Silent music and the eternal silence

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


There are human, mystical perceptions of ‘silent music’, such as that of St John of the Cross. But could such a thing exist as a type of music?
St John’s ‘silent music’ is a ‘conceptual audition’ that is used to demonstrate a religious truth. It is typical for mystics to try and express numinous experiences through a mixture of images rooted strongly in the host culture, that also try and transcend the limitations of human experience. Was St John’s experience veridical, and if so, was it musical as well as mystical? It did offer him a new type of music, that did not require degeneration into the body in order to be expressed. So, it could be wholly satisfying as a musical experience. Maybe he experienced a real type of music. Other cultures consider this possible: the Indian treatise Sangîtaratnâkara describes both sounding and non-sounding forms of music, and the idea of a ‘silent music’ also occurs in the Zen koan of the solid iron that has neither fingerholes nor mouthpiece. So, the idea of ‘silent music’ is seen by some as an identifiably musical phenomenon as well as a symbol for spiritual contemplative experience. Others wish they had heard it: Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ‘Novice’ pleads for numinous experience to bypass the body altogether, and St Augustine would have tortured himself less if he had experienced music in this way.
What ‘silent music’ is not: Keats’s ‘unheard melodies’ in ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is not silent but merely unheard: given infinite time, the characters would move and their music would be heard. ‘Silent music’ is not the angelic songs which are heard inwardly, even though literally silent to the ear, since those mystics ‘heard’ identifiable music.
‘Silent music’ is ‘more’ than music and more than silence. However, the concept does inevitably invite consideration of music’s many different relationships with phenomenal silence, one of its Others. The more powerful these silences, that of frame and that which is musically contextual, the more they invite us to ponder on what music lacks that makes them so important: which makes the presence of silence so profound that to define it as any kind of absence is untenable. The problem with ‘ideal’ silences glimpsed in musical contexts is that they are still bounded by music, however. There is never enough time to transcend the moment before music interrupts us. Music should maybe not be elevated to a hegemonic position in the hierarchy of silence and sound which it does not deserve. But music can create silence in such a way as to underline the very importance of silence. For there can be no possibility that silence, unlike music, can ever disappoint us in the matter of mystery. Thus, silence can act as a fulcrum between worlds of the flesh and the spirit whether in the guise of ‘silent music’, as a thing-in-itself, as infinity, or nullity, or even an alternative dimension on the ‘other side’ of sound in which speculative musics can turn their course. In this way, the eternal silence can be conceptually present during the silences of music, and ‘silent music’ is immanent in the silence of contemplation.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAshgate
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - 2007

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