Presenting Absence

Presenting Absence


"The book will serve as a powerful argument for the inclusion of sound art in the subjects of musicology – or perhaps, more radically, for the eventual dissolution of musicology, and the development of broader cultural-aesthetic disciplines, defined in other ways than through the historically given, ideologically conceived, notions of the Arts or Fine Arts." Jacob Derkert, University of Stockholm


This is a thesis about silence – as aesthetic concept, as rhetorical idea, and as perceptual object. The thesis explores musical and aesthetic issues concerning silence in an empirical field that covers music and sound art of the past 50 years – specifically, works of notated concert music from the mid- and late-20th century, and digital sound-art works created for compact disc at the turn of the millennium.

Part I offers a review of related academic literature, followed by a historical account of the use of rests and pauses in western art music, and some general considerations on the theoretical approaches attempted in the thesis. The main argument in Chapter 1 is that the works to be discussed are centrally constituted by silence of one kind or another. The way that silence manifests itself so radically varies from work to work, and the elucidation of that difference is one of the main tasks to be performed by the rest of the thesis.

In Part I, the task is to distinguish the constitutive nature of silence in the chosen empirical field from other, mainly historical uses of the musical pause and rest.

Part II considers the paradigmatic status of John Cage’s concert score 4’33. The work is discussed through a number of interpretations, including the composer’s own representation of the rhetorical trope of silence in his writings. The discussion of Cagean silence in Chapter 2 turns firstly on the extent wo which we can talk of silence ‘constituting’ 4’33”, and secondly on a comparison of a range of historical and aesthetic positions in the discourse on Cagean silence. Chapter 3 offers an account of the mid-20th century as a period rife with empty art- works in several artistic media. The period is discussed in relation to a number of cultural factors such as a postwar shyness towards artistic representation.

In Part III, a comparative analysis is offered of two chamber-music works from the 1980s, which propose the consideration of silence within a more conventional musical discourse. Chapter 4 offers some perspectives on Luigi Nono’s string quartet Fragmente – Stille: an Diotima, through a discussion of the work’s references to the early romantic aesthetic project, the composerly act of ‘schweigen’, and the hermeneutic discourse surrounding such a project. Chapter 5 discusses Salvatore Sciarrino’s quintet Lo spazio inverso, drawing on a contrasting model extracted from musicological analysis of the mature classical style. The hermeneutic approach of Chapter 4 is contrasted with the proposal of a performative listening mode in Chapter 5. Taken together, these two chapters move towards the proposal of a contrast between silence’s ability to emphasise experiences of a presentation of absence in the former work, and a production of presence in the latter.

Part IV proposes the term ‘negative representation’, from Jean-Francois Lyotard’s re- evaluation of Kant’s analysis of the sublime (in the Critique of Judgment) as a theoretical basis for a discussion of recent sound art characterised by radical silences. Conceptual considera- tions advanced in Chapter 6 form the point of departure for an analysis of Christof Migone’s CD album Quieting and Francisco López’ Untitled series, under the category of ‘subliminal sound art’. Further, Part IV proposes an oscillation between the interpretive (hermeneutic) and perceptual (performative-phenomenological) projects discussed in Part III, as the basis for a series of reflections on listening modes in relation to 21st-century sound art.

On silences in music and sound art since the 1950s