By Catherine DiMercurio
Sometimes silence is symphony and in-between places are the world.
I’m not sure how I finally decided that I would go to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra instead of saying it’s something I should do, some day. Perhaps it was when I stumbled across the fact that a world-renowned violinist would be playing Henry Ford’s Stradivarius at an upcoming show. Though I’m not a musician, I’ve heard the lore of Stradivarius from a “civilian” perspective and have long been intrigued. Plus, the program also included a selection from West Side Story, which simply seemed like a whole lot of fun.
Atmosphere, Music, and Memory
I didn’t pay much attention to the other items on the program until my date and I were seated and I had a moment to flip through the hefty booklet featuring musician bios and programs for the whole series of shows this season. To be honest, I was a little star-struck by the building’s interior, so sophisticated and opulent I could barely focus on the glossy pages in my hand. The pale columns and tasteful Greek-looking embellishments contrasted in just the right way with the red velvet upholstery of the narrow seats. The whole affair seemed both extravagant and restrained. Up in the highest balcony, I felt almost dizzy. This could have been in part because we failed to leave ourselves enough time to eat before the 8 p.m. performance, and the peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich I’d had in my cubicle at 11:30 a.m. had worn off long off long before.
Sitting there, absorbing the atmosphere the same way I take in beach air. I felt taut and eager. I wondered if the musicians felt that way too, waiting to take the stage to tune up.
My children began playing in their school’s orchestra in the fourth grade; my daughter is a violinist, my son, a cellist. I do not play an instrument, I cannot read music. The reasons for this seem largely economic, and therefore, unfair, but much of life works out this way and you can’t really dwell on it too much. When I was very young, my grandmother had begun to teach me the piano. We had a piano in the basement of our home where I practiced. I don’t remember if I loved to practice or hated it. I remember the music books, and how friendly they seemed, eager to teach me how to plunk out the notes to “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” My family moved, though, to a smaller place and we did not take the piano with us. Later, in fifth grade, when band started in my middle school, I wanted to try out the instruments, maybe play the saxophone. But the financial difficulties my family was experiencing at the time made it impossible to acquire an instrument. In my adult life, I’ve tried to teach myself the piano again, with an inexpensive keyboard and a beginner’s book. My daughter also showed me some chords on the ukulele. I wanted to learn Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” but I could not figure out the way the chords, and a strumming pattern I was unable to grasp, worked together to create the song. I’ve often thought of taking piano lessons, but the cost combined with my previous failures have intertwined and amplified, creating what I know is only the illusion of an obstacle. But it still feels like an obstacle.
The Thrill of Anticipation
So when the musicians took the stage and began to warm up, the thrill I felt was that of an outsider peering into a secret, coveted world. And at the same time, I was here, with all of these other people, all feeling everything they had brought with them from the outside world into this space. We all waited together, a collective holding of breath that only gathered like a wave as the musicians tuned their instruments.
The combination of the knowledge and skill possessed by the musicians, along with the obvious communion among them, always leaves me feeling a sense of bittersweet love and longing. After a few words from conductor Leonard Slatkin, the first notes sounded, and I sighed. My right hand was taken by my date, a man I was thrilled to be sharing this experience with. I closed my eyes for a moment, to listen, to feel, with focus.
The program opened with a premiere of a new composition, Dune Acres, by Kristin Kuster. That the composer was a woman was something Slatkin observed was still a rarity, though things were changing, he told us hopefully. The piece was stunning. What I remember most was the second movement, where the deep, graceful notes of a harp seemed to form the backbone of the piece.
Sound and Silence
And then Slatkin introduced John Cage’s 4’33”. To this point, I was unfamiliar with the work of this experimental composer. Slatkin described what we were about to hear: four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. What? Slatkin didn’t speak extensively about Cage’s intent, but he described Cage’s interest in what happens in the space between the notes, where the reverberation ends and just before the next note sounds. He spoke of the interaction between the musicians and the audience, and he quipped about the sounds we might hear—most notably, from the previous night’s performance, people coughing.
It began without much fanfare, because, well, it’s silence. It is a peculiar thing, sitting in a room filled with hundreds of people doing their best to be completely silent. Well, some of them were. There were the whisperers behind us, who frustrated me. I wanted them to take it seriously. Cage’s piece didn’t have the feel of a colossal, sophisticated joke, although I supposed one could take it that way. But I think Cage was calling us to awareness, he was calling us to participation, to comraderie. In a way, I sensed that Cage perhaps intended with this piece to quietly erase the boundary that I had been feeling when I walked into Orchestra Hall, the boundary between musician and non-musician. We were all in this together. I listened to the gentle, relaxed breathing of the man at my side, felt him caress the inside of my wrist with the warm stroke of his fingers. There were moments where no one coughed or whispered, and traffic noises from outside intruded. The rustling of fabric as people fidgeted carefully seemed unobtrusive, a feathery component of this symphony of ambient noise. We had been offered the arguably rare opportunity to be completely present in this singular time and place, participating as individuals and as community. Slatkin had noted that the piece would seem longer than four and a half minutes, but to me, it went by quickly. It was a peaceful thrill of ebb and flow, this silence.
We were brought out of this trance with a few words from Slatkin. The violinist, Kimberly Kaloyanides Kennedy, took the stage with the famed Stradivarius. I don’t have the technical music vocabulary to describe her performance, only ordinary words poorly employed and applied to the sublime—breathtaking, exquisite, magnificent. Following this performance of Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Op. 14, was a brief intermission and a romp through the “symphonic dances” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.
In the aftermath of the evening though, I kept turning back to Cage’s piece, this hushed orchestration of the sounds around us. I thought about what Slatkin had noted about the spaces between the notes. I’ve considered this notion in the past in terms of spoken and written words, in terms of all that is implied within that liminal space, that expanse between syllables. We find ourselves often in such liminal spaces – the places in-between observed phases of our lives, of our relationships – and we often feel compelled to take note of them exclusively within the context of what came before, what was to follow, or what might come next. We see them as the end of beginnings, as the beginnings of ends.
How luxurious to be allowed the space to see them for what they are, symphonies in their own right.
2 thoughts on “On Silence, Symphony, and Liminality”
You get the Cage piece! When I taught music composition, this was one of my favorite works to get through with students. And Cage, as a 20th century thinker, was so deep an insightful. During a century that saw us gain the ability to see millions of light years away, and down to the level of an atom, there isn’t any other piece of music that illustrates both of these advances so well at the same time. We exist in the middle of things both large and small, and you sometimes need to experience that through removing yourself from the normal ways that we experience the world. A concert hall filled with people breathing together and your ears becoming more and more sensitive is a beautiful way to do this – and to even lead you to questioning what is music and sound itself!
Joshua — thank you for your comment. It’s quite a piece — with all its attendant philosophies — to work through with students; they were lucky to have you expose them to this. I completely agree with what you said about removing ourselves from the normal ways of experiencing the world in order to gain new perspectives. And the concert hall is a really accessible way to do this.
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