The Silent Note

October 1, 2014

Do you remember the phrase in that old Coca Cola commercial, “The pause that refreshes?”

It did nothing for me at the time because I don’t even like the drink. Still, the commercial initiated something quite unintended. Rather than coaxing me to go around the corner and buy a bottle of Coke, the single word “pause” in the ad somehow made me think of music. A pause, more commonly referred to as a rest—that empty space large or small in between notes—is a vital if literally unheard element of music.

Composers write rests into their music for a reason but it’s tempting to be dismissive about those empty spaces. After all, they are merely the absence of sound—a filler, a vacuum, a mini black hole in which one can get lost. Students, especially, often shortchange a rest’s duration in their eagerness to continue playing. I imagine they’re thinking it’s better to get across that uncomfortable non-sound without too much fuss or attention.

But is a rest really a non-sound? The term seems to diminish and trivialize an important part of music—even at times the most important element in a musical statement. Or as Coca Cola would say, the pause that refreshes. Or dramatizes. Or allows for a transition from one mood to another. In its most basic form, a rest provides something akin to the time needed for a singer to take another breath.

Music is littered with rests. Something as commonplace as the Happy Birthday Song has two mini-rests at its beginning. Birthday celebrations wouldn’t be ruined without them but the song would certainly sound odd, even breathless, you might say.

In a slightly more serious vein, think of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet without the four rests separating the initial groups of notes that announce the ominous nature of the music. One could argue that these rests are as important as the notes themselves. Perhaps it would be wiser to call them silent notes rather than anything else.

Or what about Haydn’s “Joke” String Quartet? The joke at the end of the last movement from which the quartet gets its name is all about the rests, the stops and starts, the false endings as the work comes to its conclusion. How these rests are handled separates the quartets that know how to tell a joke from those that don’t. I would ask any group contemplating a performance of this quartet whether they know how to deliver a punch line successfully.

The sheer heft and feel of the rest in music, that elusive apparition, is hinted at in a stanza from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem by Wallace Stevens:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Actors know all about rests. They must if they hope to have any impact. Consider Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be? That is the question.” Not enough time taken between those two sentences and they fall flat. Too much time and they become bland and even incoherent. But exactly how much time in between any two words or for that matter any two notes is exactly right? That is the magic inherent in every rest that musicians, actors, lovers, and politicians spend their lives searching for.

Comedians especially depend on rests. My friend, Lincoln Mayorga, was at one time the pianist and arranger for the rock and roll group, The Four Preps. He told me that they were once the opening act in a touring variety show, followed by the great comedian George Burns. The Four Preps mainly sang, but they mixed in a little comedy. In the song “Up Lazy River” one of the group shrieked and fell into another’s arms after the line, “Throw away your troubles, dream a dream of me.” It always got a laugh.

Burns, standing in the wings and preparing to go on stage, witnessed this little scene night after night. As the group came off stage one evening, Burns made a suggestion. Wait two beats before you shriek and you’ll get a bigger laugh, he told them.

Sure enough, the next night, acting on Burns’s advice, they got twice the laugh. As they walked off the stage, Burns refused their thanks. I was wrong, he said. Tomorrow night, wait only one beat and you’ll bring the house down.

And that is exactly what happened.

If George Burns were still alive today, he of all people might be able to help a young quartet successfully deliver the joke of Haydn’s “Joke” String Quartet. I can almost hear him saying, “No, no. Wait one beat instead of two and you’ll bring the house down.”

 

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Comments

  1. From Nan on October 1, 2014

    And think of the “rests” or spaces inherent n the visual arts. I’ve always been interested in this subject and how it applies to most everything. Thanks, Arnold!

  2. From Mark Klein on October 1, 2014

    Thanks for the wonderful story, Mr. Steinhardt. I always learn something from reading your posts – until today I hadn’t heard of Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet but will now seek it out for a listen. I love the way you refer to a rest as a “silent note”, and had never thought of it this way.

    Thanks again!

  3. From Carlos Cabezas on October 1, 2014

    Thank you so much! I promise to be more careful with the “silent notes”, I am learning a lot for your posts Dr. Arnold. I wish I could meet you some day. I wish you the best.!

  4. From Bernard Chevalier on October 7, 2014

    Curious that you mention the “rest” issue here with my quartet performing Dvorak;s op. 61 Adagio with the huge and pregnant GP… 4.5 quarter beats. The viola and cello waiting to turn their page, the violins frozen; nobody moves. Very tough for the leader to hold the world in his bow and wait and wait until the perfect moment. One breath too long and the moment is lost, the movement ruined.

  5. From Martha Potter Kim on October 8, 2014

    This one is outstanding!
    It is, truly, all about timing, about placement. Treading on rests is at least as big a problem as poor intonation!
    My late husband (Earl Kim) used the phrase “playing the rests well” as one of his assessments of a fine performance.

  6. From Sig Rosen on October 12, 2014

    My friend Dick Hadsell calls attention to this Wiki reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_silent_musical_compositions
    Now what would a quodlibet of these ‘sound’ like?
    Cheers!

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October 8, 2008

Tooth Talk

I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have [...]
What Good is Music

September 11, 2008

What Good is Music?

[Originally written and published in September 2002]. I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a [...]
A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

A Tale of Three Violinists

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back [...]
Last Words to a Son

July 11, 2008

Last Words to a Son

Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California [...]
A Dog's Tale

June 12, 2008

A Dog’s Tale

I’m a wonderful teacher. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not nice to brag. But truth above all, I always say. Here. Let me show you why I’m so good. We have a dog named Tessa. As far as I can tell, Tessa doesn’t have much feeling for music one way or [...]
Remembering Izzy

May 10, 2008

Remembering Izzy

Photo by Allen Cohen Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient [...]
A Noteworthy Day

March 2, 2008

A Noteworthy Day

I heard a great deal of music yesterday. Let me rephrase that. Yesterday, I heard a multitude of sounds—some longer, some shorter, higher or lower, louder or softer—as I made my way through my waking hours. The sounds appeared sometimes as individual tones and sometimes in groups of two and three. They often repeated themselves [...]
Solo Bow

February 2, 2008

Solo Bow

The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light [...]
In the Key of Strawberry

January 1, 2008

In the Key of Strawberry

An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream: My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of [...]
Hiroshi Iizuka

December 1, 2007

Cousin Sam

“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations. Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its [...]