Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Sound of Silence

I have spent the last two evenings making a recording with our church choir. Early in May, we did a pretty hefty concert, sixteen pieces ranging from Latin motets of the Renaissance to pieces written within the last year. It was a fun concert to perform and was well received by those in the audience. In fact, the response was so overwhelming, that that was the impetus for the recording. That and the fact that we are trying to raise zippty million dollars to pay for our new organ (in the process of being built and scheduled for delivery in January) and all of the renovations to the current choir gallery that are necessary to accommodate this new organ.

We did the recording in the sanctuary, the same place where the concert was originally performed, and the place where we sing together every Sunday morning. It is a familiar environment for all of us yet when faced with using this place as a "recording studio", it takes on a whole new persona.

Anyone who has sat through a Sunday service knows that a child's voice echoes throughout the entire sanctuary. In moments like this, especially if it is your kid offering unsolicited commentary on the priest's sermon, we all wonder why the acoustic properties of the building allow for so much reverberation. You would think that such properties would be a blessing for us as we recorded this week. Yes, our space is capable of rendering beautiful choral sounds, but like most things, there is also a down side.

Prior to gathering for our first recording session on Wednesday night, we were all advised not to wear "squeaky" shoes. You know the sound of rubber-soled shoes moving on marble? That is what we were trying to avoid. And as any musician who has done any kind of recording knows, it is important to turn pages quietly. This sounds like a simple thing to ask, however forty people turning pages at exactly the same time without it being audible is quite a laudable fete. For the most part, we were able to follow these two sets of instructions with no major infractions. Having accomplished these things, I was amazed at all the sounds that are present in a "quiet" space.

Just as forty people turning pages at the same time has the potential to make a clearly audible, and potentially disruptive, sound, so does the sound of forty people breathing simultaneously.

Then there is the hum of the lights. I am not talking about that obnoxious high pitched hum that all fluorescent lights make. I am talking about a faint sound that goes completely unnoticed unless the sanctuary is "perfectly quiet". Then the constant drone of "F" becomes as distracting as the baby crying during Sunday Mass. This is especially true when trying to sing an a capella pieces in a key other than F.

Beware of the subtle movement of someone's bracelet.

We had to record a few extra takes because of airplanes flying overhead and sirens screaming down the road outside.

After singing for two and a half hours, coughing amongst the choir became an issue. (Who am I kidding, coughing was an issue from the very beginning. As soon as we were given the "Get Ready" sign, there was a unison cough that was as precise as the attack of any piece's opening chord.)

There was also the sound of the organ stops being pulled and the clang of the director's baton hitting his stand accidentally.

A few words not in the text of any of our pieces were uttered in places where notes or chords also not in the pieces were interjected.

I am happy to report that we were never interrupted by someone's cell phone ringing or by some unsuspecting soul who did not bother to read all of the "Do Not Enter" signs situated at every entrance to the church. Considering the fact that we were doing this recording in what is essentially a public place not normally used for this purpose, things went quite well. At this point, the assumption is that any extraneous sounds are insignificant and can be removed during the editing process.

This whole experience gave me a new appreciation for the sound of silence. This is not a new discovery. John Cage, in his piece 4'33" invited us all to experience the sounds of silence. Cage's composition is scored for a performer and a piano. The performer walks on stage, sits at the piano, and does nothing more for four minutes and thirty three seconds. The music, which is defined as organized sound and silence, is created by the sounds that each person in the audience hears. As you might imagine, no two performances are the same. In fact, every person, even if they hear the same performance, hears a different composition. 4'33" is an artistic representation of the Buddhist principle of being fully awake to the present moment. Though I have experienced several performances of Cage's piece, I don't think I really understood or appreciated it fully until these last two evenings.

Silence is something that we all seek at one time or another. The next time you think that you have found it, open your mind to the present and experience the music of silence. It is different from that of Palestrina or Bach or Mozart, but is equally beautiful and equally moving - even if it's climax is a talking baby or noisy piece of paper.