Let’s face it, amidst our technology-saturated, go-getter culture, silence can be difficult to come by. We’re almost constantly surrounded by sound, whether it be from our devices, conversation with others, or ambient noise from our everyday activities. Silence, while sometimes sought out for a means of escape or reflection, is becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon.
In classical music though, silence can be a powerful tool. Say what you will about contemporary concert hall etiquette, but when an audience quietly respect the breaks between the movements of a symphony, it can be a wondrous moment. For composers too, silence can be a great asset. In an article entitled “Forerunners of Modern Music,” the American composer John Cage observed that, “The material of music is sound and silence. Integrating these is composing.” (Cage is perhaps most famous – or infamous – for his 1952 piece 4’33”).
One figure who makes an especially profound use of this idea is the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. In addition to utilizing simple tonalities and sparse textures, many of his pieces make ample use of silence, which is often meticulously composed into the score. Together, these features give Pärt’s music a strikingly original and contemplative quality, which has left a lasting impression on contemporary classical music.