“Presenting Absence: Constitutive silences in music and sound art since the 1950s” (Juliana Hodkinson)

Ph.D. thesis, Department of Musicology, Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen, 2007

Contents (summary)
Chapter 1: Literary, historical and theoretical pretexts
Chapter 2: Cagean silence
Chapter 3: Midcentury sensibilities and the empty artwork
Chapter 4: Schweigen
Chapter 5: Hören
Chapter 6: Negative presentation
Chapter 7: Subliminal sound art
Bibliography and appendices


A blank compact disc arrives in the post in an unmarked jewelcase.

A score instructs the solo performer to remain ‘tacet
through the first, second and third of its three movements.

On a compact disc of 36 tracks, 18 of them contain no audio.

A score indicates every note with a new dynamic – mainly between pppp and mp – and asks the players to sing fragments of poetry silently.

A deep rumble reminds me of the CD I forgot I put on half an hour ago. Musicians freeze on stage and an audience freezes too,

listening and watching for the continuation or the end of the piece.

I shift my headphones on and off one ear, to decide

whether what I hear is a plane passing overhead or part of a piece of sound art.

This 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 art1 created for compact disc at the turn of the millennium. The study focuses on western artworks that I regard as centrally constituted by the presentation of some type of absent sound, working at the extremes of the listener’s perception or powers of aesthetic conception, sometimes both.

My general aim is to analyse and conceptualise notions of silence in music and sound art, where silence is both a term under interrogation, and a collective abbreviation for a broad and disparate range of musical absences: lack of sound, lack of ‘authored’ sounds, sounds too quiet to be heard, sounds delayed or postponed indefinitely.

My work both interrogates and confirms the continuity, status and meaning of the term ‘silence’, through detailed discussions of, say, the extended fermata, the empty musical work, or the absence of audio input on compact disc.

Silence is conventionally a background against which the figure of music is perceived. By reversing polarities and treating silence as the figure to be examined against the background of music, my project – like its research objects – may seem antagonistic towards music, mu- sicology, and all that is commonly understood by musicianship, musical expression and mu- sical experience. There are few concessions here to general music-making. However, many apparent attacks on central paradigms of music reveal themselves in action to be integral  to the constant reactualisation of the artform, and it is in this vein that I regard the possibly anti-musical appearance of my research subject as hopefully constructive to the ongoing practices of both music and musicology.

The kernel of this thesis is formed by discussions of silences and quietings from three traditions or repertoires that share areas of overlap but are not continuous in any simple way. These are: (i) mid-20th century ‘empty’ artworks (e.g. John Cage’s 4’33”); (ii) late-20th century scored silences (e.g. in Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille, and Salvatore Sciarrino’s Lo spazio in- verso); (iii) new-millennium digital silences on compact disc (e.g. Christof Migone’s album Quieting). These discussions of individual works and historical moments are framed and perforated by theoretical, historical and philosophical considerations, which aim to relate the peripheral nature of the works and of this thesis to larger intellectual and musical contexts.

Different works prompt different theoretical considerations, and there is not one over- riding theoretical approach in this thesis. Therefore, I have chosen to address theoretical aspects alongside the presentation and analysis of the individual works, instead of collecting all my theoretical reflections in one chapter.

If I seem to claim occasionally that the peripheries I discuss ‘exemplify’ more broad- ranging intellectual and artistic trends, it is not that I am evangelising for a recognition of the hitherto-neglected importance of these works in a larger framework, rather that I hope to join the apparent obscurity of my research interest to other dialogues within and outside the academic and artistic spheres.

My central interest is in the fascination and provocation provided by music and sound art within the western tradition that seems, intuitively, obtuse to almost any kind of analysis. Aesthetic and academic problems seem to reach a state of emergency when these artworks meet conventional tools of understanding. In this sense, ‘silence’ as a formulation of this difficulty is like the equally slippery subject of, say, musical time (as opposed to, say, tempo, metre or rhythm). Conceptions of silence are so integral to the fabric of music and sound art that it seems useless to try to isolate them.

Although the inability of traditional academic tools (such as structural and harmonic analysis) to close in on these elusive concepts may indicate a futility of engaging with them at all, a compelling intensity of experience comes from these apparently obscure aspects of music. It is important for the humanities to engage with issues that are founded in such recalcitrant experiences of intensity, despite all the issues that escape an academic approach.

I have narrowed the period and range of my discussion to the half-century between the genesis of Cagean silence and the recent reappearance of a kind of aesthetics of silence within digital sound art.

