Silence and subjectivity (and an introduction)

This month I’ve been participating in the Arteles Creative Residency in Finland, about 50km west of Tampere. The reasons for participating are mostly the usual suspects: resume-building, breaking the business-as-usual creative process, networking, experiencing a “proper” European winter for the first time in my life. This is a themed residency, taking in nine other artists working around the the themes “Silence. Awareness. Existence.” Like many sound-based practitioners, I find silence to be a terrifyingly unknown facet of our medium, one that demands a scrutinisation that still seems all too rare, especially within music. There’s a stigma whereby any exploration of silence in contemporary music/art is just some rehash of John Cage’s ideas. I find this to be tedious, especially given the limited scope and questionable ethics of Cagean silence. Tackling silence head-on in this environment seemed like it could yield results.

What follows is an attempt to formalise some of my thoughts on silence as a medium unto itself, in doing so marking a half-way point through this residency and plotting a trajectory for the rest of the month. Then, something of a manifesto for this blog and moving towards a sustained practice writing longer, semi-formal texts to convey and air out some ideas.

Silence and the subjective

Silence is an integral yet seldom acknowledged component of all Western music. Juliana Hodkinson, in her thesis “Presenting Absence,” argues that for a work of art to be considered as such, it must provide finite boundaries under which it operates — silence is that frame, the start and finish. It is the delimiter between “normal time” and “musical time.” Silences in music thus threaten the constitution of the work-concept, as our perception veers between these divergent temporalities.

Silence is more than just an absence of sound, and for credit where credit is due, we have Cage to thank for teaching us that. But the question of its objective, empirical nature isn’t terribly interesting, if such a phenomenon could even be observed (I’m of the persuasion that a tree falling in the forest with nothing there to hear it does not make a sound). More fascinating for me is silence as a deeply subjective, relational and culturally-constructed phenomenon. Most artists here at Arteles have described their surroundings as silent; for me the highway a hundred meters down the road is deafening. A faint 50Hz hum pervades every room, and the myriad pipes connecting the heaters are all rich with harmonics and noise.

Moreover, the connotations and conflations of silence make for interesting cultural speculation as well. One thing I’ve been surprised by here is how easily silence seems to be conflated with stillness, peacefulness, neutrality. Many artists here identify strongly with meditation, but from what I gather, silence is not a significant part of their meditational practice. One artist here runs a business writing music specifically to meditate to/with. These aren’t criticisms of course, because silence is still quite a terrifying and alien experience in our contemporary lives (though those kinds of complaints have been going on for centuries).

Silence is generally placed at either end of some binary spectrum — it is so often conflated with calmness, stillness, peace, serenity; or death, voidness and suppression. Not only is this too simplistic, but it eschews the notion that silence is a dynamic, malleable and relational entity. As Christof Migone writes: “Silence and speech cannot be categorized as simply bad and good, respectively or vice-versa, but are located on a dimensional continuum where various degrees of communication are possible.”

My work at Arteles has focused mostly on trying to dismantle this antagonistic way of thinking about silence. Bill Fontana once wrote that “sound is all the possible ways there are to hear it.” My time at Arteles has been about trying to reframe this as “silence is all the possible ways there are of (not) hearing it.”

Framing silence in this way involves more of a listening inward than a strictly sonic experience (if that were such a thing). Working with silence in this way becomes a deeply nuanced engagement with our contemporary practices and habits of listening. Silence rendered as speechlessness, terror, empathy, suppression, anticipation (in terms of “musical time” and “normal time”), play and games, reverence and remembrance, voyeurism; silence via the limits of our perception, and on the edges of what sounding objects are capable of. Sound deliberately muffled. Sound is a frame through which silence operates metaphysically.

This relational, subjective conception of silence forms the basis of at least one work currently in development at Arteles.

An introduction

I’ve also been using my time at Arteles as an existential self-examination; of life before, during, and after my doctoral studies (due to begin next month, due to end in 2018). Where the music is headed, and where life will fit in between composing, researching, writing and teaching. I’ve been questioning my own position as an artist and soon-to-be-full-time doctoral researcher, and what my ethical obligations are to society at large. Seeing the work of other non-academy-affiliated artists here and how they engage with society and the self in intimate ways has been humbling for me, as a musician whose music and practice exists in relatively niche paradigms, sheltered by conservatoire aesthetics to some extent. I’m the youngest resident here and I’m happy that the other residents have been rather candid and helpful in sharing their experiences as freelance artists jumping through several impossible hoops at once, and the anxieties of irrelevance.

Starting this blog was one way of dissuading myself from a full-throttle ivory tower ascent. I intend for it to be a means of clarification of ideas currently on the boil, and an opportunity to write more formally about them, in doing so simplifying its content, sifting the waffle, working at the bad bits. Topics covered here will predominantly involve my music and research, which are currently revolving around ideas surrounding sound studies, media/format theory, digital sound aesthetics, and my PhD thesis, tentatively titled “Exploring synthetic mimesis in recent electroacoustic and studio music.” Posts will not be at regular intervals, only a few will be posted every year.

More information about me on my website which I’m hoping to update to something more sophisticated soon, here.

Michael Terren

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