Silent Treatments

Silence is more than a film series and gallery exhibition: it’s also a series of three L@TE performances, one each in February, March, and April. We’ve invited cellist and UC Berkeley Music Department wunderkind Rio Vander Stahl to open each of these multimedia evenings with a performance of chamber music that reflects on the concept of silence in the classical music tradition. He’s designed three unique and imaginative programs, each approaching Silence from a different angle. Below, he writes about his personal experience encountering silence in a musical context, and his ideas for the three performances.

The first time I was struck by silence, I was lying on my bathroom floor after a particularly trying day of being a sixteen-year-old. Eric Whitacre’s choral music reverberated all around me as I tried to calm down from one teenaged hyperbolic state or another. At the time, I listened to Whitacre on a daily basis because his music shielded my brain from the outside world. My favorite moment from those bathroom hideaways was a monumental and expressive cluster chord that fills a wide harmonic range in When David Heard. I used to rewind the track several times, so I could listen to the sonority build from nothingness to create a sound that shook the rafters. But it wasn’t until one day, when I let it play uninterrupted, that I was able to hear the rich effect of the chord. The full power and meaning of the musical gesture was only evident when heard in the context of the silence surrounding it. Whitacre said just as much with the silence as he did with the sound.

Music is about communication. Sometimes that means telling an epic story using great swathes of notes to etch out a hero’s journey, but sometimes, as in Whitacre’s When David Heard, that means leaving space for fewer notes to ring through. These concerts will explore the placement of silence in music in different ways.

February 22, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

The first concert centers on Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina (1976). Originally for solo piano, this seemingly simple piece is composed of two different lines that will be played simultaneously by violinist Alia McKean and myself. Pärt describes the individual lines as neutral, but played together they are “like two people whose paths seem to cross.” He goes on to say that each note and sound in the piece should be concentrated. The result is hushed, powerful, and permeated by silence.

The two lines of Für Alina will be performed individually, interspersed with short solo movements of J. S. Bach, to explore the relationship between the neutral and crossing paths that Pärt described. This process will be visualized by dancer Sophie Needelman, director of the Defiance Project, and her partner, Lauren Hamilton. They will each dance alone with the single lines played by the violin and cello. Then when the instrumental parts come together their dances will interact and become more complicated.

March 22, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

The second concert opens with the first movement of Pēteris Vasks’s Grāmata Čellam, a tour de force for solo cello, made up of short furious sections separated by notated seconds of silence—stark contrasts of sound and space. Composer Kaija Saariaho takes a different approach in her Nocturne for Violin (1994), written in memory of the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. Growing from the initial, sustained A that opens the work, Saariaho develops the color of the violin with subtle gradations and layers of organic texture.

Bridging the gap between these two pieces will be a poetry reading by Kayla Krut, who is completing her degree at Berkeley this year. She will read from her own work Blows, which is a meditation on the effects of silence.

We will conclude with a passacaglia—variations on a bass line—by Johann Halvorsen (1864-1935), a romantic treatment of a theme by George Frederic Handel. The many variations, sometimes separated by silences, showcase the wide range of styles that the instruments are capable of. The insistent, repeated bass line even foreshadows the music of Prince played by PC Munoz’s Singing Blood in the second half of the night’s program.

April 5, 2013, 7:30 p.m.

When Robert Schumann sketched his first string quartet (Op. 41, 1842), he spun out long sections of pure melody, sometimes with a spare bass line and sometimes without, and left stretches of blank measures to be filled in later. In a way, silence was present at the birth of the piece.

Throughout, short pauses occur in the music and individual instruments drop out for lengths of time. Silences, whether those notated in the score or those observed between movements of the piece, are just as integral to the work itself as the notes that are written. They give the listener a chance to process what has just finished, and clear the air for what’s to come. Just as Whitacre does 150 years later, Schumann creates more meaning in sound because of the silence he leaves.

Rio Vander Stahl

Above: Defiance Project. Credit: Rio Vander Stahl