interpreting a score.  In thinking about the Cage piece, I had not ever considered the mindset of the musician “performing” the piece–only that of the audience.  I was curious, then, to know more about 4’33”.  Was there actually a score?  Is there a key signature?  A time signature? A metronome marking? What clef was used?  All of these have an internal impact on the musician reading the score.  The act of performance for a musician who has a written rest in a score is different than for a musician who is simply sitting passively, not reading anything.  (This brings up interesting thoughts about the mindset of musicians who play instruments that commonly have the melody line in orchestral works, vs. those who are usually “supporting players” and may frequently end up counting rests, but that’s another tangent to explore.).

So I set off to find out what I could about 4’33” and its score.  I first Googled for sheet music for the piece, where I found a number of versions or arrangements.  One “arrangement” for piano is in 7/4, in C# (or a# minor)–seven sharps–before shifting to G♭ (six flats) for the second movement. This arrangement is full of whole rests, has clearly defined bars, a marking that the quarter note = 100, and also contains dynamic markings, trills, and a marking for pizzicato.  I figured out fairly quickly that this rather silly version was not the actual score.   The Wikipedia article  confirmed this, listing the following versions:

  • The original Woodstock manuscript (August 1952): conventional notation, dedicated to David Tudor. This manuscript is currently lost. Tudor’s attempt at re-creating the original score is reproduced in Fetterman 1996, 74.
  • The Kremen manuscript (1953): graphic, space-time notation, dedicated to Irwin Kremen. The movements of the piece are rendered as space between long vertical lines; a tempo indication is provided (60), and at the end of each movement the time is indicated in minutes and seconds.[34] Edition Peters No. 6777a. Kremen was given the score by Cage on June 5, 1953, for his 28th birthday. The score was later purchased for the Museum of Modern Art by Henry R. Kravis in honor of his wife, Marie-Josée Drouin, the museum’s president.[33]
  • The so-called First Tacet Edition: a typewritten score, lists the three movements using Roman numbers, with the word “TACET” underneath each. A note by Cage describes the first performance and mentions that “the work may be performed by any instrumentalist or combination of instrumentalists and last any length of time.” Edition Peters No. 6777 (out of print).
  • The so-called Second Tacet Edition: same as the First, except that it is printed in Cage’s calligraphy, and the explanatory note mentions the Kremen manuscript. Edition Peters No. 6777 (i.e., it carries the same catalog number as the first Tacet Edition) Additionally, a facsimile, reduced in size, of the Kremen manuscript, appeared in July 1967 in Source 1, no. 2:46–54; the First Tacet Edition is described in Nyman 1974, 3, but it is not reproduced in that book.

There is some discrepancy between the lengths of individual movements of the premiere performance, specified in different versions of the score. The Woodstock printed program specifies the lengths 30″, 2′23″ and 1′40″, as does the Kremen manuscript, and presumably the original manuscript had the same indications. However, in the First Tacet Edition Cage writes that at the premiere the timings were 33″, 2′40″ and 1′20″. In the Second Tacet Edition he adds that after the premier a copy has been made for Irwin Kremen, in which the lengths of the movements were 30″, 2′23″ and 1′40″. The causes of this discrepancy are not currently understood, the original manuscript being still lost.”

So, according to this, the original score used conventional notation.  The Kremen manuscript, which is the earliest to survive, uses what is described as “proportional notation.”  A MoMA exhibition catalogue online shows this version (at least the first page), as well as other pieces written in the same way.  It is fairly clear that, except perhaps initially, Cage did not want the musician to think in terms of time signatures, key signatures, or counting out the rests, or to do any action intentionally.  It brings up the question:  what is the interior role of the musician in this piece?  There has to be a certain amount of timekeeping involved (and the original marking of quarter note=60 implies that the musician is silently counting so as to know when to end the three movements.  In the video I posted above, the musician is using an electronic timing device rather than counting.  So the musician does have a performance role in dictating the length of the piece, and during those three movements, he or she is “reading” the score (even if it lacks key or time signature) in terms of time passing.

