Tuesday, June 28, 2005


July 05 email newsletter
No. 014

The most influential man I ever met - or at least the one who’s had the most impact on our world - died during June. He was 81, and ill. When I met him, and talked for a few minutes, he was sitting in a corner of a waiting room one Christmas morning at Love Field, chain-smoking what I remember as unfiltered cigarettes, waiting, like me, for someone to come in on a flight. His name was Jack Kilby, and, working for Texas Instruments, he invented the integrated circuit that powers most of the electronic devices we use today.

Once, a parent asked Jack how to encourage her young children to grow up to become inventors. He told her, "Read them fairy tales."

* * * * *

Stephen Bruton sings on his new CD, From the Five, that "innocence dies with its eyes wide open." At the Free State Bluegrass Festival in Canton, I photographed a thin, pale little girl - maybe five years old - with dark, elfish hair and silently humorous, quixotic eyes. I asked her to look serious, because I didn't want a fake smile. She asked, "What’s a fake smile?" The title of my next poetry chapbook will be, I believe, For the Ephemeral Girl. It will be a sort of exploration of that little girl's possible future(s).

* * * * *

I believe it was Dracula who gazed off into the darkness, paused, and said, "Listen to the Children of the Night. What wonderful music they make." In my July column for Buddy magazine, I focused on silence in music. I was able to use only a few of the words from more than 20 musicians who responded to my request. Once you read the following column, if you’d like to read the whole 6,000 or so words, email me and I’ll send them to you.

Here's the column:

What we don’t hear can be just as important as what we do. If you even have to think about the truth in that sentence before you know that it's true, then you probably are not the listener you think you are.

Silence in music might seem like an oxymoron to some people, but more than 20 musicians who responded to my question about "the spaces between the notes" believe otherwise. Five primary ideas emerged:

1. Silence is as important as the music itself.

2. Silence creates space to explore.

3. Silence takes great discipline.

4. Silence comes with experience.

5. What’s left out is as important as what’s included.

The thoughtful responses added up to about 6,000 words; I’ll summarize as best I can in about 900 words.

Silence in music is every bit as important as the music itself; it is part of the music.

Michael O’Connor: "It is the notes you don’t play that matter. Less is more. Contrast in art is how we see and feel what moves us. In simpler forms it is easy to recognize black-and-white photography, blues music, stick people. Listening to B.B. King or Miles Davis is what comes to my mind."

Randy Hopper: "Silence in a song is just as or more important than the notes or chords being played. It can be (at times) a very emotional part of or a highlight of a song."

Jim Bush: "Simplicity and space in music have always appealed to me. Norah Jones is great at having just the right amount of production for what she does . . . I owe a great debt of gratitude to my old lead guitar friend, Donnie Wilson, who constantly preached dynamics, emphasizing that each player tone down his ego and volume to frame the words and feel of the song."

Silence in music, if we listen to that silence, lets listeners – and creators – explore the universes of our own brains.

J.P. Evans: "To get to music, you must first move through silence. There is space in silence, infinite space. In space, potential. What can it become? The artist will reveal. An attack, a pluck, a frequency, do they violate silence or define it? The beauty of silence and sound, back to back, there can be no separation. The one supports the other but seems its opposite. There is beauty in sound, and when it leaves, beauty in silence."

Jonna Woodburn wrote, "Simple stuff comes to mind first; that the silence is used to allow the listener to go where his thought takes him, or a space of a breath, letting a moment linger, emotional impact, anticipation for what’s said next."

Debbie Garner: "Silence lets us pause . . . Silence can be welcome or deafening . . . Silence can get your attention . . . Silence can initiate a wide variety of responses without actively causing it."

Shelly Nieburh: "Creativity comes from silence."

Giving silence its proper place takes great discipline.

Mary Reynolds: "There has to be just as much time left as a note would take up. And one must wait. It's very daoist, not speaking more than is appropriate to the effect, waiting for 'right action' . . . You can't fake it. And if you haven't done your slow work, then your fast work is sloppy and you don't really understand it either."

Jeannie Clark Fisher: "Most pieces of music that have rhythmic structure can be represented as notes on a music staff. They can be played exactly as written. But . . . a sensitive musician can decide, consciously or just intuitively, to delay or accelerate a particular note, thus changing the space between the notes, for specific meaning or emphasis. This technique can be planned, but I think what can make a performance very special is sensing what spaces to alter in the very moment the music is in."

The more experience musicians have, the more likely they are to create silence in their music.

Richard Dobson: "The longer you play music the less you feel like you have to fill up all the spaces. Younger players seem to play more notes, maybe just to show they can."

When musicians - any writers - learn what to leave out, what's omitted is as important as what’s included.

Vince Bell, in his book Sixtyeight Twentyeight: the life and times of a Texas writer and a flat top box guitar, wrote of silence in a larger sense.

"Writing is not writing at all. It's editing windy cliche and dogtrot verse. It's taking what you so loved the day before and, with a fastball throwing motion, tossing the miserable piece of trash to the can in the corner," he wrote. "Further, when you finally get down to it, it's not what you write, it's what you don't write. It's as important to know what you don't want as it is to know what you do. When you learn to write the pause, the spaces between words become as influential as the words themselves."

The last few words go to Sarah Lynn Fisher, who's getting a master's degree in musicology. "For me, silence in music has come to be about exploring the unknown - the thoughts and feelings of the people I share space with," Fisher wrote. "Anything can happen in silence. Silence is democratic. Silence is accepting. These are things that make the world a better place."


Let me hear from you. If you like this, please forward it to others who might like it. I have (mostly) poetry chapbooks available for $5 each or five for $20. I'll handle postage for folks on this list. Email or write me for details.
The newest of more than 20 chapbooks is City Under a Tree, which I wrote while I was waiting to buy toner so I could make copies of the previous chapbook, Eve's World. Both are collections I've written since I found myself living in East Texas.

7391 FM 773
Ben Wheeler TX 75754-2501
(For you singer-songwriter fans, that's in Van Zandt County)