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The Strength of Silence

img  Tobias

Nothing has changed since John Cage. One should think that a piece like “4’33” would have altered our perception of and attitude towards silence forever. But, speaking with experimental bass player Jeffrey Roden, it seems as though most composers are still afraid to allow their music to breathe. Of course, Cage didn’t invent anything (silence has always and will always be here), strictly speaking, he wasn’t even a pioneer. He merely drew attention to something that seemed to have been lost and needed rediscovery. His problem was that most people mistook his concepts for a joke. Or maybe things just needed a little while to sink in: Two recent releases offer shining examples of how quietude, dynamics and silence can work as driving force behind a piece and offer listeners new insights.

“Eagerly awaited” may be a silly term and an overused one to boot, but it may well apply to the collaboration between Autechre and The Hafler Trio. The former, a duo despite its name not mentioning it, has become something of a fixed star in the world of “intelligent” techno, with every new and aspiring electronic act automatically being gauged against their achievments – the biggest of which could well be their demonstration that “organic” need not automatically derive from “natural”. The latter, not a three-piece despite its name mentioning it, has become something of a fixed star in the world of experimental electronics, with lots of new and aspiring acts using Andrew Mackenzie’s compositions as blueprints. On this, a double affair with a single track on each CD, they take music ever deeper into a realm where only sound matters. Consciously mixed so quietly that you’ll need to put on headphones and listen to it at some time in the night, when the noises of the big city have ebbed away, disc one of “aeo3/3hae” concentrates on microscopic expansion and tonal dissection: Tiny particles are caught in minuscule movement, rubbing and scratching against each other in what appears to be a series or aural snapshots. After their appearance, the focus drops off into an omnipotent silence, a sea of possibilities, which, after a while, will spew out another memory. Disc two, meanwhile, is a collection of intense, surreal and almost static drones and occasional metallic bangings. Silence, here, is the red thread that weaves the lost pieces together. In both tracks, the moments without sound are just as powerful and necessary as the ones filled with it. What is music and where does it end? Whatever the answer, this record is walking a tightrope.

“The good old times” may be a silly term and an overused one to boot, but if there has ever been an artist who made it seem true, it must be William Basinski – when is he finally going to release an album by the name of “Nostalgia”? “The garden of brokenness” is another wonderfully and appropriatedly titled album amidst a work of wonderfully and appropriatedly titled albums and again it is easy to describe this music, without being able to fully convey its meaning: A short melody of broken chords, “one of the most common chord changes in western music” as Basinski puts it, is repeated, then echoed, then overlaid with a haunting, ghostly white drone, then reduced to single notes seperated by empty spaces of silence. The original theme makes a second appearance, swaggering and swaying against itself, before fading away. There is no development in the traditional sense in this track, which clocks in at 49 minutes and almost exactly the length of “aeo3/3hae’s second disc - just myriads of repetitions, but none is the same. The silence of “The Garden of brokenness” is the naked passing of time, cold, relentless, inavoidable. If you listen to this album with your eyes open, you can almost sense it in your room. According to Basinski, the record is about “the Japanese concept of "mono no aware" which translates roughly to 'the sadness of things'" Just as well, it might be about rocking chairs, your grandmother stroking your hair and the ticking of the old clock.

Coincidentally, both albums close with a long silence. Which automatically raises the somehow paradoxical question, where they actually end: When the CD player shuts itself off or when you get up to make some tea? In the end, of course, this hardly matters – from a Zen-point of view, there’s no music and no silence anyway (and no tea, by the way). Forget about the words and just listen, the answers are all there. John Cage would have smiled.

Homepage: Autechre
Homepage: The Hafler Trio
Homepage: Die Stadt Musik
Homepage: William Basinski

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