Quantitatively and qualitatively, “the two minutes silence” in Dunblane Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday was a bit of a misnomer. It lasted barely a minute, and rather a noisy minute at that, as the cathedral’s heating system roared away in a valiant effort to keep us all warm. I shouldn’t complain. Nobody fainted, or succumbed to hypothermia. But it made me think; in our modern world, silence is a rare commodity. We are surrounded by noise. Even if, on a windless day, I go to the top of my local mountain, Ben Ledi, at 879 metres (2884 feet), a Corbett aspiring to be a Munro, I can still hear the traffic on the A84.
Some people fear silence. DJs on the radio call silence “dead air”. Dead air is a big no-no and to be avoided at all costs. Often, conversations on air are conducted against a background of fuzzy muzak which does not rest for a crotchet. Even Radio 3, once proud of its aeons of protracted silence, is now wall-to-wall. Scientific documentaries on television, even when discussing anything from quantum physics to cosmology, are all delivered against an unceasing soundscape of portentous musical drivel. Hotel elevators lift you skywards against an endless loop of “elevator music”, just in case these few moments of enforced captivity compel you to stare into an abysmal void of nothingness. Wallpaper music pervades doctors’ and dentists’ surgeries, restaurants, even banks.
I used to think that John Cage’s Four minutes thirty three was nothing more than a wisecrack and a gimmick but now I’m not so sure. I think I would go out of my way to attend a rendition. This work is “performed” by a concert pianist who sits in silence before the keyboard for the duration, as indicated on the tin. The idea of sitting in silence in a concert hall filled to capacity, for just over four and half minutes, I find deeply appealing. Perhaps the performer will prefer a slower tempo and the work will last five minutes. What would the critics say? What would constitute a bad performance? An inattentive audience, lots of coughs, or the pianist taking a fit of the giggles? I checked a performance out on the internet and was amused to discover the work has three movements.
Silence is integral to great music. It both encapsulates it, and infiltrates it. Arvo Part’s Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten, which happens to be the “signature tune” of my current work-in-progress, does not start with the single toll of a bell, but with a rest, and a silence, into which the bell announces its toll. The brief, distilled closing movement of Stravinsky’s last substantial work, Requiem Canticles, is punctuated with silences that are pregnant with meaning. I was once privileged to sit in silence in Abbey Road’s hallowed Studio One while the LSO under Michael Tilson Thomas made a recording of the Brahms Haydn Variations. It must have had something to do with the peculiar acoustic of that space, but the silence that enveloped the orchestra just before each take was more profound than anything I have ever known. Once on the Antarctic Peninsula a group of us took a zodiac into a deserted bay and cut the engine. There was absolute, magical, quietude. Then I remember feeling as much as hearing a low-pitched sinister rumble and seeing an enormous wall of ice calve itself off the shoreline and plunge into the ocean with a deafening roar. We started up the zodiac engine and got out, pronto.
I did achieve a two minutes silence, on Armistice Day. It turned out indeed to be a day of remembrance. I went to the funeral in Clydebank of an old musical friend. I met up with a group of friends with whom I have been playing music for more years than I care to remember. Four of us used to play late Beethoven quartets together. Iain sat on the front desk of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. He was the most naturally gifted violinist I have ever known. But he also happened to be good at mathematics so his life went off on a different tack. I remember four of us went through to the Edinburgh Festival to hear the Amadeus Quartet play Beethoven’s last quartet, Opus 135. Norbert Brainin, Siegmund Nissel, Peter Schidlof, and Martin Lovett. They obligingly autographed Iain’s copy of the first violin part, on the opening page of the last movement, with its portentous and somewhat tongue in cheek statement: Must it be? It must be! It must be! Apparently Beethoven was having a joke about his laundry bill. That slow introduction, Grave, ma non troppo tratto, is punctuated by silences. I remember that in the final rendition of the Op 135’s last quirky theme, played pizzicato, Norbert Brainin nearly played it arco, with the bow. I vividly recall the self-critical look of exasperation on his face.
On November 11th we listened to an ancient recording of Iain playing Elgar’s Sospiri. So sad.