January 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

– Eugen Gomringer

I played the cello for about 10 years during my childhood. One of the first lessons I learned, and the one that has stuck with me, was the importance of silence, that the nothings were equal to the notes. This idea has circulated in music forever — without rests music becomes one jumbled mess of A B Cs — but perhaps was never more eloquently expressed than in John Cage’s 4’33”.

Cage’s piece isn’t just about silence. It is also about what ambient sounds break the silence and become part of the piece — the audience rustle, the lone cough, the slammed door as one leaves the concert hall. Silence is where things happen.

Likewise in the poem. There are 14 instances of silencio and not a single one of them is actually silent. We get a representation of the word, but are not shown its meaning. It is only when the word doesn’t appear, in the white box of its absence, that we begin to understand what silence incorporates, what it really sounds like. We need the noise of the silencios to realize true silence, just like how 4’33” needs all of those ambient sounds to illustrate silence’s fleeting nature.

In his essay on concrete poetry, Roberto Simanowski describes the effect:

[The] gap is the point in Gomringer’s piece for which all other words are just a preparation because the gap conveys the message that, strictly speaking, silence can only be articulated by the absence of any words…Certainly, the message is to be seen but it will only be revealed on the fundament that one did read the surrounding words before.

Pure silence is ephemeral, impossible, rare. Like that missing silencio in the poem, the only way to experience it is to not be there.

4’33” at the Barbican:

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