Sunday, March 29, 2009

Silence is Golden

Friday night, at DAR's Constitution Hall, Gretchen and I attended a performance by the Kodo drummers. There were between 15 and 20 performers, each playing a drum that looked like an ancient relic that needed to be played with sticks the thickness of some branches. Some drums measured four feet in diameter, and produced rumbles that sent a wave of energy into the seats of the auditorium, tickling the sternum. Gretchen is 33 weeks along, and our daughter had a fit during the first part of the performance, oddly enough keeping in beat with the drums.

In high school I had several friends on the drum line, and issues pertaining to sticking (height, angle, uniformity) were of some concern. During the performance on Friday there was as much uniformity, structure, and composition to how the drums were played as to the sound produced - a ballet with batons. However, apart from the ceremony of sticking, or the rhythmic beats, there was an awakened awareness of the importance of silence amongst the audience.

I seldom recall attending a concert where an audience did not respond with vigorous applause when the music stopped - or attempted to cease - for even a moment. Most conspicuously this occurs during orchestral performances where a section of the audience is unfamiliar with the movements, and they begin applauding during a decrescendo, only to realize that some oboe is struggling to be heard above the din of wrapping hands, and that the specific piece has yet to cease.

In one piece, seven snares were placed along the floor. The center snare (4) would begin playing, gently. Each note was a whisper of sound. Then, each drummer would alternate in: 5, 3, 7, 1, 6, 2. Slowly they would disappate - perhaps in the same order, perhaps in reverse order, perhaps in an alternate order, leaving the center drummer (4) to remain tapping. They might move their sticks from the edge of the snare to the center, and then back to the edge - changing the pitch of the sound. They might crescendo and decrescendo. The noises produced were similar to locusts in summer, singing in the trees: one starts, others follow, and eventually they stop, for a moment, before one begins the cycle again.

After five or so minutes, the applause began upon a decrescendo, as drummers moved sticks from the center to the edge, and the drummers on the wings disappated. Drummer 4 (in the center) kept playing (like that struggling oboe), and eventually enough audience members figured it was in their best judgement to be pateint and not slap their meat hooks together.

Four stopped drumming. A clap from the audience was followed by a second and third. Then #6 started drumming, and stopped nearly as suddenly. The approbation of the audience stopped. #3 answered #6. Other drummers also responded, each in turn. The thunder of drumming continued without synchronicity and without order - like hail on a car's roof top. Eventually the individual beats fell in synch, and slowly dissapated, decrescendoed, and ceased. At the end, the audience waited for silence, and only applauded once the drummers had lowered their sticks.

In art history classes the theories of John Cage - regarding randomness and silence (or the space between notes) - always creep into the lectures surrounding Robert Rauschenburg or the influence of Black Mountain College. Rarely do I see or hear of it deomnstrated (unless articles about iPod-wearing pedestrians crossing against the light and being creamed by city busses are not indicative of the value of listening to or for random noise apply). During this instance, it was beautiful to witness the value of Cage's theories bear fruit.

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