Enjoy the silence

Today I stole an interesting link from Coudal about the removal of layers of ambient sound from a space as a kind of subtractive symphony.

Living in a house with three small children, I ponder silence as an abstraction, without empirical evidence. If nature abhors a vacuum, children abhor noiselessness. It’s instinctual, the reptile cortex responding to a threat of nothingness. Clear a space of quiet in my home and some child will yelp for no good reason. Like dangling meat in front of an animal that’s just eaten. It’ll still lunge.

But our response to silence is more complicated than that, of course.

Alex Ross, in his fantastic survey of 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, explains Stravinsky’s innovation in syncopation (which is essentially putting silence where the rhythm suggests it shouldn’t be):

As the composer-critic Virgil Thomson once explained, the body tends to move up and down in syncopated or polyrhythmic music because it wants to emphasize the main beat that the stray accents threaten to wipe out. “A silent accent is the strongest of all accents,” he wrote. “It forces the body to replace it with a motion.” (Think of Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley,” with its “bomp ba-bomp bomp [oomph!] bomp bomp.”)

That concept makes a great deal of sense to me. The body physically desires to fill in the rhythmic gaps that music opens up. You may think you can only shake your booty to four-on-the-floor, but in fact silence, judiciously deployed, is just as effective at getting you going. In fact, more so: it’s cognitively unsettling to hear silence where a beat should be. Don’t just stand there, replace it with a motion!

And now, silence.

One response to “Enjoy the silence”

  1. Darren says :

    I completely agree. You see it used all the time.
    I once submitted a patent disclosure to make music sound more ‘live’ by slightly mistiming some of the beats by a tiny (but different) amount each time. It seemed to work when I tried it out.
    I also like how pop music often strip out the beats for a few seconds completely, to build up the tension, before they hit back in again. I’m thinking of the breakout bit in Born Slippy. It goes all calm and synthy for a while, but you’re almost cowering antiicapting the thumb thumb thumb to come back in. Even Britney does it in Crazy, where she goes ‘Stop!’ The Beastie Boys do it about 200 times per song.