This paper is an attempt to open up discussion about the role of silence in music performance and the ability of silence to transform. As case studies I will use three short original musical works that deal with ‘pain’ in differing ways. The works, performed at the Double Dialogues conference, Art and Pain II – Anatomy and Poetics (2004), represent in turn, a ‘song of war’, a ‘song of loss’ and a ‘song of solace’. Within each work there is a multitude of silences: between notes, between phrases, before the music begins (as audience and performers alike prepare), and finally, when each work ends. Silence is as much a part of music performance as ‘sound’ is. By applying the landmark socio-anthropological theories of ritual by Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner to these works, I shall address the transformative power of silence in musical performance.

Music and Silence

The first piece, a ‘song of war’, is a ‘Drums solo’ from an original physical theatre worksubclass:26a, devised from research into Australian detention centres and procedures, as well as interviews with legal aid lawyers, detention centre workers and asylum seekers (2). The drums solo accompanied a physicalised sequence, repeated several times, in which a refugee becomes agitated, guards restrain him, he becomes more agitated, the guards take him out of the compound, then hold him down and tranquilise him. The drums solo that accompanied this repeated sequence involved a series of jerky violent bursts of beats interspersed with silent pauses and a pared back motif between two drums (tom-toms), much like a heartbeat.

The second piece, a ‘song of loss’ entitled ‘Gentle Hand’, is a reworking of a traditional Bedouin song (3), featuring vocalist Ria Soemardjo and Elissa Goodrich on vibraphone. The lyrics for this song of loss and remembrance, though written much later at the turn of the eighteenth century, were in keeping with the traditional folk tune. The lyrics refer to a woman’s crimson lips and gentle hands, to the ‘freshness of her youth’ and also to ‘mother mine’. Within the song’s context, the person being mourned is open to interpretation, and might refer to either a mother or a lover! But in performance, the lyrics were not emphasised: for the most part notes, as opposed to actual words, were sung. When Ria Soemardjo did introduce lyrics, she sang in Balinese, a language presumably not understood by the audience. The effect was that Ria functioned as another instrumentalist. Meditative and restrained, the melody slowly builds around a traditional minor mode (a set series of notes). The vibraphone and vocal line call and answer each other using the traditional scale. Within this call and response there are moments of silence.

The third piece, a ‘song of solace’, ‘Step Step’, is a contemporary jazz work written for piano and vibraphone (4). The title comes from a comment a friend and colleague made about dealing with loss. In this version – for solo vibraphone – a simple chordal phrase begins the piece before the music moves into a fast, syncopated, dissonant, repeated flurry of notes. There is a silent pause before a simple, sparse improvisation based on the original phrase takes over, in this way completing the performance.

Each of these tunes deals with pain and uses silence to create tension and heighten expression. Yet each silence is different. How? How is it that each of the preceding tunes can alternately express political silence, violent silence, moral silence, temporal silence or silence as stillness? Silence is perhaps the most powerful ‘tool’ for a musician or composer. But what is it about the silent moment, the pause in performance, that it can carry within it the previous moment? Yet if the performer overextends this pause, he or she clearly loses the audience’s attention. It has to be intuitively held. It has to be ‘in the moment’. I suggest therefore that we can recognise silence as the ‘liminal moment’ in performance. Perhaps this is the expressive tool that music possesses that literary text does not?

Theories of Ritual Performance

The structuralist theory of ritual developed by Arnold van Gennep, specifically his notion of the three stage rite-of-passage, and Victor Turner’s adaptation of van Gennep’s second stage as his notion of liminality and shared experience in performance, can be brought to bear on silence in musical performance to help explain its variability and power. Van Gennep’s three-stage ‘rite-of-passage’, first published in English in 1960, is the basic ritual-framework from which more contemporary notions, such as Victor Turner’s derive. Van Gennep defines human rites-of-passage as ritualised events, formal actions and reactions that signal transition from one group to the next (van Gennep, 1977). The stages of these rites consist of ‘separation’, ‘transition’ and ‘incorporation’. Within this sequence, he emphasises transition, the threshold or liminal feature of transformation “found in all ceremonies” or rituals “which accompany the passage from one… position to another” (van Gennep, 1977:18). The entire ritual, he asserts, relates to this threshold. Adapting this theory to apply to silence in music performance allows us to define a music performance as a ritual event. We can then identify silence as the transitional ‘stage’ or moment within the music performance. Following van Gennep’s emphasis on this transitional stage as the crucial ‘crossing over’, we can identify silence as a crucial powerful interpretive tool that redefines the musical phrase before and after it. In the ‘song of war’ (Drums solo), for example, the loud jerky initial burst of drumbeats in the initial sequence is given added resonance by the silence that follows. In the ‘song of solace’ (Step Step), the silence following the fast, dissonant, syncopated, flurry of notes that precedes the return to a simple harmonic phrase provides a reflective space.

