This morning I woke up to go for a run only to find I had lost my earbuds. I searched, but didn’t find them, so I left unaided by any distracting beat. Instead, my silent run was interrupted by other noise—my labored breathing, the groans of joints, the thud of a flagging step.
I have never been one to cultivate silence. When they do occur, which is seldom, my silences are forced—a void between activities, times of waiting in line wishing I had remembered to download a podcast, or, more generally, seasons of inactivity. I’m in one now as I flounder for a bit between school and whatever comes next. My silences are also rarely controlled—insidious sounds creep in to disrupt what could be a peaceful interval of rest.
All music students are taught to value the controlled silence of a rest. As my harp teacher would remind me, a rest is still a beat—it has weight simply because it demarks a space between, and, though empty, it can paradoxically swell to bursting with anticipation or longing or relief or tension waiting to be resolved.
The harp is a challenging instrument when it comes to silence. A gust of wind can start the strings noisily whirring. Vibrations from a heavy step can travel through the floor and up the base of the harp, making the strings quiver and buzz. Harpists constantly muffle (the technical term) specific strings or sometimes the entire the harp by placing a finger or flat hand on the strings. Otherwise, every note that is plucked will continue to resound and vibrate, muddying any harmonies or silences that follow.
Silences must be controlled in order to be meaningful rests. In my internal soundscape, I’ve felt the pestering buzz of emotional sound reverberating across the quiet of my less-occupied time. There are lingering echoes of past busy-ness, memories (good and bad), and whispers of self-doubt and petulance about the future. These dis-harmonies mar the silence, and I realize they need to curbed or, perhaps, interpreted.
My harp teacher insisted on interpreting every note and silence in a composition. For harpists, this interpretation happens visibly through the body. Legend has it that the famous harpist Carlos Salzedo received movement lessons from a premiere ballerina after she told him that his music was beautiful, but he looked ugly while playing. A notoriously vain man (Salzedo also insisted that only beautiful people should be allowed to play the harp), Salzedo incorporated arm movements into his harp performances.
To this day, harpists extend notes or emphasize silence through gesture, following Salzedo’s methods. A muffle and bodily stillness indicate “silence” to the audience (even if a few notes might still be buzzing). An ascending arm visually demonstrates the extension of a note. To these motions, the best harpists add a host of other interpretative signals: the weight of a hand on the string, how quickly or softly they pull out the notes, pursed lips, furrowed brows, and bobs of the head.
I wonder if there is not a bit of wisdom in learning to control and interpret the metaphorical silences that intersperse our lives. Maybe listening to my own gasping breath is a rhythmic assurance of my existence, or my persistence. Perhaps my open spaces of inactivity should be relished for their elastic potential. These silences could be calls to examine my life, and in the examination make it worthwhile. Perhaps the silence will be an interval to grow in patience, a pause to learn something new, a moment for thanks. Then maybe these silences, once controlled and interpreted, will transcend their intrinsic emptiness to hold the weighty musicality of a rest.
After a trial-by-fire year as public school substitute teacher and fly-by-night freelancer, Julia will shed the tribulations of the work-world to embark on a MA in art history and museum studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH. If you are in town, she’ll gladly take you to a local museum. She enjoys walks, leopard print, and good conversation.