Silence has always been a part of music, whether as a relatively brief pause between sounds or as something more substantial, though ultimately no less transient. In recent years, particularly in work following on and following up from the implications of Cage’s 4’33”, silence has come into its own within musical practice. It isn’t unusual to encounter compositions, improvisations or other works that incorporate silence as an independent parameter, equal to or in some cases surpassing sound, or that address silence more radically as the essential conceptual ground on which a musical superstructure arises.
It is this embrace of silence in experimental music and elsewhere that provides the context for Italian composer Mirio Cosottini’s short book Playing with Silence: Introduction to a Philosophy of Silence. As its title indicates, the book engages many of the meanings, functions and possible uses of silence in both music and beyond that, in our lives in general.
Cosottini brings a multifaceted background to these various ways of considering silence. A graduate of the Academy of Music in Florence, Cosottini has composed music for dance, theater and film, and is an improvising trumpeter who co-founded the Gruppo di Ricerca Improvvisazione Musicale. In addition, he pursued a doctorate in the philosophy of music from the University of Florence. Cosottini’s practical and philosophical sides are both well represented in the book’s brief introduction and its collection of questions and exercises meant to bring the reader into a more conscious relationship to silence in its different manifestations.
The bulk of the book is made up of questions intended to guide the reader to think about what silence is, can be, and can mean to him or her, or exercises suggesting actions that encourage the reader to become aware of the role that silence has to play in music, performance more generally, and life most broadly. Each page contains only one question or exercise; the sometimes vast expanse of empty space left over on the page itself suggests a visual analogue of silence. The book is meant to be read at a pace of one page per day; whether or not the reader chooses to act on them or to treat them instead as thought experiments, the questions and exercises serve as occasions for developing an awareness of silence.
Many of the exercises are directly relevant to musical practice. For instance, Cosottini asks, “Where do you find silence in music?” and, “If you play an instrument, do you think about sound or silence?” There are exercises for listening to silence after playing long tones or points of sounds, and an exercise that seems aimed at finding where musical silence ends and non-musical silence begins. Other exercises apply explicitly or implicitly to dance and movement, where “silence” can be read as denoting that state of actual or virtual rest which is the dancer’s equivalent to the musician’s silence. There are also several partnering exercises, many of which call for physical contact between participants. They can be used to attune musicians to one another prior to a performance or can act as the first step in a collaborative improvisational dance. Some exercises are more ambiguous in scope, seeming to apply equally to music or to dance, or to other, unspecified kinds of performances. And some seem to be independent of performance altogether.
Not far into the book, Cosottini asks the fundamental but by no means simple question, “What is Silence?” The answer that gradually takes shape is just as fundamental, and far-reaching.
As practical and concrete as many of these exercises are, it quickly becomes clear that Cosottini uses “silence” in a predominantly figurative way. Taken literally, “silence” can refer to a situation or state of things in which sound is absent. This absence of sound may be an objective feature of the world, existing independently of one’s perception, or it may be a phenomenological or perceived reality, the result of one’s inattentiveness to, for example, ambient sounds. In either case, silence is a sonic property actually attaching to or attributed to the world “out there.” By contrast, “silence” as it is often used on the book goes beyond a narrowly focused emphasis on the external environment per se and instead signifies a state of emptiness or rest generally. The use of “silence” as a rough synonym for “stillness” in which one refrains from moving is one such figurative use. But at a deeper level, what Cosottini means by “silence” is a matter of comportment, referring more generally to a way of being in the world. In this sense “silence” is a manner of engaging oneself in relation to oneself, to others, or to the environment, sonic and otherwise. In most of the situations and hypotheticals that Cosottini presents, it is this deeper sense of “silence” that emerges.
“Silence” in this sense names a state of receptivity, a being still in order to be open to surrounding influences sonic or otherwise. In performance, this may translate into an openness to what a collaborator is doing. That seems to be the underlying relationship or structure intended by many of the partnering exercises in the book. To find the silence in the collaborator is to lay oneself open to what that collaborator might do, even if what he or she does is to remain silent or, in the case of dance, still. The point of the exercise is to be attuned, to be directed toward the other in the state in which the other, and the surrounding world, both are disclosed through a mood of receptivity. “Silence” in this sense has something of a dual nature: It is both the occasion for a receptive attunement to one’s way of being in the world and with others, and is that attunement itself. “Silence,” as the presence to self that resides at the heart of quiet, is both an inward- and outward-facing state; it makes us present to ourselves and to others in a particularly attentive way, which can deepen our engagement with our own playing as well as with our collaborators.
If silence runs deeper than the simple absence of sound, absence of sound may be the primary way we recognize silence. Silence is an aspect of the world as we take it, but not only as we take it—as it appears to us—but more fundamentally, as we give it meaning. Through silence we disclose the world in a mood of tranquility or rest, or openness; our openness conveys a certain meaning on the world around us, and we designate this meaning as silence. When we do so, we are exercising a type of judgment that indicates something about the way we are engaging the world and imbuing it with a certain significance.
To disclose the world through silence is to undertake a commitment—to take up an active and not a passive stance. Committing to silence, one actively puts oneself in the relationship of openness, one responds to it drawing on a repertoire of strategies that may include the concord of mimesis or the assimilation of what is happening around one; the contrast of opposition or contrary motion; the counterpoint of complementarity and balance of reciprocity. One becomes attuned and then takes that attunement up into one’s project, which is to act in relation to the other. To play.
As is summed up in the book’s final exercise: “You are a source of silence. Cultivate silence. Play.” As with many of Cosottini’s exercises, this one ends with an invitation to play. And to play is to act—to make choices and pursue ends in a situation as that situation is interpreted through attunement. Silence informs play by disclosing possibilities; silence is an element in play in multiple senses of the word “play.” It is something to be played with, something that comes into play through an act of commitment on the part of the player, something that can be played the way one would play a sound on an instrument. And that in essence seems to be Cosottini’s message: Starting with an awareness that comes with silence, play, and let that awareness inform play as it unfolds.