The Cagean premise to the chronology of this thesis reflects an everyday truism that arises at the very mention of the word ‘silence’ within musical circles. Just as Cage once fa- mously said that ‘sounds are not sounds, they’re Beethoven’2, many feel that ‘silence is not silence, it’s Cage’. But at the same time, I feel that silence is as little exhausted or completed by Cage as sounds were by Beethoven; the projection of the discussion of silence onto subse- quent repertoires and very different aesthetic standpoints is designed to show this.

This study is not the, or even an aesthetics of silence. Nevertheless, readers will right- fully expect an attempt at definitions of silence, particularly as the instances I discuss may not seem to be bound by any acoustic or stylistic self-evidence. The use of the common label ‘silence’ to cover relatively disparate phenomena is a rhetoric produced by various prejudices (of both negative and positive nature) within the ways we discuss music and sound art. One of my main tenets is that not all radical or constitutive silences can be reduced to a common aesthetic strategy – neither in their production nor experience – and that they therefore de- mand separate discursive contexts. The question is how each of these silences appears to the senses, and what paradigms they work within and against.

I wish to express thanks above all to my PhD supervisor Søren Møller Sørensen, as well as the following people who have given their time for reading, discussion and advice, or simply shown interest and given good tips and references along the way: Jan Allen, Nikolaus Bacht, Jens Brincker, Christa Brüstle, John Deathridge, Sanne Krogh Groth, Jette Barnholdt Hansen, Jens Hesselager, Suzanne Hodkinson, Fabian Holt, Jonathan Impett, Edward Jessen, Douglas Kahn, Hans-Jörg Kapp, Magnus Fridal Kaslov, Joachim Koester, Yannis Kyriakides, Brandon LaBelle, Jeremy Llewellyn, Francisco López, Henrik Marstal, Hans Mathiasen, Christof Migo- ne, Carola Nielinger, Bryony and Peter Nowell, Ingeborg Okkels, Magnus Majmon Olsen, David Osmond-Smith, Anders Reuter, Nick Reyland, Matt Rogalsky, Torben Sangild, Norio Sato, Rebecca Saunders, Philip Schuessler, Heinrich Schwab, Henrik Smith-Sivertsen, Karl- heinz Stierle, Frederik Tygstrup, Gary Tomlinson, Cynthia Troup, Elena Ungeheuer, Janne Vanhanen, Sven-Olof Wallenstein, Rob C. Wegman, Jens Westergaard Madsen, Ståle Wikshå- land and Peter Woetmann Christoffersen. And to the administrative and reception staff at the Department of Musicology, for continuous help in the day-to-day minutiae of university life. Special thanks, of course, to my friends and family – especially Thomas, and Magnus Yarra – for being the support and antidote to this project.

Thanks are due also to Peters Edition, for permission to reproduce the score of John Cage’s 4’33”, to Alien8 Recordings, for permission to reproduce the cover of Christof Migo- ne’s album Quieting, and to Bremsstrahlung Recordings, for permission to reproduce the inside of the Lowercase-sound 2002 compilation box. Due to copyright regulations, other scores and excerpts are included in a separate appendix, together with a sample CD including some of the music and sound art discussed here.


The term ‘silence’ is used about music at a number of levels, most of which are superficially descriptive, often metaphorical. In popular music, silent titles abound, usually announcing a kind of ‘cool’ style. In mainstream pop, there is Paul Simon’s song ‘The sound of silence’ from the album Wednesday morning 3 A.M. (1964); in progressive rock, Einstürzende Neubauten released a whole album under the title Silence is sexy (2000), and in jazz there is Miles Davis’ ‘In a silent way’ (1969), Chick Corea’s ‘Crystal silence’ (1972) and Charlie Haden’s ‘Silence’ on the album Folk songs (1979) by Haden, Garbarek and Gismonti, not to mention John Wideman’s short story ‘The silence of Thelonius Monk’ (1997). Somewhere in between, there’s Brian Eno’s ‘global silence’1, and ambient titles from Steve Roach, Pete Namlock & Dr. Atmo. Many classical music critics, journalists and even composers themselves have described the scored music of, say, Sciarrino, Takemitsu, Pärt and Kurtàg as characterised by a poetics of silence. In sound art, silence is associated with the work of Rolf Julius, Christina Kubisch and Christian Marclay, and crops up in the titles of whole collective exhibition-installations, anthologies and albums – for instance, the group audio exhibition ‘Unsilently’ (Contemporary Artists Center, 2005)2, and the multi-media exhibition ‘Disquiet’ curated by Christof Migone (Modern Fuel Gallery, 2005).3

Is there something in common between these uses of the term ‘silence’? Is it a purely de- scriptive term, or is it also a compositional parameter? How do various instances of ‘silence’ manifest themselves to the listener in music and sound art?

