The Silent Episode
Updated: Feb 28
My Book/eBook: Electronic and Experimental Music, sixth edition, Routledge 2020.
My Podcast: The Holmes Archive of Electronic Music
My blog for the Bob Moog Foundation.
When I had the idea of doing a podcast about silence in music, specifically electronic music, I imagined that this would be somewhat of a challenge. Calling an episode “the Silent Episode” was the first challenge to the uninitiated listener who discovers the program for the first time. But as you can tell, I stuck with that title, perhaps hoping to build a little intrigue.
The next challenge was finding tracks to play in this episode. So, I have a few parameters that have guided me. First, I am not going to play any tracks that, for whatever reasons, whether intended as a novelty or even a social statement, are entirely silent. Curiously, many folks have thought of that idea. From the Anniversary of World War III by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band in 1968, to the The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan, a satirical LP issued by Stiff Records in 1980 with all silent tracks. There were still more, but you get the idea. For my purposes—the use of intentional silence in electronic music compositions— I needed to explore a little deeper in the archives. A goal was to focus on the instances when silence was used materially, like any other sound.
In general, I chose to eliminate silent breaks or pauses in live performance situations because it was difficult to distinguish intent from spontanaeity. Saying that, I have still included two live tracks in this program. The first, a performance by Cage and Tudor, has silences where they intended them and the second, an improvisation by Musica Elettronica Viva, includes silences that were randomly edited into a recording of a live performance and release on an LP.
I chose not to include those audio drops so familiar to listeners of electronic dance music. You can clearly hear how important those moments are in EDM when the music drops out momentarily and the pulsing rhythm resumes. That is a very familiar use of purposeful silence in electronic music that I’ve not included in this collection of tracks, primarily because it is so a part of the DNA of EDM and is almost always used for the same effect, a dramatic pause in the forward motion of a track before the beat resumes.
To propel my focus on silence, I thought that I needed to view the structure of each composition. I did this by viewing each of the candidate tracks as a sonagram to see where silences were placed within a piece but also to see patterns emerge that were intended by the composer. And from those candidates, I selected the tracks you will hear. While they don’t represent all the possibilities for using silence in composition, I think maybe these are representative examples of what electronic music composers are doing. This proved to be more revealing than I had imagined! For examples, silences long and short can be used to create sensory tension through repetition. Since much of music composition is comprised of rhythm and the linear flow of sound, I found examples where composers have used silence as part of this flow. For example, in the short work by Tetsu Inoue, I counted 293 discrete silences that can be perceived, but the work seems to flow rather continuously.
I will also mention that the work of John Cage has always been a thumb on the scale of works that incorporate chance operations and intentional silence. From his piano music in the 1940s, to his orchestral and chamber works, to his electronic music, he often composed a work so that silence would play a prominent role. And being chance compositions, his incorporation of silence was usually surprising to the listener. So much so as to make the audience feel awkward, perhaps inspiring laughter if not ridicule during his early live performances, one of which is included in this podcast. I’ve included two fairly early works by Cage and his chief collaborator David Tudor plus one interpretation of a Cage work recorded in 2013 that followed a Cage score from 1960 for a radio performance.
The other works in this podcast were selected for various reasons. I wanted to capture the history of composing with silence throughout the span of electronic music, from the early 1950s to the present. We have examples from analog tape music through to digital composition. Another goal was to identify various patterns that take place while composing with silence, and I’ve included notes about these for each track in the playlist on the podcast website.
After studying a host of tracks and analyzing the ways that silence was used, I was able to draw some general conclusions around how composers worked with silence. My view is in no way comprehensive, but captures some general trends I think you can hear in many works.
Different applications of silence in electronic music composition:
As a chance operation governed by a compositional style that includes a form of randomness, ala John Cage. This use of silence is indeed planned, but its outcome is unforeseen while making a composition.
As a planned or composed element, with silent patches being treated as any other sound. The purposeful use of silence has as many functions as the purposeful use of audible tones. For example, if the composer wants to emphasize sounds, they can effectively make them more noticeable by framing them in silence. Or the opposite, where silence dominates a work and sounds are used as the framing device. In each case, I think the composer is, essentially, creating the condition for listening by riveting one’s attention on the isolated characteristics of sound and silence.
A phenomenon that has arisen with digital recording is the use of abject silence, as I like to characterize it. A total drop-off in sound. In some of the early tape works we’ll hear in this podcast, you will notice the presence of tape hiss or turntable rumble when the work has hit a silent spot—an artifact of the technology being used. In the digital works included here, you will notice that a silence becomes the complete and utter absence of any audio signal, a kind of black hole in the recording. The use of this kind of silence approaches a psychological effect, one in which you think maybe something has gone wrong with the recording. But when used in the context of other sounds, it can be new color on the sound artist palette.
