The sound of silence

Martin CullingfordWed 31st May 2017

How the 'space' around music affects the way we listen

The June issue’s cover story explores the borders existing between genres, but in My Music, the feature in which we interview a leading figure from outside of the classical music world, landscape architect Kim Wilkie reflects on sound borders in an even wider sense. There’s usually a timely ‘peg’ as to who we interview in My Music each month. In Wilkie’s case he has been restoring the Arcadian landscape around The Grange, a neoclassical house in Hampshire and now home to the Grange Festival. But invariably these sorts of conversations range far and fascinatingly beyond any such starting point, and that was certainly the case here.

Throughout our interview, Wilkie conveyed a deep awareness of the sound around him, whether the music of the jungle surrounding his childhood home, or the clean, crisp sound of the desert around another. Or the counterpoise of silence and music – in his eloquent phrase – familiar to any who have spent time in Oxbridge and stepped from Evensong at dusk into the unique stillness of a college court. At The Grange, he wants people to leave the opera and be surrounded by the midsummer ambience of nature: again, that counterpoise between music and silence. Those of us who have found ourselves walking straight from a profound performance at, say, ENO, and into the acoustic chaos of a city street will appreciate the point. 

It is for this reason that many musicians will retreat to remote studios to record – not something unique to classical music either, but a habit of rock and pop musicians too. I use ‘retreat’ here not so much to mean an escape from something, but rather in the sense of the religious retreat: an escape to something. Some years ago I wrote about a scheme offered by Aldeburgh Productions to offer artists space among the space, within the Suffolk silence, to simply explore new repertoire, or to develop projects in a focused environment, and without needing to ‘clock-watch’ because they were due imminently to teach someone, or rehearse somewhere else. 

But of course when we talk of space and silence in relation to the countryside, we’re simply loading those terms with a meaning defined entirely in relation to the urban experience. For what is space, what is silence? That’s a question John Cage famously posed of course. Another My Music interviewee, the architect Daniel Libeskind, talked some years back about the great importance of how a building sounds to him. A few months ago, the founder of Lush, Mark Constantine encouraged Gramophone readers to expand their listening with the music of birdsong. Perhaps that’s why My Music interviews are frequently among the most enjoyable to conduct. As so often, talking to someone from outside our immediate world can nudge our gaze towards a fresh perspective.

Going back to Kim Wilkie, he also made the point that as he gets older silence is more precious, that he avoids music as background, that it’s something you turn on deliberately. I concur completely. Paintings are more effective when hung sparingly on spacious walls. Tall buildings are more dramatic when alone on a skyline and not clustered in each other’s shadows. Mountains appear more formidable when looming alone from a plain, not jutting from a range. And music is more powerful when surrounded by silence.  

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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