By the simplest definition, music is nothing more than “organized sound and silence.” Organization indicates structure and intent. It is certainly that. That this organization requires sound is also a given. Music is nothing without the notes, chords, and dynamics that coalesce to shape the composer’s message and emotion. The variety of the individual notes and range at which they rise and fall within a particular scale match the speed of the tempo to create those timeless fragments of sound that play in our heads as we live our lives.
So, that’s it. Right? What about the silence? What about the space that occurs between the beats? More importantly, what about the space, the silence, between the notes? What role does this play in what we hear and dance to?
By its very nature, silence makes human beings uncomfortable. We feel awkward when we have nothing to say. It’s common to encounter acquaintances entering an elevator, and after the usual pleasantries, end with the pressing of a floor button, we universally stare up at the lights indicating movement to the floor that will release either us or the known stranger from our temporary miniature hell. We fidget and close our eyes in our attempt to speed time forward. Time remains steady and unyielding, much the like the meticulous snap of a drummer executing crisp snare hits on the 4/4 beat of a pop hit playing at 110 beats per minute. We don’t have notes to play, and each beat brings anxiety to our trip.
Silence can be of tremendous value. This is especially true in a business world filled with negotiations, discussion, and conversation. Business is often about opposing sides playing out decisions in a chess-like game of negotiation and compromise; each side attempting to gain the greatest value with the smallest cost possible. This is where the art of space and silence play into human nature.
People dislike silence. Thought comes into selecting what comes next. This can be the next word or phrase to say, or it could be the next note or chord that a musician plays. There is no difference whatsoever. Sometimes in the give-and-take of business discussion, an impasse will come and both parties will slip into a stillness of speech. This is where silence becomes a benefit to those comfortable with it. Let it play out, let it envelope the words and notes that have been played. Music is a conversation, much like any other. It is just notes, not words. Those uncomfortable with the concept of silence may very well speak without fully considering their next move and may inadvertently compromise a previous point, or worse, give up the very that that is most important. Advantage: the side comfortable with the silence of the moment.
Every person has succumbed to the temptation to break the silence that faces us. Sometimes it is something irrelevant–the small talk about the weather, a recent sports score, or simple comment on the surrounding environment. At worst, it is an ill-advised, potentially offensive statement that may contain unintended consequences that a more reasoned, better thought out, less hastily arrived at thought might have reached. You cannot rush the drummer’s snare hits at 110 BPM, yet we still try just to alleviate the pain of silence.
Jazz great Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play.” This is the space between. Once again, Miles offers us true wisdom that belies his gruff, unyielding personality. Miles always lived his life just like his music. His was quick minded, but he also understood and allowed the space existing between his notes to define his greatest works.
Part of this may be due to the fast-paced, racing tempo of life. We continue to pack each moment with events, tasks, and activity. There is rarely the time to let the repercussions of that moment to silently dissolve around us. They say that nature abhors a vacuum, but I tend to disagree somewhat. I am taking some extreme liberties here, but Aristotle’s idiom expressed the idea that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural and go against the laws of nature and physics. Uncomfortable perhaps, but hardly unnatural.
As a musician, I have always struggled with space. I have the internal urge to fill every space with as many notes as I can. Sometimes when I play, I’m like the person who constantly talks without pausing to either consider what is being said or to give anyone else room to interject their thoughts.
This may be one of the reasons why the driving rhythms of Punk Rock appeal to me. After a brisk “1-2-3-4” count, the Ramones launch into the blinding speed of a track like “Judy Is A Punk” relentlessly until the end. Every aspect of the song is constant movement, from Dee Dee Ramone’s taut bass line to Johnny Ramone’s buzz saw guitar. The only space is forward movement.
Oddly enough, another band that came from the Punk era defined one of the best uses of “Space” in their music. Led by bass player Sting, The Police incorporated the rhythmic “call and response” nature of Reggae with the aggression of Punk to carve out a unique area in popular music. Albums like Reggatta de Blanc took the fury of tracks like “It’s Alright For You” and placed them next to spacious, airy songs like “Walking on the Moon.”
There is a sparseness to “Walking on the Moon” that is unusual and open. Starting with Stewart Copeland’s gentle high-hat beats, a beat is merely suggested. It is not actively stated in the manner a usual dance track might. Sting’s 2-note, 3-beat bassline appears next and is followed by Andy Summer’s single, shimmering guitar chord that is allowed to decay before any other instruments sound. It is an instrumental version of an ellipsis. It merely suggests what is contextually next without needing to sound again. It suggests vastness, a space that is somehow both occupied and unoccupied. The sparseness of space allows subtle tensions to exist between the beats and moves the song from just good to greatness.
While the Police effectively use space as an ensemble, the role of individual players using this concept in their parts also contributes by following a “less is more” approach. U2’s The Edge is a great example through the choices he makes. On “Gloria” from the October album, he takes a minimalist approach building a guitar part comprised of spidery single notes during the verses, before spare, simple harmonics float in the chorus to build tension and mystery
One of the most natural users of space in his playing is found in the work of Jeff Beck. Long string bends on tracks like “’Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers” from 1975’s Blow By Blow help him unearth an emotional depth to the tune absent in Syreetta Wrights’ version of the Stevie Wonder penned composition. Simply put, by his understanding of the emotional value of space, a gifted player like Beck can say more in just two notes than what most others possibly could say in 2,000. The breathing in, holding, and slow exhaling of music through his instrument makes it so effective.
Drummers with an innate sense of time are instrumental in the sense of space. Like Copeland, French drummer Manu Katché uses his percussion tools to play around the beat without actually striking it. This implied beat is understood and felt rather than heard. Aside from his percussion on albums with Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Joe Satriani, his ability to play around and within the beat can be found in “Flame & Co.” and “Ride Me Up” both found on Katchés 2016 solo album, Unstatic.
