Wednesday, November 28, 2007

composing silence

There's an odd thing about the last measure of Dvorak's 8th Symphony: no one plays. It's a bar of rest with a fermata over it, for the entire orchestra -- as if to tell the audience, "We'll wait, just clap whenever you feel like!" Of course, the audience won't get that message, unless they happen to be following along in the score. The conductor is not going to beat time for that measure, and the musicians don't have anything to do either, but damp their strings and wait for applause.

It seemed like a strange, sort of John Cage-ish thing for Dvorak to do, composing the silence after the music. Then I noticed today that Schubert's 9th Symphony also ends with a bar of rest, as do Schubert's 4th and 5th. So there must be some explanation - it can't have just been a slip of the pen. I wonder if something about the phrase structure dictated that bar be included - or if the orchestra would cut off that last note differently if it didn't have the empty space following it.

I really have no idea, and it's bugging me.

I like to think that perhaps Dvorak and Schubert just wanted to say, "Well, for the last hour or so, I've organized all the sonorities in this room - I've been controlling your aural experience. It doesn't take some famous dead guy to make sounds into music, though; ultimately what enters your ears, and reaches your mind and heart, is all up to you. Fill this empty measure with whatever sounds move you, or fill it with nothing at all - I leave the choice to you."

It's like when you leave an art museum, and walk out onto a city street. You've just been absorbing dozens of artists' visions of what is beautiful, but suddenly the only one that counts is your own. Which way do you look, what do you notice, how can you tilt your gaze to catch a passing glimmer - how do you frame your own experiences? That's what art asks each of us to decide, and it's a big question. You might need a long, grand pause to figure out a good answer.


Joe Lewis said...

Mahler baked in a very long pause at the end of the 1st movement of his 2nd symphony and it was clearly intended to provide some time for everyone in the given concert hall to spend a little time considering their own mortality.

Anonymous said...

I recently saw Simon Rattle conduct the Berlin Philharmonic on their American tour. I'm not sure whether the silence was notated after "Der Abschied" of Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, but those thirty seconds or so were without doubt one of the ultimate (non?-)musical experiences of my life.

Anonymous said...

On The Beattles' Abbey Road album, side B, "The Long and Winding Road" ends with about 30 seconds of "silence" as the final chord fades out. Could this be the same attempt to focus the listener on the final vibrations?

Matt Heller said...

Thanks for the comments!

It's funny how the most powerful moment is so often just after the music has stopped - all the music you mentioned definitely leaves people with some lingering vibrations.