In a German musical lexicon entry on ‘Stille’ at the end of the 20th century, Wilhelm Seidel claimed that silence had become a ‘Modewort’ in late 20th-century scored music (Seidel 1998, p. 1760). Further, he felt that silence as such had become a compositional parameter with an entirely different status than previous the previous use of pauses and rests in western art music, and that this change had produced a corresponding shift in the listener’s mode of reception.

Seidel’s authoritative stance emanates from the position of central European scored art music and reception aesthetics, and needs perspectivising. This I do partly by looking back to historical precedents within western art music (including a detailed re-evaluation of the Cagean silence paradigm), and also by looking laterally to sound art at the turn of the mil- lennium, where both composition and the aesthetics of reception play entirely different roles than in scored music. Underlying all the discussions in this thesis is a desire to illuminate my intuitive feeling that the works I focus on are constituted by some form of interesting or pro- vocative silence. The absence of sound seems to be a core factor in how the works are made and what effects they produce.

Within the field of soundworks fixed in notation or digital audio between the mid-20th century and the turn of the millennium, my three specific areas of research are: (i) mid-20th century Cagean silence, (ii) scored chamber music by Luigi Nono and Salvatore Sciarrino from the 1980s, and (iii) digital sound art by Christof Migone and Francisco López from around the turn of the millennium. These three areas share some similarities (for example, they are all highly specialised practices). They are also separated by some differences (most centrally, the role of writing vs. audio processing as methods of inscription). They demon- strate what very different forms constitutive silences can have and ditto what disparate effects they can produce.

I am not suggesting there is a thing called silence that exists as an inherent property of artworks. Conceptualisations provide cognitive frames for our perceptions; we listen within categorical forms, which in turn influence what we hear (and what we don’t hear). Silence is not a self-evident term, but is culturally and historically specific; in summary, it is a context-dependent, or social idea.

I point to a series of highly differentiated phenomena in disparate artworks, and ex- amine the term ‘silence’ as a trope under which these qualities are sometimes grouped – by convention, or through influential patterns of reception. The status and meaning of the term ‘silence’ therefore varies somewhat throughout the thesis, and my work consists in a push- pull of linking and separating the different qualities that I find salient for the continuity of the catch-all term.

All the works I discuss here involve a considerable element of abstraction, achieved at least partly through an economical approach to sound. They uphold some kind of strin- gency, within metaphysically or conceptually oriented approaches to art-making. A certain authorial distance towards some of the material aspects of sound can be observed, alongside a voluntary opening towards the questioning of fundamental prerequisites of art, aesthetic thought and perceptual experience.

All the chosen works operate within largely non-referential genres. By non-referential, I mean that there is no spoken or sung text (except at a step well removed, in the case of Nono’s Fragmente – Stille), no visual image (except what one might glean from a CD-cover or score) nor dramatic form; no representation in any straightforward sense. Whether string quartet or sound art CD, all the works discussed here arise on the basis of an assumption of some level of acoustic autonomy that is independent of language, dramatic narrative and visual image. Nevertheless, as I will show, referentiality is still a possible parameter at other levels.

At one end of the historical spectrum of my main research there is John Cage. Commen- tators continue to discuss whether his embrace of unplanned sounds was a move toward the literal, or an embrace of the abstract, with discussion often taking the form of a re-position- ing of midcentury artists such as Cage, Barnett Newman, and Robert Rauschenberg around terms such as ‘modernism’, ‘abstract expressionism’, etc. At the other end, there are present sound artists such as Christof Migone and Francisco López, who seem to represent a return to indulgence in form for form’s sake and a revival of restraint and reduction, as well as a post-Cagean focus on the perceptual act itself.

The kinds of silence discussed, and thus the artworks that I consider to be constituted by them, may be characterised as either tediously banal, self-indulgent and farcical, or as in- terestingly intransparent, inorganic, and obscure. There seems to be an obstruction in these works that places aesthetic difficulty in conflict with the extravagant simplicity of the mate- rial aspects that constitute them (in as far as the reader will agree with me from artwork to artwork that the silences I study are indeed constitutive of the works they are involved in). This spasm of perceived difficulty in simplicity is interesting in itself, to me, as a dynamic in our aesthetic sensing.