Cage is, of course, one extreme in the use of silence in classical music (or any music).  Silence is probably one of the most powerful tools for any composer, just as it is for speakers and actors, for poets and writers, and for artists. (Silence for an artist is in the use of “white space” or void).   Being able to pause, to let no sounds issue forth, and to let the silence speak for a moment or two has just as much impact as the loudest chord.  In that moment of silence, the listener leans forward, hearing what is not heard or said.  One of the reasons why people often use filler words such as “um” or “ah” when speaking is that silence is uncomfortable; we wrongly think that we need to keep control over the flow of words and to keep speaking in order to hold the listener’s attention.  But being able to use silence and pauses well is actually is to be able to exert exquisite control, because silence commands attention.

That brings me back to Shostakovich again.  Thinking about silence in music brought to mind one particular moment in the 8th Quartet’s fourth movement, one I noticed the very first time I listened to the work, before I knew what precisely was happening. It’s a bar of complete silence that says more than any combination of notes could possibly say.

(If you don’t have your complete set of Shostakovich Quartets handy and ready to cue up, here’s a video of the Borodin Quartet playing the 8th.)

The 8th is Shostakovich’s most famous quartet and is believed now to be autobiographical,  written when he was possibly considering suicide.   It’s chock full of the use of the four note motif (D, E♭ C, B – or DSCH, representing Shostakovich’s first initial and the first three letters of the German spelling of his last name) that Shostakovich uses to identify himself.  This motif is paired with quotations from several of his own works and a few from others. This is particularly apparent in the fourth movement. The movement begins as the first violin holds a faint, sustained note while the other three instruments play a rapid three-note figure that has been likened to everything from gunfire to the midnight knock on the door of shadowy figures coming to arrest someone. (Shostakovich knew that one well; several of his friends heard that knock and were never heard from again). After the “knocking” figure, the first violin then plays the DSCH motif. The second violin, viola, and cello then play a forceful passage in unison while the violin holds an A#, the drone just audible behind the other three instruments.  The three note figure occurs again, the first violin continues to hold the drone faintly, and quietly, almost falteringly, the viola and cello play the DSCH motif.  Then, a quotation–not his own, this time, but a song that was played at Lenin’s funeral called “Exhausted by the hardships of prison.”  Immediately following that, a quotation from Shostakovich’s doomed opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District–the one that Stalin walked out of, the one that was denounced in Pravda soon thereafter.  And then, the three note motif.

The drone is gone.

There is a full bar and a half of silence.

The silence amplified by the fact that each time we’ve heard that three-note motif before, there has been the faint presence of the drone of the first violin, as if something is hanging on by a mere thread.  Suddenly, it’s gone….and for six counts the listener hangs in suspense until the first violin repeats a bit of “Exhausted by the hardships of prison” over the three-note motif, this time played quietly, and then holds a D while the other instruments repeat the three-note motif one last time.  The movement ends as the first violin plays D, E♭ C….pause….and only at the end, the full D, E♭ C, B figure.

To me, the climax of the entire quartet is that bar and a half of silence.

…The very first time Shostakovich has done this in a quartet.

And to me, it’s clear what that silence represents.

But the quartet does not end there. Life goes on.  As it did for Shostakovich. And how it goes on is there, too…faintly, perhaps, at first, truncated, but eventually, made whole, albeit quiet, concealed.  There are more full rests in the final movement of the quartet, which as Wendy Lesser points out are a “palpable presence” in the melody, which, unlike the fragmented version in the first movement, is now allowed to complete, bringing a degree of closure.  Lesser notes that in the final movement, the four-note signature motif seems to now be less personal:  “The here-I-am feeling has been dimmed and submerged; the Song of Myself turned into a kind f Notes from Underground, an expression on behalf of the damaged and oppressed, voiced by an idiosyncratic, solitary figure who nonetheless speaks for the rest of us.”

Silence also performs another purpose: it unifies both performer and listener. Those who are playing have an internal narrative as they interpret the music, and the listener has one as well, and the places they intersect are in the moments of silence.

John Cage said about 4’33,”There is no such thing as silence.”  I agree, but in a different way.  Silence–the lack of notes, the lack of paint, the lack of words–the space between–can speak powerfully.  But one must listen to understand.