Music and Silence

At the most fundamental level, one thing that has interested me since I was very little is space. Not as in outer space, but the spaces ‘in-between’ that define intervals, pulses, perceived size and the length of time and so on.

When I was very young one of my favorite things was riding in a car through a forest of white birch. I liked it so much because as the car moved forward the parallax of the trees would constantly change, and the interspersed black ‘spots’ on the otherwise white trunks added a second dimension of randomness to the scene.

Trees in particular fascinated me (and still do) by the way their branches seemed to spawn  and grow in completely random patterns, and the only way I could get a grasp for the size or ‘space’ that a tree occupied was by moving my vantage point in relation to its ‘fixed’ position.

Years later this fascination with space was what led me to 3D graphics engineering. Constructing 3D spaces via computer code forced me to make up a ‘space’ within my imagination that I would then ‘populate’ with objects. Moreover, since the camera that represented my Eye could be moved freely, I was able to explore the scenes I had built from view points that would not have been possible in reality. My first stumbling steps in 3D programming was to generate random clouds of points and then programmatically move the ‘camera’ around in those clouds.

Later this led to my involvement with Time geography, which took the entire concept of time and space to a new level for me with it’s attempt to quantify time and turn it into a shapeable, physical mass. (Time geography btw could very well be one of the most powerful disciplines of science I have ever had the pleasure of getting close to…) From Time geography it was a small step to architecture, and once there I soon stumbled upon the concept of Ma.

Ma is a Japanese term that describes a form of space. The very short and simple explanation is that Ma is the space in-between. It is often explained as a way to talk about the intervals or pauses that define the relationship between two structural elements, such as the space between two heartbeats that define a pulse. This explanation touches upon a very important aspect of Ma, namely its dependance on Time. Without time there can be no movement, and it is the movement (of the eye, the heart, other elements within the same time/space and so on) that allows us to experience space in the sense of Ma. Ma is not measurable in terms of centimeters or seconds, it is entirely a ‘sense of space’ that exists purely within the observer and is thus very subjective.

We can talk about the distance between two walls as being 5 meters, but how a person experiences those 5 meters will be highly dependent on what objects are places between the walls, and their size and placement. The physical properties of the viewer are also important such as size, speed of movement and whether the viewer uses primarily sight or hearing to ‘measure’ the space.

Ma also tells us that without confinement, boundaries or limits there can be no space, only emptiness. Space is the in-between, that which makes emptiness measurable and meaningful.

Lao Tzu speaks of similar things in the famous verse 11 of Tao te Ching:

Thirty spokes
meet in a hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
Is where it is useful.

Hollowed out
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
Is where its useful.

(I have only quoted the first two passages here.)

This can be interpreted in many different ways, but to me one of the interesting reads is that we often think of the outer shape of a ‘vessel’ as what defines it’s character or purpose, when it is in fact only turning emptiness into something useful. In this process a piece of emptiness gains meaning and a purpose, but for the most part that purpose is still mostly imbued in the space, not the ‘shell’.

In music, Ma can be felt in the meaningfulness of spaces between ‘beats’ that make up a rhythm. It is the limiting of emptiness in time (Ma), by a rhythm, that allows us to make sense of and ‘understand’ sounds as music. Thus silence and the in-betweens are  important not only as structural elements in the music but as conveyers of meaning and atmosphere.

While it is hard for me to find the right words to explain my feelings, one if my musical goals is to explore this relationship between silence and sound, the Ma of music…

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