Archive for August, 2014

A canvas of silence

Posted in Bent Notes Column with tags , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2014 by Todd


Cacophony, crude noise, riotous momentum: these are a few of the elements great rock music is made of. But over the last decade, with the rise of new recording techniques and file sharing technology, one ingredient crucial to all music-even the bloodiest of tooth and claw- seems to have been cast from rock’s genetic mixing pot.
Silence is often thought to be the very antithesis of music, the polar opposite of sound itself. But just as scientists have learned that the atoms that make up apparently solid matter are shot through with empty space, silence can be seen as a crucial component of music, one to be experimented with and used the same as any other element.
Good music, like good comedy, depends on timing, on those beats and measures between the noise and the punchline that allow the listener to grasp the intent, the full force of the composition. Unfortunately, that lesson seems to have been lost on many of today’s artists.
Tune in to any “modern rock” station these days and what you’ll be greeted with is an undifferentiated blare with little sense of depth or dynamics, every sound pushed to the forefront in an attempt to overwhelm listeners with sheer sonic heft and brawn. The result is often a flat, lifeless approximation of one of the world’s most enduring art forms, with little of the excitement or sense of discovery conveyed by the best rock music throughout the years.
This seems, in part, to be a result of the “loudness wars” that have plagued the music business recently, with many producers choosing to churn out highly compressed tracks devoid of the dynamic contrasts crucial to an exciting listening experience. But there also seems to be something more basic at work, a flattening out of musicians’ sense of what is possible in both composition and performance.
Maybe it’s a symptom of today’s rock musicians listening to a far more restricted range of music than their predecessors. In the 1960s and ‘70s rock artists often cited classical and jazz artists as among their primary influences. And indeed, many musicians from those genres played with silence in ways that were both innovative and emotionally wrenching. Claude Debussy, one of the most highly regarded composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is famous for his belief that “Music is the space between the notes.”Jazz trumpet player Miles Davis, as influential a musician as we’ve seen in the last 70 years, created an entire style based around dramatic pauses and moments of eerie, desolate quiet.
The early Delta Blues musicians also used silence to dramatic, and often menacing, effect, a lesson that carried through to the British Invasion bands of the 1960s. The Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, one of rock’s greatest rhythm masters, once stated, “A painter’s got a canvas. The writer’s got reams of empty paper. A musician has silence.”
Even the early progenitors of heavy metal understood the value of the dramatic pause. Listen closely to Led Zeppelin tracks such as “Whole Lotta’ Love” or Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and you’ll realize these musicians’ influences went far beyond the basic rock of the day.

From Debussy’s innovative harmonies to Sabbath’s crushing magma rock, each of these artists seemed to tap into a great well of natural forces that recognized quiet and solitude as necessary resources of power and insight. Spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation have always recognized the need for silence. As that realization has receded from our world, it’s also receded from our art.
Of course, there are still bands that understand how to thread moments of hushed calm into their music. From post rock acts such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Dirty Three and Tortoise to progressive punk pioneers Fugazi and extreme noise experimentalists Swans, artists operating outside the mainstream seem far more comfortable with the musical psychology of quiet/loud fluctuation.

When our ancient ancestors first began banging rocks and sticks together, they cut the silence into patterns that affected the mind and body in strange and unpredictable ways. I, for one, hope there’s more artists out there who have both the courage and good musical sense to let what they don’t play speak as loudly as their grandest noise.