John Coltrane’s use of space in the introduction to “Blue Train” is inspiring. He lets the barest sensation of air exist between the initial phrases build tension before the entire sextet explodes into the joyous cacophony of sound on the 1958 Jazz Hard Bop classic. Each of the six players in turn, take their moments, but each is distinctly aware of the space between each of them and use it to masterfully react to the opening set-up that Coltrane’s tenor saxophone has set up in the opening.
Whether implied or directly stated, space exists between all the notes in our lives and in the music we hear. Oftentimes, this is where the most interesting mysteries can be found. In our modern day hustle and bustle world, these are the pauses that are essential. They are the rests and still moments where imagination and the next move are often found. As Depeche Mode once said, “Enjoy the Silence.”
Grabbing My Ears:
The Replacements–For Sale: Live at Maxwell’s 1986
The Replacements were one of those too-good-to-be-true bands. Raw & uncompromising live, they could veer from horrible, to incredible to horrible again, generally all within the space of the same song. This February 1986 recording, taken during the band’s tour in support of their first major label release, Tim, is one of the last times that the original four members played together. Leader and songwriter Paul Westerberg’s songs mixed the snotty with the heartfelt, while drummer Chris Mars, then 19-year old bassist Tommy Stinson, and his older brother Bob Stinson delivered the furious, snarling attack that fueled the band. In a perfect world, this blistering Minneapolis band should have the level of attention and fame that was eventually showered on Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Everything that made the ‘Mats such a vital band can be found here. Early track “Johnny’s Gonna Die” layers darkness with glimpses of light that make the inevitable 1991 death of the song’s subject, Johnny Thunders, sound tragic and eerily prescient. “I Will Dare” contains a looseness absent from the studio version found on Let It Be while Bob Stinson’s guitar work on “Answering Machine” is so awfully out of tune it counts as comic relief. The quartet’s boldness in carrying on despite this is their particular charm. For those of us who loved the band during the mid-1980s, this album is essential. For those who weren’t, this is a chance to hear what you missed.
First Aid Kit–Stay Gold
On their 2014 album, Swedish duo First Aid Kit release a record rife in 1970s-style Americana that is vast, earthy, and tuneful. From opening track “My Silver Lining” to the gentle piano-based closer “A Long Time Ago”, the Söderberg sisters assemble an album that defies the boundaries of “folk.” With Johanna on vocals, bass guitar, synth, and Auto Harp, and Kiara on vocals and guitar, Stay Gold is a real delight. Word has it that they will be releasing a new record soon. If you are unfamiliar with them, this is a good way to prepare.
Jeff Beck–Blow By Blow
I will admit it. One of the great things about writing this column is that it requires me to go back and dig into music from my past that I haven’t listened to in quite a while. One of the gifts this time around was going back and spending some time listening to this masterwork by one of the great British guitar greats. I am not certain that I have sat and listened to this from all the way through since hearing it with an old school classmate living in Upper Arlington, Ohio in 1978. I think a big piece of it is that Beck is perennially overlooked. Aside from his mercurial temperament, Beck is denied the respect due to his acknowledged peers by his lack of a definable, associated “legendary” band. That is a shame. A master “feel” player who wrings passion and emotion out of all 6 strings are tough to find, and Blow By Blow is masterclass example of how it is done.
Mike + The Mechanics–Let Me Fly
I know that there will be more than a few people surprised to discover Genesis guitarist Mike Rutherford’s band released a new album in 2017. Even more will be taken aback to find out that it is actually quite good. The Mechanics continue to employ the 2-vocalist approach in their music, and this time it is Andrew Roachford and Tim Howar handling the singing duties, replacing Paul Carrack and the late Paul Young. Roachford’s appearance is particularly welcome thanks to his past life fronting the band Roachford, on the fantastic 1994 British Top 40 hit “Lay Your Love On Me.” Standout tracks include “Don’t Know What Came Over Me,” “High Life,” “Are You Ready” and the title track.
That’s The Ticket… (NOT!)
OK, so I went to the Minneapolis Sandcrawler (aka U.S. Bank Stadium) last month to see U2 perform The Joshua Tree from beginning to end. Let me put it this way: it was a good show but it was not a great show. That statement is in no way a negative statement on the boys from Ireland. What limited the show was entirely the venue. At no time should music ever be attempted in this 1.1 Billion Dollar echo chamber. The design should be the first warning—glass, steel, concrete, and odd angles make for an environment where sound waves bounce and ricochet like a rubber ball blasted out of a cannon in racket ball court.
For hard rock bands, this can be overcome with simply blasting the sound levels all the way into the red. For acts with any level of musical dynamics—like U2— that range from the softness of “With or Without You” to the fury of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” it is a nightmare.
Word is that Kenny Chesney is coming back to the Twin Cites for a concert next year on May 5, 2018. Chesney, who has played Target Field in 2012, 2013 and two shows in 2015, will make his next stop at the Sandcrawler. While this landscape blemish certainly enables more people to be packed in for the show, those who do go will be be subjected to easily the worst acoustics that exist anywhere in the Twin Cities Metro Area. You are better off playing Life on a Rock on a burnt-out cassette boombox in your downstairs bathroom. Don’t even get me started about the actual bathrooms…
While I wish it was because Target Field is not available (The Twins are on the road from May 3-15, 2018), that doesn’t appear to be the case here. This is a shame for the die-hard members of the “No Shoes Nation.” Tickets for the general public are on sale now. Good luck, kids. You have been warned.
This article was edited by Rachel Wohrlin
Daniel G. Moir is a freelance writer, musician, part-time DJ and baseball enthusiast. Mostly, though, he is among the most passionate music fans and aficionados of our time. He can be contacted at @DMoir5150.
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