Music at its pinnacle – and this is true of all the arts – is able to tap into silence. Usually silence is awkward. It seems like a breakdown of regular life. Even nature is pretty noisy. But the best art is always closely allied to silence, if for no other reason than that when it’s over we want to be quiet. But listen to GG here, every note is separated by silence, and it comes to an extreme of several seconds of silence (starting around 3:55) that are better than any note you could play:

Or listen to one of my favorite moments ever in music, where Billie Holiday and her old friend Lester Young are being reunited after a strained period. First of all, Billie sounds great, swinging like she did when she was young. Then, Ben Webster comes in with what in any other context would be a perfect solo, handsomely illustrating Whitney Balliett’s description: “In a slow ballad number, Webster’s tone is soft and enormous, and he is apt to start his phrases with whooshing smears that give one the impression of being suddenly picked up by a breaker and carried smoothly to shore.” But out of the blue Pres gets up to solo and plays the greatest blues ever played, simple, full of silence. Maybe there’s been a sexier moment recorded, but I don’t know what beats Billie’s face as she’s listening to her old friend blow something so pure and pleasuring. Various other brilliant solos follow, but it’s like the Iliad and the Odyssey have already been written, and the rest is just derivative variations. I’m only talking about Vic Dickenson, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, and Roy Eldridge.

By the way (this is for my friend Scott), I’ve heard several people call Pres’s solo his epitaph.

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3 Responses to Silence

  1. Uncle Newtie says:

    I’m surprised more people aren’t laughing here:

    Much better than 4’33” is Thomas Hood’s poem:

    There is a silence where hath been no sound,
    There is a silence where no sound may be,
    In the cold grave—under the deep, deep sea,
    Or in wide desert where no life is found,
    Which hath been mute, and still must sleep profound;
    No voice is hush’d—no life treads silently,
    But clouds and cloudy shadows wander free,
    That never spoke, over the idle ground:
    But in green ruins, in the desolate walls
    Of antique palaces, where Man hath been,
    Though the dun fox or wild hyæna calls,
    And owls, that flit continually between,
    Shriek to the echo, and the low winds moan—
    There the true Silence is, self-conscious and alone.

  2. My favorite bit of criticism about the Cage piece: “Still better than Justin Bieber.”

  3. Uncle Newtie says:

    But at least you can turn the Bieber down.

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