The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music

1. Zen in the Art of Lute Playing
Cultivating the Flower. Zeami on lute playing.
Lute Recipes by Dōgen.
Genjōkōan – Realising Music Through Lute Playing.
The Sound of Silence – Ma in Music
Zen in the Art of Listening
Walking the music
One Moment of Music
The Kōan of Playing Lute
To Play Lute is to Play Lute
11. Bach, Weiss and Nō
12. Instruments in their natural environment
13. It’s Zen to be HIP

This is part five in a series of lute lessons inspired by the teachings of Zen. In these lessons I try to establish a school of lutedō: the Way of the Lute. In this fifth lesson I will focus on silence in music.

In Japanese aesthetics there is a concept called ma. In architecture ma is the space between the walls of a building, in ink drawings it is the white between the lines on the paper and in music it is the silence between the sounds. Ma is not part of the composition, but it is what the person in the building, the person looking at the drawing or the person listening to the music experiences. Ma is non-form, non-line or non-sound. But at the same time it is part of the building, drawing or music, because without it there would be chaos of only walls, lines or sound. Ma is non-form, but form cannot exist without it. Ma is the possibility of form. This simultaneous being and not-being is essentially Zen, and therefore ma fits in our lutedō.

In traditional Japanese music silence is important. You might even say that in some Japanese music silence is more important than sound. And although we play Western music on our lutes, with Western aesthetics quite alien to those of the East, for the purpose of our lutedō, I would like to dwell a little on silence. Silence in music can bring us in closer contact with ourselves, and can make our expression clearer. These are two closely related goals, and both are relevant for performing music, also for the Western music we play on our lutes.

Music is made of sound and therefore it cannot exist without silence. As every music teacher will tell you before you start to play your piece: “Music must start from silence, so make sure you are silent before you begin playing.” In a concert, before I begin to play a piece, I wait for silence in the audience and myself and then I fill this silence with the sound of my lute. At the end of my piece I let the last sound of my lute disappear into silence again, and only then am I ready for the sound of the audience’s applause. But there is more to silence in music, so let’s have a closer look at my lute playing. While I am playing, I do not make sound continuously, as every phrase, perhaps even every note, is separated by a moment of silence, however short. I need those moments of silence to breathe, and to let the music breathe. Without breathing I will die, the music will die and my audience will die. Silence, then, is an important part of music, as breathing gives life. If I were to make music without silence, I would make one continuous sound. That would be very boring and the end of music. It would be like the muzak we hear in elevators and supermarkets.

Through the silence between the phrases, the phrases talk to each other. They become question and answer, or theme and repeat, or anything I want them to be in my interpretation. Through the silence between the individual notes, the notes speak to each other. The silence between the notes creates tension or relaxation, expectation or surprise. It is through silence that I let my music speak. I could even say that in the silence I make my music speak. Silence in music is where tension and relaxation are, as well as expectation and surprise. By concentrating on silence between phrases and silence between notes we highlight moments of tension, relaxation, expectation and surprise. This is how silence in music will make our playing more expressive.

Of course, different pieces of music, and different styles of music, require a different use of silence between phrases and notes. A romantic, vocal melody will benefit from a good breath between phrases but not from silence between the notes within a phrase, while an energetic Renaissance dance might have a very pronounced silence before almost every note. This is a normal musical application of phrasing and articulation and is part of all good music making. Phrasing and articulation use breath and silence to highlight the sound before and after the breath and silence. But what I am interested in for our lutedō is listening to what is happening within silence. Silence not as a means to let the music speak, but silence as the part that contains the essence of the music.

Instead of thinking of silence as the white canvas on which the story of the piece is painted with sounds, I would like to draw your attention to silence as the real story; listen to it and see what it has to tell you. Compare music to your thoughts. In Zen, thoughts are regarded as distractions, as illusions that keep us separated from our true selves. Our thoughts are not what we are, but what we really are is elusive, and can be glimpsed only when we stop to follow our distracting thoughts. When we are meditating, or following a ritual, or in the case of our lutedō when we are playing lute, we become our true selves. Because at those moments we are not distracted by the illusions of the random thoughts that keep cropping up in our heads. We need meditating, a ritual or playing lute to ignore these distracting thoughts and to get in touch with our true selves. In Zen, there is the believe that this true self is present in all of us, and furthermore that it is shared by all of us. If we let the music speak for itself, and concentrate on the silence instead, we might be able to glimpse something of this true and shared self, of the white canvas that is universal to all of us. This is how silence in music will get us in closer contact with ourselves as well our audience.

David van Ooijen