Perhaps Turner’s theory of “liminality” provides us with an even clearer explanation of silence in music performance (see Turner, 1982:47). Significantly, Turner provides us with an explanation of where change occurs within ritual practice, and how change is encouraged as part of the ‘experience’ of performance. ‘Performance’, according to Turner, is the second, ‘liminal’ stage (that is van Gennep’s transition stage). Therefore we can perceive silence as the significant moment within a ritual event (a music performance), as the pivotal turning point that recasts or transforms what comes both before and after. According to Turner, the performance is full of creative chance and risk-taking in an environment where all participants, audience and players alike, are receptive through their ‘continual exchange’. In this context, we might argue that silence is the most significant aural risk-taking element within music performance. Within this environment, the unorthodox is acceptable. Thus Turner’s theories identify how ritual as staged performance, specifically within a western context, becomes the most prolific site of ‘liminality’ (Turner, 1982 41-53). “Performative genres”, he asserts, “are extensions of” a “social eruption from the level…of on going social life” (Turner, 1982, 81).

So where does this leave silence? For example, in the ‘song of war’ (Drums solo), how is it that we (as audience and performer) experience this silence as violent? In the ‘song of loss’ (Gentle Hands), how can we experience this silence as embodying sorrow and grief? In his departure from van Gennep, Turner emphasises how performance as a “passionate” highly emotional and intuitive activity abolishes the usual dialogue between “flow” (intuitive action) and “reflection” (critical engagement with ideas presented) (Turner, 1982, 10). In other words, Turner argues that performance transcends and therefore alters the frameworks or structures societies live by. In its place, Turner argues, all participants experience “communitas” (a sense of shared, heightened experience) and engage in a “metacommentary”, where performed actions and behaviour are simultaneously recognised (reflected on) and experienced (intuitively felt) by the audience. If silence is to be understood as a crucial part of Turner’s liminal performance, for silence to ‘work’ as a turning point within music performance, it is important to recognise that it too must be ‘in flow’, not inert. By focusing intensely on the ‘limbo’ aspects of ritual performance, Turner’s notion is in danger of drawing us towards a static or a-temporal analysis. Yet music, and performance in general, is not static, it is and must be in ‘flow’. If silence is felt by the audience as inert, then the performance has failed. ‘The spell is broken’.

A synthesis: towards interpreting silence

By merging and reapplying these two socio-anthropological theories, then, we have a method for an analysis of silence in music performance. Within this amalgam we can identify silence as a liminal, emotionally climactic moment within ritualised events, within music performances. Silence can act as a point of transition and a point of contrast. It provides a crucial tension within performance, allowing the musical phrases before and after it to carry heightened qualities for performer and audience alike.



1. This title is taken from T.S.Eliot’s Burnt Norton Quartet
2. Sub-class 26a, directed by Bagryana Popov, was devised and developed in Melbourne Australia 2004. The original performance season took place at 45 Downstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, 16/02/2005 – 28/02/05. Two creative phases were supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, Arts Victoria and the Myer Foundation.
3. Yad Anuga, (Gentle Hand) transcribed from singer Savina Yannatou’s CD Songs of the Mediterranean, Athens: Lyra General Publishing Company, 1998, track 6.
4. Step Step, originally composed for piano and vibraphone for The Shannon-Goodrich Ensemble by Elissa Goodrich in June 2004. First performed at Dalmain Studio, Melbourne, 01/08/2004.



Arnold van Gennep (1977). The Rites of Passage, tr. Monika B. Vizedon & Gabrielle L. Caffee, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul)

Victor Turner (1982). From Ritual to Theatre (New York: PAJ Publications)