(and nothing in between)
In 1952 John Cage sat at a piano in front of a filled audience and performed, for the first time, 4′ 33”. The piece is still performed today. More recently the piece was played for a full orchestra. Either of these performances could be found on youtube, which I recommend because my description won’t compare to the experience of listening to them yourself, but I’ll try: not a single note is played. For four minutes and thirty-three seconds there is only silence.
Was that a performance? Is that music? If it makes people think, if it makes anyone think, it has to be valued as art. During a discussion of it my cousin said, “It makes you think of where music comes from, maybe music came from silence.” What a cool thought! Music probably began as mimicry of the sounds of nature, the rhythms of ocean waves or the flow of rivers, wind whistling through trees, wolves howling, birds singing, or even the sounds of ourselves. But we didn’t create them until we noticed their absence by listening to silence. The first whistle was maybe answering back an enjoyable bird’s song in the silence after it finished. Who would be surprised if the first hummed tune was a recreation of pleasurable sounds from an apart lover?
Mumford and Sons are, I guess, blowing up. That’s fine, that’s wonderful. I’m usually the last to know, but a friend played Babel at work, and I thought about them all day. Before I left I asked him the name of that band, “The McMuffin Brothers?” He looked at me kind of funny. “Mumford and Sons.” I bought Babel for my sister for her birthday and both their albums for myself (shows the kind of guy I am). My friend told they were four guys and no drummer. The only drumming is a bass drum played by the singer who also plays guitar. That fascinated me. How does a band decide to skip a drummer and just hook a bass drum up to the end of the leg of a guy who’s already doing two things?
Drummers are incredible musicians to manage to do different things with every limb and have them all sync up. But I imagine for highly skilled drummers what sets the best apart from the rest isn’t what they can do behind a drum set but what they don’t do. In writing, it’s the difference between writing well and writing to show people how well you write. In music, it’s valuing the silence being filled.
In my favorite song, “Holland Road” off Babel, the bass drum comes in and out, driving the song during the faster parts by simply counting the beats like a metronome. Then it goes away leaving a feeling of silence the other instruments and the singers fill. Really all their songs make silence a part of their sound. You almost wonder if Mumford and Sons are fans of John Cage and make music from the baseline that silence is precious, that silence is worth listening to, and they fill time with a heightened awareness of that. Reminds me of something my dad said after the performance of a symphony, “I wish people didn’t start clapping right away. The silence after the end is important.”