The very idea of dedicating a PhD project to musical silence aims surely to elicit dense communication from an apparently simple surface (blank notation, long pauses in performance, CDs with audio lacunae, whatever). It is not an examination of individual pauses, rests, and empty moments within otherwise fluent musical contexts. Rather, it is a study of how pauses, rests and empty moments conspire, by accumulation, to stop musical fluency. Thus this is primarily a study in aesthetic paradigms and concepts.

A word or two needs to be said, then, about the seemingly total irrelevancy of a thesis on basically modernist aesthetics in relation to obscure and little-known artworks, at a time when the very position of the arts within public culture seems in need of re-legitimisation or at least renewed relevancy. The term ‘modernism’ and the artworks historically associated with it are notorious for representing exactly the kind of elite culture that has marginalised itself and al- lowed itself to become first polarised and then eclipsed by popular culture. Many will see this thesis as closing in a set of relatively parochial – even, stigmatised – artistic concerns.

There is some disagreement as to whether artforms that are perceived to be minor, parochial and autonomous (in the sense of ‘irrelevant’) occupy a more, or less, conserva- tive and reactionary position than engaging with music that many more people have a re- lationship to (for example, canonic music of older historical periods, music recent popular cultural forms, or music of cultures in other ways far removed from the western classical academy and its influences).

At the same time, it is also possible to detect a current rise of general interest in the mod- ernist paradigm at several levels. One popular instance of this was a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, in spring 2006: ‘Modernism: – designing a new world, 1914-1939’. The V&A’s Modernism exhibition attracted large audiences (160, 000 visitors) and also triggered a wider media debate on modernism’s historical dimension. Aside from inevitable differences in opinion about what should have been included or omitted from  the exhibition, the controversy turned mainly on the extent to which it is possible today to separate the modernist aesthetic from its historical associations with totalitarian regimes of one persuasion or another. In other words, can we use the term modernism today in anything other than a historical sense? Can we say that there is a quasi-timeless modernist aesthetic?

A consideration of the use of the term ‘modernism’ within style and design today would leave no doubt as to aesthetic modernism’s ability to thrive within a culture of pluralistic individualism. The Apple company’s iPod and iMac designs (released first in white, then in black) sum it all up neatly. Similarly, there seems to be a revival underway of quasi-modernist aesthetic strategies within the arts. And within art theory, advocates of high modernism such as the philosopher Theodor Adorno are coming back into parlance, rinsed of many of the historical idiosyncracies that made them unpalatable for several decades.

Modernism has given western musical culture a vocabulary for accepting all kinds of organised sound as music. The main legacy of extreme artistic abstraction is that more or less any sonic articulation can be appreciated for its inherent aesthetic qualities: a field recording, the whine of amplifier feedback or the crackle of electric static, audience coughs and shuf- flings, the urban or rural sounds floating in through an open window, or … a duration of time framed as apparent silence. Although this situation often makes it hard to discern what is music and what is not, it has nurtured our ability to contemplate all the sounds we hear.

Equally notorious terms such as ‘avantgarde’ and ‘postmodernism’ turn on one’s under- standing of modernism, and on one’s perception of the necessity (or irrelevancy) of chalking up such positions at the present time. Discussion on these terms has been vital, contentious, and virtually ubiquitous across the humanities and social sciences for several decades. Now that the disagreement is complete, it would seem that the energy has run out of the debate and become ‘academic’ in the purely pejorative sense. However, here too I sense the returned relevancy of these terms for both artists and critics today. Visual-art critics talk of one or several neo-avantgardes, and within sound art the term neo-modernism has recently been coined, specifically in relation to ‘silent’ sound art. I will therefore be taking up these terms repeatedly throughout this thesis. For my project, it is not so much a matter of deciding whether certain artworks are, or are not, modernist, avantgarde, postmodernist, or whatever. Rather, I propose that the choice of radical silence is one among many characteristic and ap- propriate responses to artistic challenges since the mid-20th century.