The EDM drop sound. A common element found in electronic dance music, where the music suddenly pauses to complete dead silence only to start up again with a section of pulsing rhythm.
The Silent Episode
1. Morton Feldman, “Intersection” (1953) from First Recordings: 1950s (1999 Mode). Feldman, like Cage, had already been a proponent of including silence in his pieces. Feldman was a part of the Project of Music for Magnetic Tape (1951 to 1954), an artist’s collective founded by Cage to explore experiments in magnetic tape music. From this period came several works, the most famous of which was Williams Mix (1952) by Cage. For Williams Mix, Cage commissioned the recording of hundreds of taped sounds by Louis and Bebe Barron and then specified how to splice them together using a daunting 192-page graphical composition created using chance operations. Cage conceived the work for eight tracks of magnetic tape played simultaneously. The other members of the collective, in addition to helping edit Williams Mix, also created some unique works of their own using the same library of sounds. Feldman was one of these composers but took a decidedly different approach than Cage. For Intersection, Feldman used a graphic score composed of a grid, a method he had been testing for various instrumental works such as Intersections No. 1 for Piano (1951). The score could be likened to a sheet of graph paper with one row assigned to each of the eight channels. Each square, or cell, of each row represented a unit of time to be occupied by either a sound or silence. The sounds were assigned only as numbers representing the lengths of tape snippets to be used, thus regulating the duration of individual sounds. The sequence and simultaneity of the audio was dictated by the “intersection” of sounds and silences across the columns of the score. The realization of the piece was left in the hands of Cage and Earle Brown, who assembled the tape segments by following the grid score. The choice of sounds drawn from the tape library was left to the executors of the score. Whereas Cage had not actually specified the use of silence in the score of Williams Mix, Feldman clearly had, and this is evident from the result. Speaking about the piece later, Feldman famously said that he “loathed the sound of electronic music.” He disliked the labor of executing a piece by cutting up magnetic tape and didn’t feel the result was justifiably unique. He also said, “John [Cage] says that experimental music is where the outcome cannot be foreseen. . . . After my first adventure in electronic music, its outcome was foreseen.” 3:24
2. John Cage Variations I from Darmstadt Aural Documents Box 2 – Communication (2012 NEOS). Two Pianos, Electronics, Radio Sets, David Tudor, John Cage. This German disc is part of the Darmstadt Aural Documents projects and features recordings from 1958. This track was of the European premiere of Variations 1 and was recorded at the International Ferienkurse für Neue Musik Darmstadt September 3, 1958. This track is enlightening because it not only contains a work by Cage with purposefully scored silences, albeit by chance operations, but is also a live recording with an audience. You can clearly hear how the audience responds during the silent passages, mostly in their bemusement. Whereas the implied humor was unintentional, I often experienced this phenomenon while seeing a Cage performance. I wanted to include this as an example of what can happen when silence becomes part of a live performance. Chance operations were used to determine the placement and duration of silences. 8:50
3. John Cage, “WBAI” (1960) from Early Electronic And Tape Music (2014 Sub Rosa). Sine wave oscillator, record player, synthesizer, radio. Description of the piece from the score in the Edition Peters catalogue (1962) of Cage's works: “Certain operations may be found impossible e.g., 3 or 4 at once. Let the operator do what he can without calling in assistants.” Chance operations were used to determine the placement and duration of silences. This performance for sine wave oscillator, record player, synthesizer, radio. Not performed by Cage and recorded in 2013 by participants following the score. Originally presented on WBAI (NY) as a solo work scored for performance with Cage's lecture ("Where Are We Going? And What Are We Doing?"). From the comments of the score: “This composition may be used in whole or in part by an operator of machines.” Personnel on this disc include, Square-wave oscillator, Auxiliary Sounds, Radio, Robert Worby; Performer, Langham Research Centre Auxiliary Sounds, Cassette, Open-reel tape, Radio, Iain Chambers; Synthesizer, Auxiliary Sounds, Spoken Word, Philip Tagney; Turntables, Auxiliary Sounds, Open-reel tape, Felix Carey. 7:04
4. John Cage, David Tudor, “Klangexperimente (Sound Experiment)” 1963 from Siemens-Studio Für Elektronische Musik (1998 Siemens Kultur Programm). Interesting collection of tracks by a variety of artists invited to explore the technological possibilities of the early "Studio for Electronic Music" built and run by Siemens since 1956 in Munich and Ulm. In the case of the Cage piece, both Cage and Tudor programmed this work using punch cards, an early computer control device. Chance operations were used to determine the placement and duration of silences. 1:58
