Framing the void: Part I

Exploring music’s relationship with negative space.

Place your fingers on your neck and feel your pulse. Continue to do this for a moment, and for that moment, stop reading this article.

Pay attention to your breathing without trying to control it. Continue doing this for a moment and for that moment, stop reading this article.

Our hearts beat in perfect time. We breathe in and out in regular intervals. When we walk or run our feet spend equal time traveling through the air, as do our arms. We try our best to keep our hours of sleeping and waking regular. Nearly identical events distributed evenly through time make up many of the human body’s basic functions. Our health is often determined not by these events themselves but by their regularity, by the space between them. Take, for example, the concepts of the heart rate, the running pace, and the circadian rhythm. Many of our body’s functions keep us alive by framing a negative space. Since it is the product of the human body, music uses nearly identical events distributed through a negative space, time in this case, to create meaning.

This is the first in a four part series of articles exploring music’s relationship with negative space. For simplicity’s sake, we will deal with this negative space in two directions, horizontal (time) and vertical (melody and harmony) even though each is inextricably tied to the other. In this article we will explore the ways in which any piece of music, through its beginning and ending, creates a frame around our experience of time. In the following article, we will explore how a piece of music alters our perception of time’s passing through the rate at which it presents sonic events. We will cover similar concepts in two more articles dealing with the vertical dimension of music.

Visual artists are familiar with the idea of figure and ground. However, musicians and listeners often overlook the way that sound (figure) and silence (ground) work together to create music. Music without lyrics envelops the listener in a series of totally abstract sense impressions and is one of the few cognitive phenomena that can be experienced this way. For example, it is nearly impossible to look at a printed word in our own language and see only the shapes of the letters without inferring its meaning. On the contrary, we often listen to musical sounds without wondering what they represent, outside of themselves. These sounds are juxtaposed against silence before the beginning of the piece and after the end as well as in between sounds made during the piece. With these sounds, music – like theater, dance and motion pictures and unlike literature and visual art – must be experienced with in a given frame of time. For example, books may be left unattended for days, weeks or months. Photographs, sculpture, paintings and other forms of visual art need only be engaged in for as long as the viewer wishes. In contrast, the audience experiences music in a rigid and universal period of time, which is objectively the same for all listeners. Generally speaking, a piece of music begins when the first sound is heard and ends when the last sound dies away. Within this time-frame, the listener perceives one event happening after another. Through the use of sine waves and limiting the range of the sounded pitches, music may restrict or even negate its vertical dimension (melody and harmony). However, music can never escape its bondage to time. Since it is formed by compression waves traveling through a medium (usually air) sound can only be perceived as periods of pressure and release encountering the ear-drum with at relatively high or low frequency. This fact is analogous to the principle that points and lines are only theoretical constructs in geometry but have no objective reality. Carrying this idea out to its logical conclusion, one can easily see that, in our minds, there can be no isolated events, no isolated things, no figure without ground and vice versa. Thus, music experienced only while this nothing, silence, in the background gives it form and context.

A striking example of this framing function of music is can be found in American composer John Cage’s three movement work, 4’33”. Premiered in 1952, this piece begins when the performer sits at a piano and opens its lid. The performer then closes and opens the lid briefly to mark the end of the movements, while making no recognizable musical sound for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Much of the fascination with this piece has been due to its allowing for ambient sound to be the music but its revolutionary concept is also primitive. This piece, like all music, exists as a frame, and in this case, a totally vacant one. I invite you to perform your own “watered down” version of this piece. If you are sitting at a desk, open or close a drawer or perform some other sound to mark the beginning of the piece and do the opposite to end it after an appropriate period of time. You have just framed time’s negative space and engaged in one of music’s most basic functions. (To see a video performance of Cage’s 4’33”, click here).

Traditionally notated and performed music works in much the same way, creating a time-frame with the definite beginnings and endings of the aforementioned experimental piece. The rate at which sonic information is presented within this frame plays with our sense of the passage of time while never totally escaping it, creating some experiences that are even, some that are accelerated or decelerated and some that almost destroy time altogether. In this way, no matter its level of complexity, music always affirms the experience of time and thus the experience of performing or listening to music is inextricably tied to fundamentals of human consciousness.

Bryan Hooten is a trombonist, composer and educator living in Richmond, VA. He plays with Ombak, Fight the Big Bull, No BS Brass, Verbatim, and various other groups. He teaches Music Theory and Small Jazz Ensembles at VCU and directs the Jazz Band at James River High School. He also serves on the faculty of the Governor’s School for the Humanities and Visual and Performing Arts. He can be seen every Wednesday at Cous Cous (900 W. Franklin) performing with either Ombak or Fight the Big Bull.

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Bryan Hooten

Bryan Hooten performs with No BS! Brass, Matthew E. White, and other Richmond-based groups. He teaches Music Theory and Jazz Orchestra at VCU.

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