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October 9, 2019

Dōtaku Bell

Screen Shot 2019-10-08 at 11.14.13 AM

From Corinna da Fonseca-Wolheim's recent New York Times essay on the history of music's negative spaces a.k.a. silences: 

One of the most arresting objects on display in the musical instruments galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a 2,000-year-old bell from Japan that was built to be mute.

Dōtaku bells such as this one still puzzle historians, but we know they were made without clappers and buried in earth, probably as part of a ritual designed to bless crops.

The first time I saw the Met's dōtaku, I stopped dead in my tracks.

The expectation of sound had been turned into a sacrificial act of silence.

From inside two slits high up on the bell, I thought I saw the ghost of John Cage smiling out.

Cage’s "4'33"" may be the most notorious act of silence to be offered as music.

But it fits into a long lineage of efforts to endow silence with artistic meaning.

In Japanese music, the term "ma" suggests the space in between sounds that a performer must master.

Debussy wrote that the music is not in the notes, but in the spaces between them.

In a similar vein, Miles Davis said, "It's not the notes you play; it’s the notes you don’t play."

As social beings, we are hard-wired to interpret breaks in the flow of human communication.

We recognize the pregnant pause, the stunned silence, the expectant hush.

A one-beat delay on an answer can reveal hesitation or hurt, or play us for laughs.

A closer listen shows musical silence to be just as eloquent.

October 9, 2019 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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