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A meditation on the sound of silence

Music

Silence with your ASO, a 60-minute show celebrating the International Day of Yoga, promises a meditation and symphony concert in one. Rainer Jozeps explains how silence and sound can be merged to create something sublime.

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I’ve been practising Buddhist philosophy for 15 years. Central to the practice, I try to meditate every day.

In silent meditation the volume of the inner voice goes up. Our rate of thought-thinking increases, topics cascade over one another, and minutes can seem like hours. At the end, though, one senses a calm alertness, a sense of presence.

But it’s not for everyone. The mind’s relentless thinking can be a burden; for some, meditation is simply, as neuroscientist and author Sam Harris says, “thinking with your eyes closed”.

As one becomes comfortable with it, however, silence can be a sanctuary.

Although it is formless, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Like air, silence is everywhere. It’s the background to the sound-world, the canvas upon which life is painted.

It struck me that music and silence were two sides of the same coin and I began to explore how both could appear as one in an orchestral concert.

Both Mozart and Debussy observed that music is found in the silent spaces between the notes.  Miles Davis often said that what counts are not the notes you play but the notes you don’t play.

To merge silence and sound in a musical context demands that composer John Cage’s 4’33” be the “high point” of the concert. “Composed” in three movements for any ensemble of instruments, from solo piano to full symphony orchestra, the work requires the musicians and audience to sit in complete silence for four minutes and 33 seconds.

Cage, a Buddhist practitioner, gave to music what Robert Rauschenberg gave to art with his white canvas series. Both reflect the Bonsai tradition of exploring the “vacant” spaces between branch, twig and leaf.

The world premiere of 4’33” took place in 1952 and it has more recently been “played” by Frank Zappa, death metal band, Dead Territory (see video below), Moby and Depeche Mode, among many others.

The UK premiere of 4’33” took place in 2004 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

With all of this in mind, I created a Silent Concert. The first took place at Hobart’s Dark Mofo festival in 2017 with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. The piano version of Cage’s 4’33” was “played”, preceded by a suite of selected orchestral works designed to familiarise the audience with stillness.

It was also one of the few concerts ever presented devoid of any applause either before, during or after the music. No applause means the stillness earned is not interrupted.

The success of the Hobart experience has encouraged the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra to take the project one step further and be the first orchestra in Australia to devote the entire ensemble to John Cage’s 4’33”.

Silence with your ASO will take place on Friday, June 21 (International Day of Yoga), at 1pm and 6pm at the Grainger Studio in Hindley Street. The 60-minute event, introduced by Rainer Jozeps, will feature 43 ASO musicians playing works by Debussy, Grieg, Elgar and Pärt, and culminate with John Cage’s 4’ 33”. The audience is asked to remain silent throughout (including no applause).

Rainer Jozeps has been an executive in Australia’s arts industry for more 30 years. He has held senior roles with the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust, Adelaide Festival Centre, West Australian Ballet, Australian Dance Theatre and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

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