5. Henri Pousseur, “Scambi (Exchanges)” (1957) from Panorama Des Musiques Expérimentales (1964 Philips) is an electronic music tape composition by the Belgian composer , realized in 1957 at the Studio di Fonologia musicale di Radio Milano. Pousseur fluidly added silence patches throughout this piece, using them to create tension due to their unpredictable nature. This is an analog recording, so the silences include an abundance of tape hiss. 6:27
6. Ton Bruynèl, “Reflexen (Reflexes)” (1961) from Anthology of Dutch Electronic Tape Music: Volume 1 (1955-1966) (1978 Composer’s Voice). Recorded in Bruynèl private electronic music studio. Another tape work that shows the potential for splicing in silence as a tool of the composer. The silences are carefully added from about the 2:14 to 4:00 mark to underscore the accelerating pace of the music. Note that the original recording has rumble from what sounds like a turntable, plus tape hiss, so the “silences” are not as abject as they are in digital recordings. 4:41
7. MEV (Musica Elettronica Viva), “Spacecraft” from Live Electronic Music Improvised (1970 Mainstream). Performers, Alan Bryant, Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Ivan Vandor, Richard Teitelbaum (Moog Modular synthesizer). The liner notes described the following editing process for this album that includes the random insertion of silent passages within the recorded live tracks: “The tape has been edited and interspersed with silence in accordance with a random number programme to give a representative cross-section of a concert lasting two hours.” 19:50
8. Maggi Payne, “Scirocco” from Crystal (1986 Lovely Music Ltd.). Composed, engineered, performed by Maggi Payne. This beautiful piece of ghostly, haunting sounds is long enough to create an expectation of a continuous soundscape, only to two drop off in two spots to present long silent or nearly silent passages. 10:26
9. Mika Vainio, “In a Frosted Lake” from Aíneen Musta Puhelin = Black Telephone Of Matter (2009 Touch). Produced and recorded in Berlin 2008. This piece seems to be about amplitude and inaudible frequencies, frameworked by silences. There is a pattern of eight peak tones from the start to the end of the piece. In between these peaks are quieter sounds and silences, with a tension that leans toward achieving a silent state. 5:53
10.Giancarlo Mangini, “September 14, 2020, from 4.50a.m. to 5.02a.m. ...and remember what peace there may be in silence” from Electronic Music Philosophy, Vol. 27: Silence (2020 Bandcamp). From the twenty-seventh collection of tracks from the collective known as Electronic Music Philosophy (Tustin, California) came this disc devoted to works composed using silence as a principal technique. In this work, there is a steady pattern of silences from start to finish, but the duration of the silences gradually increases in many instances as the work progresses. 11:38
11.Richard Chartier, “Herein, Then” from Other Materials(2002 3Particles). This disc includes is a compilation of tracks and unreleased works from 1999-2001. Limited to 500 copies. Composed, produced, programmed, and performed by Richard Chartier. As with many of his tracks, Chartier explores the outer reaches of human hearing. Many of the sounds in this track cannot be heard when played on loudspeakers with even moderate background noise. There are actually only two spots of abject, digital silence in this track, although due to the low frequency and amplitude of many of the other electronic tones, you might think there in nothing there. This is a clever, psychological trick. 5:02
12.Marina Rosenfeld, “Formal Arrangement” from Plastic Materials (2009 Room40). Composed and performed by Marina Rosenfeld. Among the various commissions found on this disc is this solo electronic work. A pattern of silences in which 25 evenly-spaced sound events, mostly gong- or bell-like tones, are each followed by a fade and then a discrete, abject silence. 2:35
13.Tetsu Inoue, “Super Digital” from Fragment Dots (2000 Tzadik). Composed, Programmed by Tetsu Inoue. I knew Tetsu and he would probably be embarrassed to know that I counted every conceivable “digital” silence in this special piece of music. There are 293 of them that I think one can perceive. Many are short, but because silence is an important structural component of this work, I thought it warranted a fresh listen. The longest of these silences is but 2.5 seconds. The shortness of all the tones, either audible or silent, works together to form a unity. 3:39
14.Miki Yui, “Balloon” from Small Sounds (1999 BMP Lab). Composed, engineered, and performed by Miki Yui. Recorded in Cologne, Germany. The composer wrote, “small sounds are to merge and fuse with your acoustic environment—please play in a transparent level; in different atmosphere.” In this piece, the silences are placed in the middle of sounds to break up an otherwise continuous noise. 2:57
Opening background music:
Mooshzoom, “Silence” from Electronic Music Philosophy, Vol. 27: Silence (2020 Bandcamp). From the twenty-seventh collection of tracks from the collective known as Electronic Music Philosophy (Tustin, California) came this disc devoted to works composed using silence as a principal technique.
Plus clips from the following as examples: Amelie Lens, “Resonance” from Contradiction (2017 Second State); Nora En Pure, “Norma Jean” from Come With Me (2013 Enormous Tunes).
Opening and closing sequences voiced by Anne Benkovitz.
Additional opening, closing, and other incidental music by Thom Holmes.
See my companion blog that I write for the Bob Moog Foundation.