Learning: a space of absence

by Paul Maharg on 06/04/2006

Went to a RSNO concert last month, a North American programme which included John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls – commissioned by the NY Phil to commemorate those killed in the events of 9/11.  I’m going to have to listen to it a number of times to really make up my mind, but I wonder if it deserves the lavish praise heaped on it. 

It starts with a city soundscape, then voices drift in – readers intoning ‘missing’, then voices reading personal reminiscences, random names, fragments from the missing person signs posted by families and friends.  The voices sounded ill-placed.  They made the cityscape sounds seem stagey, and the music uncertain when it was interspersed with the voices

It was an odd thing to experience, because I would have thought that voices uttering words about the dead would have had the power of validity, or at least the aura of authenticity; and yet I think the setting might have lessened this, not increased it.

I wondered whether it might have been better to make more use of silence, since this was a piece that mourned the dead.  And this led me to think about the place of silence in music, and the relationship to learning.  It is commonly said of music that silence is essential to it – the intervals in sound define the nature and length of sound.  Instruments that play continous notes, eg bagpipes, illustrate this by inversion: there, the problem is how to separate notes from the continuum of sound. 

For silence as a musical subject, one has to go to works such as John Cage’s 4’33’’ (1952), composed for ‘any instrument or combination of instruments’.  The instrumentalist would arrange his or her instrument as if about to play, then remain like that for a period of four minutes and 33 seconds.  The experience of listening is curious: audiences begin to be aware of the noise that they make, precisely because such noises are perceived within the aesthetic frame of the time period set by Cage. 

The same frame was created by Jonty Semper’s Kenotaphion, an extraordinary collection of Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day two-minute silences.  Each sound event begins in the same way, with Big Ben tolling the hour; and each is different: the sound of birds, of shuffling, coughing, the murmur of distant traffic, the sense of a throng of people, all silent.  It is a dense, intentional silence, the record of a deliberate absence of sound that is magnified by the random quality of the sounds captured on the CDs. 

Nothing could be further from what we think of as earlier representations of nature in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, in Haydn, Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, or Vaughn Williams’ Lark Ascending.  Instead, there is a capturing of the absence of sound as nearly as it is in the real world, with the constant tension between absolute silence (leaving aside the question as to whether that is actually possible) and the random sounds that define the silence. 

But of course, there is a key difference between sitting in an auditorium and listening to Cage’s 4’33’’, and listening to Kenotaphion, or indeed any CD.  4’33’’ is in real-time, the CD is not.  Indeed, like every CD, Kenotaphion consists of highly choreographed silences.  When we listen to any CD, we are in a virtual auditorium where sound is deliberately distributed in the stereo field by sound engineers, composers, artists.  Instrumental sounds are foregrounded, backgrounded, pitch can be altered, almost every aspect of sound dismantled and reconstructed.  The same is true of representations of recorded silence, and of recorded voices, which may be one reason why the ordinariness of the voices in The Transmigration of Souls failed to move me.

And this is one of the ways we can fail to engage students: by not thinking about the gaps, the interstices, the absences.  One of the commonest metaphors to describe the way in which learning can be facilitated is to use metaphors from the construction industry: scaffolding, for example, by which learners are given help, via examples or models, to understand what it is they are supposed to understand or do.  We talk of ‘foundation courses’, drawing on the ancient metaphor of learning as a building process, with the start of the process envisaged as the digging and laying of foundations.  And we talk of modules, in much the same way that sixties architects talked of modular units of constructed spaces.

But these metaphors exist in an unseen context.  Before the building can begin, and before the foundations can be laid, there is a space.  There is land and there is ground upon which there is an ecology, but there is primarily space.  In the same way, there are opportunities, or spaces, for learning.  These spaces are influenced in many ways.  The spaces are there because the learner has laid aside social, domestic life for a time, and created space in his or her life to devote to learning.   The spaces are defined by the context of higher education: buildings, campuses, materials for study, formalised relationships with tutors and lecturers, with learning resources.  The learning events, though, need not take place here: they can be anywhere.  They are virtual spaces in people’s lives where they grapple with concepts and issues and knowledge, disengage, and re-engage  How are we to construct these multivarious spaces so as to ensure effective learning? 

Perhaps the best way of thinking about this is to think of how the absence is to be constructed by the materials around it.  This means thinking about the construction of, for instance, lectures and tutorials, or resource-based learning.  Within this, are spaces that students enter in order to do things.  It might be said that, given this definition, examinations are one of the best forms of silence – literally so, in the examination hall.  However the sorts of absences or spaces I have in mind are I hope much more profound than this, in that students can come and go from them, can move between tutorials, lectures, texts and other resources, and enter the silent space, encountering it anew. 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Seb Schmoller April 6, 2006 at 20:39

I remember hearing Daniel Libeskind (Polish-American child-prodigy accordion player turned architect) on Desert Island Disks talking convincingly about the similarities between composing and architecture, in which he said that silences are like gaps between buildings, and like windows in buildings. So a building, like a piece of music, or a piece of learning, “works” if the spaces are in the righ places.

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