The sound of - silence?


Here’s a thought to ponder. What is it that makes a piece of music truly thrilling? One might answer the beautiful melody line, the sumptuous harmonies, a fast and furious tempo, huge crescendos and crashing fortissimo at climaxes or even whispered pianissimo passages. But a teacher of mine once surprised me by saying that, in his opinion. it was none of those. What marked a performance out as something special was the use of silence.

When I gave him a bit of a straight look, he asked me if I ever baked a cake. Yes, I did. So what, he enquired, made the difference between a good and a bad cake? I decided it was whether it had risen or not. A fat spongy cake, light with air, was infinitely preferable to a thin, heavy lump. Precisely, he said. And silence gives the lift to a piece of music, just as air gives lift to a cake. How was I to introduce silence to my playing? He suggested that I left decent gaps between phrases, at the points where a singer would take a breath, that I made sure I observed any rests that were marked in, and didn’t swamp them with sustain, and that I sat still and let the silence work its magic both before I started playing and after I finished.

Perhaps the most famous (and some would argue excessive) use of silence is in John Cage’s piece, 4’33” (the time it lasts), which consists of three movements, all of them totally silent. You can ‘hear’ it if you click here. The recording lasts over 7 minutes, so was the pianist 'playing' at a slower speed than intended? It’s also enlightening to hear John Cage himself talking about his use of silence here. In this video interview (which starts with a short silence, so stick with it) it is interesting that background music is used – John Cage’s own magically atmospheric nocturne, Dream.

At the other end of the scale, a lot of people are put off by the vast amount of canned music played in public places -  restaurants, pubs, even doctors surgeries. They would probably welcome the use of Cage’s silent piece at all venues.

So: Silence as part of music? What do you think?


Are you able to help?

Click on this image to download the poster

Just back from a pleasant afternoon playing for a local club where many members have (or know a family member who has) a visual impairment. I was telling them about the free on-line music lessons we now offer for those who want to learn to play keyboard, especially designed for those who are losing or have lost their sight. One of the audience suggested I produce some posters about it, and she would take them to the local blind clubs, doctors surgeries, libraries and so on. What a great idea!

These lessons grew out of a series of courses Tony and I ran with the RNIB, when we were teaching people who had just lost their sight to take up the wonderful new hobby of keyboard playing. When the RNIB were financially forced to close their hotels, the courses had to end. We decided to turn the idea into a series of CDs under the title "A Keyboard at your Fingertips". Now modern technology means we can distribute the courses more widely by these free on-line lessons, which can be used at the computer, downloaded to mp3 players or burned to CDs for convenience.

I funded the project by giving mini concerts and selling CDs to local groups such as WIs, Probus Clubs etc. A lot of people have made it possible by their kindness and generosiity. Would you be able to help by printing off a poster or two and spreading the word in your area? It will be wonderful if you can. If you're using a PC, please right-click on the picture of the poster above, select "save picture as" and store it in your chosen location on your computer, ready to print off. If you're using another device, I'm not so sure what you do, but I can try to find out if you're stuck! Thank you.


House concerts

Our house

This doesn't look much like a concert hall, does it? That's because it's the front of our house. And last week it was the venue for our first experimental house concert.  House Concerts have been extremely popular in America for some time now. But they are something of a rarity in the UK. Audience numbers have been dropping world-wide across most types of music in recent years, for reasons which are not clearly apparent. It may be the availability of home entertainment, it may be a reluctance to go out in the dark, it may be the expense, it may be people’s busy life styles. But one sector which is thriving is the US House Concert.

I invited 14 friends to come and listen to me play to help with my research into whether House Concerts would work equally well here, and especially whether they may help the little-known orchestral keyboard concert scene, as well as other small ensembles and soloists. So how do House Concerts work?

Rather than performing in a concert hall to a large audience (with all the organisation, publicity, red tape and travel that involves), the musicians perform in a private house.  The home owner(s) host the concert, inviting friends (who can in turn invite their friends), until all seats are filled – usually between 15 and 20, but more if space allows. Invites are handed out personally by the homeowner, with email and/or phone number for reserving seats. This avoids unexpected folk turning up. The home owner provides a space for the musicians to perform, as many chairs as possible, and some light refreshments. Visitors are encouraged, where necessary, to bring a small folding chair or (for the nimble) a cushion. Each visitor is invited to donate for the evening, towards the cost of the musicians and the refreshments. The concert is usually of two 45-minute halves with 30 minutes for refreshment and socialising at half time. The atmosphere at these events is warm, intimate and relaxing. They require minimal preparation, and work well for all concerned. In an age when large events are proving problematic, they may well be the way ahead.

What does the home owner get from the experience? Well, it’s a great way to host a gathering without too much organisation. They will enjoy the music along with their guests. And the musicians often give one of their albums as a thank you. At the same time, the hosts will be supporting performers in what is currently a difficult climate for the arts.

So what do you think? Have you ever been to one? Would you fancy attending one or even hosting an evening for your friends to come and listen to some local musicians? How much would you expect to pay for an evening like this? Do let me know! And next time I shall let you know what our guests put on their anonymous questionnaires at the end of the evening!


Daytime concerts?

Ancient and Modern: Compton meets Yamaha

Yesterday I was playing in East Devon. The organ club there have, for the winter season, held their meetings during the afternoon rather than the cold dark evenings. I asked if it had affected their attendance one way or another, and the answer was 'no'. The artists must have enjoyed it though, being able to play a concert and get home again on the same day. We made the round trip in 13 hours, and had the pleasure of sleeping in our own house for a change.

Another music club I have been talking with has been running additional teatime concerts (complete with naughty but nice cakes). They tell me these food-centred events have attracted larger audiences, and quite a lot of new faces. Do you have a view on the best time of day for a concert? And do you think having food combined with music makes a big difference? Please do use the contact link on this site to share your opinions.

Today's photo shows the 'jelly mould' illuminated sides from an old Compton organ (probably 70+ years old) which the East Devon club sandwiched round my instrument (just 6 months old). The words 'Ancient & Modern' spring to mind. It was a very colourful addition to my usual stage set-up!



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