by Mark Heiskanen
Director of Music
Those who I have worked with in rehearsal will have heard me speak to the virtues of silence. In a musical score, these easily dismissed moments are notated as rests. There are many kinds of rests expressing varied durations, literal or approximate. Sometimes, the only indication of a rest from a choral composer is a breath mark. So, how long is that breath? This decision by a performer or conductor is crucial to the phrasing and musical satisfaction of the work for music maker and listener alike. What one is basically determining is the value and quality of the silence.
Another way silence is expressed in musical terms is through articulation and agogic accents. As an organist, these tools are essential for an instrument that does not offer much in the way of touch sensitivity. One solution is to impose a variation of touch. In Baroque music, the standard approach is through the concept of Ordinary Touch. An articulated legato technique named by Baroque writers, the performer leaves a slight space between each note while retaining the forward momentum of a phrase. These tiny spaces offer rhythmic clarity and definition to each note played. This is a helpful approach for a musical style that often embodies a dance-like character. The agogic accent is a manipulation of the timing between two musical moments. For example, by delaying the onset of a chord following a rest by just a microsecond, a sense of anticipation and drama can be achieved. The maligned pregnant pause can be repurposed for sound artistic ends.
Thirty years ago, the band Depeche Mode released a video for a fantastic tune of theirs called "Enjoy the Silence." In the video, singer Dave Gahan, attired in the garb of a wandering king, travels through a scenic landscape carrying a cheap fold up chair. Occasionally, he is inspired by the view to set it up, have a seat, and take in the wondrous panorama of mountains and forests. After this brief interlude, he folds up the chair and continues his journey seeking out another scenic vantage point to enjoy. His lonely journey through the wilderness is only a metaphoric representation of the song's lyrics. But I have found this song title freely entering my mind these days.
When depicting the value of the musical rest in rehearsals, I have often offered the directive, "enjoy the silence!" It has value. And not just one beat, or two, or three...the value is in the quality of silence. The silence affects our perception of a musical phrase. The quality of the release of one note prepares for the onset of the next. We can perceive these subtleties of space whether consciously or not.
Here's to hoping we can all, in this time, appreciate the space in between. Enjoy.
Mark Heiskanen has been Plymouth's Director of Music since September 2017. Originally from Northeast Ohio, Mark has experience and great interest in a diverse range of musical styles including jazz, rock, musical theatre, and gospel. He is thrilled to serve a congregation and staff that values diversity and inclusion in all facets of life. Read his mostly-weekly Music Minute here.