October 23  2020

It’s said that anyone wanting an answer out of the Buddha has to ask three times before getting an answer.  Until then, they are met with silence.

Jason Rosewell at UnSplash

Practising this makes you carefully consider your answers, although it might get you fired pretty quickly.

We are fascinated with silence; it’s virtually impossible to achieve.

But what a goal! The space between noises, notes and words seems to contain every sound–much like the shade white is said to contain every colour, and yet is simply white.  But as opposed to flattening your senses, silence opens all the receptors.

In the Duo for Violin & Piano by R. Murray Schafer, we hear the forceful piano chords, the gaping silence afterwards…it’s like someone jarring silence after someone slams a door.  What happened?  What’s going to happen? What are you expecting?

This recording by Duo Concertante won a JUNO Award for the composer in 2011.

Timothy Steeves & Nancy Dahn – Duo Concertante

Silence defines the sound around it.  It’s the absence of sound between percussive noises that decides what kind of beat you’re going to hear: raggae, funk, salsa, metal, a waltz….you name it.

Consider the breath-stopping silence in Debussy’s “L’Après-Midi d’un Faune”, which happens only 30 seconds into the music, suspending your senses in mid-air following the horn’s herald.  After that there are SIX whole seconds of silence, a stretch of nothingness that is like an aural palate-cleanser.

We may shout to be heard, but silence makes more of an impression.


October 16  2020

Try saying this French poem out loud:

(Go on!  It doesn’t have to be good.)

Roc a bail, bey bis;
On detruit tape.
Ou N. de Windt blouse,
Decret de l’huile roque. *

Image: Eulalie Banks

Try it a couple of times.  Even with the worst French accent, what you hear coming out of your mouth is very different from what your eyes are seeing. (see below if you gave up!)

Tricking our senses, foiling our expectations, surprising us with the unexpected is one of the many joys of our sense of hearing.  While it’s true that we crave hearing the familiar, such as a loved one’s voice, the sound of a crackling fire, that song that you can’t get enough of (“My Heart Will Go On”? “Disco Duck?”), strange and unfamiliar sounds can wake up our senses.

Speaking of ducks, take the oboe.  (The oboe portrays the Duck in Prokofieff’s Peter & the Wolf, a narrated symphonic fairy tale.)

Colin Maier is the oboist in Quartetto Gelato, perhaps most famously known for his ability to “shred” incredibly virtuosic passages of music while suspended in mid-air.  Doing the splits.

Sometimes looking and quacking like a duck doesn’t make you duck.  Or a set of bagpipes. Even a duck can’t hold its breath for the 2:30’ that Colin does here.

Was I the only one who was gobsmacked at hearing Lady Gaga go legit at the 2015 Oscars?  I’m accustomed to seeing her in 15-inch platforms or a headpiece that looks like a giant inverted corn broom. The last thing I expect coming out of her mouth is a Rodgers and Hammerstein medley:

Some loved it, some hated it, but nobody expected it.  What more could you ask?

*Rock-a-bye baby;

on the tree top.

When the wind blows,

The cradle will rock.


Thoughts about Sounds

October 9  2020

Did you ever play the memory game?

It was a feature of birthday parties, before the days of trampoline parks and bouncy castles. In between the 3-legged race and the cake, a tray with assorted objects was briefly presented for the guests’ viewing and memorizing, the winner being she/he who could remember the most items. What I remember is never winning!

Paying attention is an important skill, one that requires openness and practise.  It is just as true for hearing as for observing.  You think you know what your friends’ exasperated sigh means because you’ve heard it so many times…until it doesn’t mean that anymore, and you have to pay attention again.

Music goes in one ear and out the other, until we realize we might have missed something, and need a double-take to confirm.  It’s the feeling you get when you hear backmasking, the technique of recording music played backwards, made famous by the Beatles (“Paul is dead…Paul is dead”), but actually started decades earlier.

Listen to Ólafur Arnalds’ “re:member”, and what initially sounds like a pretty song with static piano intervals and chords starts to strike you as something different…what’s going on with the piano?  What are those strange other sounds, like echoes but…not like echoes. It’s actually software creating separate streams of the same sounds, almost there, almost not there, which lends a touch of otherworldliness to the piece.

Being receptive enough to remember, being open to sounds as they wander into your ears, means they will make an impression on us.  We will remember them.  I remember hearing the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit” for the first time.  It took my breath away.  The raw authenticity and power of it completely obscured the foul language (foul language has never been a problem for me).   It moved me and I will never forget it.

“O you, who have been torn from me…”

Frank Bernard Dicksee – Yseult – Public Domain

These words from Friedrich Rückert’s poetry were used by Schubert in his song “Sei mir gegrüsst!”.  He used the song again in his Fantasy for violin & piano (op. 159, D. 934), recorded recently by Duo Concertante.  As beautiful as the poetry is, the violin and piano convey something far more profound:

When we pay attention we can hear the strands, the sounds, the emotions that are in every compelling piece of music.  And we can never forget.