Classical Music’s Return to Quiet

Justin Davidson

By Justin Davidson

on 02.03.14 in Spotlights

You could chart a rough history of Western music simply as a rising line of volume. Spaces expanded from chamber to stadium, audiences grew in step, instruments acquired new power, aided by amplification, until pop concerts and new symphonies shared an ambition to overpower eardrums en masse. It’s always the greatest noise that gets the most attention: the ffff horns and screaming orchestral paroxysms. But you could follow another, even more extreme course through the music of the last 100 years by listening only to works that hover around a hush. Anton Webern favored terse, urgent pianissimos. John Cage explored the plush subtleties of soundlessness. A few composers, like Arvo Pärt and György Kúrtag dwelled semi-perpetually in quietude, drawing listeners into their world of intimate murmurings. Morton Feldman was a large, loud person who always seemed to be writing the softest, slowest, longest music possible and then getting it a little softer, slower and longer.

Quiet is counter-cultural, a form of resistance against the casual raucousness of the street and the chest-thumping theatrics of the concert hall. For a generation of composers born after the century’s midpoint, musicians who can unleash mighty roars by touching a finger to a laptop keyboard, prefer to ask audiences to listen hard, to amplify sounds with the power of close attention.

It’s easy to defeat inaudibility by cranking the volume, so the most dramatic forms of quiet take place in a concert hall, where silence has to drown out the restlessness of 1,000 audience members, or more. David Lang explicitly precludes the possibility of recording his Whisper Opera, so the only way to experience it is in the flesh. Tiny groups of listeners separated by gauzy curtains sit alongside crossed catwalks, where performers move around, dispensing a soft rain of sibilants and moans.

In other, more studio-friendly works, Lang uses softness to invoke a long history of requiems, lamentations, expirations, and meditations. For Little Match Girl Passion, he whirls together Hans Christian Anderson and Bach into a stiff sacramental deep-freeze. In Death Speaks, he goes into partnership with Schubert and the Reaper himself. Mortality is probably an even older friend to music than love is. He’s undaunted.

The cycle of five leisurely songs muses on morbid moments from Schubert lieder and gives death’s words to the light and brittle voice of Shara Worden. The music isn’t in a hurry to get to where we’re all going. The melodies twine around themselves, touching the same notes as if reluctant to move on, and the harmonies have a skeletal simplicity. Lang assembled and wrote for a mighty quartet of “indie-classical” musicians: Worden, the composer Nico Muhly on piano, the guitarist Bryce Dessner of the National, and the electronic violin wizard Owen Pallett. For such a high-powered group, the players seem to be engaged in a self-effacement contest. In “Mist is Rising,” Worden’s voice goes bobbing into the stratosphere like a runaway balloon, while a gentle ripple of violin, guitar and electric piano outlines the receding horizon. Everything is on the verge of vanishing.

Georg Friedrich Haas, too, uses the theatrics of live performance to amplify the effects of quiet. His orchestral work In Vain lasts over an hour and is performed in total darkness, but far from lulling audiences into a state of accepting torpor, the music slithers through the room, calm and dangerous and always ready to explode. It’s a work of febrile whispers — dark, slow, and quiet, but bristling with color and drama nevertheless. Long, long notes change hue as they turn and stretch, here and there giving off chimes or harp chords, like sparks from a welder’s torch. Choiring horns cascade slowly through the overtone series. A single soft chord speeds up until it shatters into a tremolo. Haas’s palette is rich, but he uses it sparingly, so each moment coruscates in the blackness of silence. He demands that the listener listen, that the mind stays alert to each grave tolling and hum.

In Vain goes on long enough to create its own atmosphere, force field and natural laws. If Stanley Kubrick had gotten to know the piece, he might have made a sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with Haas’s swirls of music filling in the void between the stars. It doesn’t stay quiet forever — it ends with a great tectonic tremor of gongs and shivering strings and thick chords whirling around a vortex until they’re pulled in to some field of dark matter where the ear cannot follow.

Lang is American and Haas is Austrian; both were born in the 1950s and now live in New York. But younger composers are picking up their wintry explorations. Rebecca Saunders’s Stasis is an arctic landscape of sudden cracks and windy flutters. This work, too, needs a three dimensional space to do it justice — the 16 soloists are distributed around the hall, creating a kind of sonic IMAX experience — but a recording captures the sense of openness and danger.

The Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir belongs to a cohort two generations removed from the modernism-versus-minimalism skirmishes of 50 years ago, and like Haas she has no trouble merging the two tendencies. Somewhere in the background of her catalogue of subliminal influences must be Pierre Boulez, who isn’t big on drones but who took the glittering flare of notes in the blackness to a level of exquisite drama.

Her eight-minute piece for chamber ensemble, Hrim evokes nature as a force field. The piece has the scope and impact of a big long symphony, but in fact it is compact, economical to the point of being austere. A constant background buzz binds the work together, so that all the distant explosions and miniature supernovas read like commentary on that slow-flowing stream. Tranquility coexists with horrific violence, and each blots out the other for a time. Thorvaldsdottir has an uncanny ability to paint the crust and the undercurrent at the same time; beneath a minimalist surface, the music boils and spits. Quietly.