Naturally, the traditions and research interests of colleagues at the University of Copen- hagen’s Department of Musicology have influenced me. Foremost among them is my su- pervisor Søren Møller Sørensen, whose thesis on the principle of autonomy and the work concept in musical aesthetics in the 19th and 20th centuries has of course been paradigmatic for many of our discussions (Sørensen, 1992), as well as his current research interests in per- formativity. A course on ‘Hermeneutik og genstridig kunst’ (hermeneutics and difficult art) also made a deep impression on my research project.5

I came to the subject of silence in aesthetic listening first as practitioner (composer), and my research project was motivated partly by a desire to step back from artistic production in order to explore some aesthetic pre-conceptions that were at play in my own practice. It may seem obtuse, then, to choose deliberately not to include in this thesis the realm of silence that is my main passion and prime motivator: namely, my own artistic contact with quiet and absent sounds. The reason for this is partly psychotherapeutic (!) but also professional, arising from a desire to keep my own artistic activities separated from the cross-fire of criti- cal interrogation that artists are so famously ill-equipped to exercise upon their own work. I say this despite the normative tradition in my country of origin (the UK) and in American- Australian music faculties and academies for composers to take professional doctorates. My PhD project is conducted in Denmark, where there are as yet no independent precedents  for the English model (i.e. the professional doctorate). This thesis stands or falls on purely academic grounds, and the process through which it is produced is one of training to be a researcher, including all the many roles that make up the life of an academic working within the humanities today.

Having said that, it must be acknowledged that the academic humanities are under in- creasing internal and external pressure to interact reciprocally with the fields that they study. At the same time, artistic practitioners are continually challenged to actualise their activities in relation to a range of contexts beyond the inherited art-institutional frameworks. This is not only a passing political situation, but also an ongoing transformation of the role of educational and cultural institutions within the public sphere. Despite the abstraction of the academic enterprise, the academic humanities are not a disembodied set of ideas but a force inextricably bound up in these institutions and a discursive practice between readers and writers situated in them. It now feels entirely natural for many academics and artists to participate in this devel- opment by pursuing career strands across these communities of production and reception.

This creates situations that can be regarded as problematic for those of a purist persua- sion within either academia or artistic practice, who may object that artists are not required to unpack the environments and frameworks within which they work. The intellectualisation of the avantgarde, it may be argued, is precisely what has brought much art into its present crisis of total marginalisation and alienation towards its own audiences.

One line of defence here lies in a requirement for artistic practitioners to be aesthetically well grounded – precisely in order to maintain the specialness of their own way of producing events and objects within the world. I have expanded this point elsewhere6, so I will not go into it here. However, the specific instance of the 21st-century artist’s immersion in what can be grouped under the umbrella term‘post-structuralist theory’ seems to be a major paradigm within the visual arts and within sound art, and I will return to this in my discussion of sub- liminal sound art.

What concerns us here more pressingly is the academic objection to a personal invest- ment in both practice and research fields: namely, that by researching a field that one par- ticipates in oneself, the researcher loses epistemological neutrality, remaining blind to her own prejudices, with the risk – probability, even – of projecting these prejudices onto her re- search objects. Against this, I would posit the theoretical paradigm of situated or perspectival knowledge, which has been ubiquitous in the humanities for several decades already, growing out of post-colonial and gender studies. According to this way of looking at things, crucially significant values attach to the very choices writers make about what to write about (however they do it), and thus there is no non-subjective, über-personal stance when engaging in even the most rigorously systematic academic work.

There are great gains to be made from artists and scholars’ getting involved in one an- other’s environments, even to the point of some players having ‘double identities’. This cross- fertilisation contributes to the vitality of both fields. So I acknowledge with no apology the fact that my participation in some of the fields discussed here entails a personal investment in many of the key paradigms: musical artworks, the performing arts, the paradigm of the composer, the usefulness of notation as a tool in live performance, and the potential of the digital medium, to take just a few examples.

Another – more general – admission of the perspectival nature of my position in rela- tion to this project concerns history and history-writing. The chronological movement with- in the period discussed here is not only a movement between the mid-20th century and the turn of the millennium, but also from the past to the present. The discussion of the mid-20th century involves works, commentaries and issues that are considerably more stable than the discussion of the most recent sound art, where consensus and shared vocabularies are rare exceptions. It is easier to talk authoritatively about the past than the present. The present has a special status over the past, however, because of our personal involvement in it. Therefore there is a sense in which the reader can regard all my historical discussions concerning the past as background for the proposal that some (though not all) aspects of previous silences are reanimated in the age of digital audio.

The dynamics of the historical and contemporary dimensions in researching both the present and the past are a major theoretical issue for the humanities, and one that I cannot possibly honour here. However, I hope that a presentation of some of the deeper historical precedents for my chosen period of musical silence phenomena may go some way towards providing the reader with a context for my ensuing discussions.