It bears mentioning that this space has been silent for some months now. Over the summer I was fortunate enough to take part as a Composition Fellow in the St. Magnus Composer’s Course in Orkney, Scotland, following which my wife and I traveled through Scotland and England. After an intensive last semester as a student (which involved the final revisions to my thesis), I thought it was time to do something that, as a teacher, music director, and composer, I rarely have the opportunity to do: shut up.
I should preface this by saying that, obviously, I think a great deal about sound. During my first year as an undergraduate—when the iPod was first becoming popular and the now-pervasive plugged-in-walking look was in its nascent stages—I started to think about how I related to sounds: natural, artificial, musical, electronically enhanced. I began to think, for a time, that I was addicted to sound. I would often play with this supposed addiction, sometimes taking days where I would commit myself to not listening to music or the radio or watching television. While not a terrible thing for a young composer/performer, I began to flirt with that all-too-rare commodity, silence.
Taking for granted that, for those with traditional auditory function, true silence is nigh-impossible within our earthly realm, I constantly feel caught between Rock & Roll and a quiet place. Not that this is uncommon: Beethoven’s late works frequently pit quiet against loud activity, and Feldman and Cage use silence as their canvas.
On the Orkney Islands, starkness and quiet are infused into the landscape. An island chain to the north of Scotland, the archipelago is, as my wife says, “remote from remote.” Home to the remnants of stone circles more ancient than Stonehenge, and a Neolithic village predating the Egyptian pyramids and the Temple of Solomon, the islands feel like a place out of time and sound.
On one of the days that I was not busy with compositional activities for the festival, my wife and I took a ferry from the Orkney Mainland (the largest island) to a little visited stretch of land called Egilsay. Aside from countless sheep and vocally active birds, there are only eighteen occupants of the island. We had been told earlier in the day that we would soon exhaust the traditional sight-seeing activities (the round church of St. Magnus, and the spot where the saint—then a Viking Earl—had been slain), and that we should drive to the end of the north-south island road, hike for a mile or two, where we were to find a secluded beach.
Secluded it was. Caribbean white as well, with water clearer than you would think possible for the often tumultuous North Sea. Here, there were only the rhythms of the world—the rocking susurrus of wave on stone, the occasional insistent cry of a bird I did not know. We stayed there for an hour or two, accompanied only by a distant sailboat gradually floating east.
The music at the festival has certainly stayed with me—the BBC Symphony was the ensemble in residence, and hearing a British ensemble play Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis seemed a quintessentially British experience. But the quiet of that remote island infected me as well. It rings in my ears, an aural negative of the after-effects of a rock concert. I drift back to that afternoon, feeling my feet rooted to the bones of the world, yet apart from its chatter. It is not that I think that noise, activity, or interaction are “bad”—far from it, they are often necessary. But in reaping harvests of action, perhaps we can forget to cultivate quiet.
“Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”
Max Ehrmann, “Desiderata”