Silence has frequently been upheld as a terminus, be it the climax of artistic nullity or the void created by the inevitable cultural withdrawal of modern art. The idea of silence as a point of departure has rarely been proposed, yet modernist music shows that silence has played such a role. Silence is a state, a sonic or conceptual ideal to which a work aspires. Silence is one such ideal, as are purity, complexity, and the fragmentary. Modernist, especially late modernist, composers have written works that aim to evoke states through musical languages that emulate distinct qualities of those conditions.
Webern, Nono, and Sciarrino are three composers who have turned to silence. Instead of parsing out sections of silence (as Cage did), they create musical settings that conjure aspects of quiet. All three situate their music in a particular scene, the border between sound and silence. Informed by stillness, fragmentation, and fragility, it is a space that appears often in modernist arts, particularly the writings of Beckett. Far from being a narrow and doomed location, it is a limitless realm, a new sonic territory. The borderland, like many states, has unique potential for expression.
Silence has long been used expressively, as experienced in tense pauses, but Webern, Nono, and Sciarrino use silence to comment on expression as an act. They ask questions about the act: How does it start? How is an utterance conveyed? What happens to it? Silence provides a revealing backdrop against which to scrutinize expression. This commentary is part of an ongoing modernist interrogation of expression. The music of Webern, Nono, and Sciarrino adds to the interrogation, doing so through a modernist point of fascination with silence.
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