Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Picturing Silence: interpreting the musical experience of silence through visual representation

If, as the works of John Cage suggest, there is “no such thing as silence,” then what are the markers that show us we are experiencing silence? - what are the performative cues during musical silence? - what are the auditory and visual bookends of silence in performance, i.e. what anticipates and follows silence?

Guy Livingston

My dissertation will examine the markers for silence. The introduction will discuss the role of silence on the broader level of natural sounds and pre-industrial environments; zooming in to human constructs and the built environment (architecture); narrowing in further to musical experience and the context of silence; and then focusing specifically on piano performance.

This proposal zeroes in on a micro element— the fundamental musical unit, as if viewed from a particle physicist’s perspective— of silence. In each of these examples, the context creates a situation (not directly specified by the composer) in which certain events occur and silence is experienced in specific ways by the listener. 

Musical silence is usually notated as a simple rest (between notes), the white space (between movements) or a double bar (at the end of a composition). These notations do not indicate the spatial context, the acoustics, nor the physicality of the performer. We take silence for granted. And yet, context is everything. Social mores, architectural elements, body movements, and group dynamics affect every musical silence.

Contextual evidence tells us when to "hear" silence. Performed in another context, by different performers, or with different cultural positionality, the experience would not be the same. The silence is delineated and described by its markers. The specific situation (LaBelle) leads to the framing (Littlefield) of silence. 

This project aims to identify and label the markers for silence, which I posit exist in three --sometimes overlapping-- categories: visual, architectural, and musical. What, then, are the visual (performer, gesture, theatrical, presentation) and musical (score notation, performance practice) and architectural (physical, borders, walls, materials, empty space, implied space, resonance, acoustics) markers for silence? 

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