A New and Awful Silence

The electric clocks in my house keep better time than the ones I wind, yet I scarcely look at them. It is the ticking, I think, that comforts me. I like to lean my ear against these various pendulums and, back and forth, gently rock my life away.

These ticks and tocks give me a meter to the passage of the day; they are a metaphor for silence. Silence, after all, is not an absence of noise but a subtle acknowledgment of this metronomic beat, the force that both brings new life and inscribes tomorrow's obituaries. There is luxury and terror in this act of resignation, this silent attention to the ticking of our lives.

Silence's most eloquent contradiction is music---not because music breaks silence with its sounds but because it interrupts its motion. All the arts do this: books freeze events between two covers, pictures pin them against a wall. But music goes viscerally to the source of our mortality. It stops time in its tracks and reinvents it. What a supernatural act it is to command a tempo and a rhythm, to set time in motion and bring it to a halt. In a life of temporal endlessness, the musician who makes time start and stop plays at being God. This is music's comfort and its triumph: that somewhere there exists an antidote for decay.

Music scarcely exists any more, having multiplied itself into silence. This probably makes no sense at all to you, but let me try to explain. To call music an interruption is also to say it is an event, something that can seize our attention only if it is preceded by uneventfulness, and then succeeded by it. When I first heard Bach's B-minor Mass some 35 years ago, that's how I experienced it---like a monolith rising out of an empty plain, a magisterial presence defined by the emptiness around it.

I fear I shall never have that sensation again. The plain is no longer empty. Developers have taken it over. On my FM radio the B-minor Mass is now but a commercial break away from the Goldberg Variations and the St. Matthew Passion. My days have become chains of such great events.

The technologies of the ear (the radio, the record player, the compact disc) both give and take away. How marvelous that Mozart's 27 piano concertos, Beethoven's nine symphonies, and Bartók's six quartets are only fingertips away. And how horrible. It is a cruel trick that the wondrous accessibility of these great works has rendered them invisible.

We have, of course, only ourselves to blame. Science and the arts once met in a world of mutual congratulation. Stars moved to the music of the spheres; ancient musicians sang to the Pythagorean scales, serenely conscious of their geometric purity. But science is no longer as sure of its answers. Solutions retreat as we approach them. Thus we calculate our progress in degrees.

This calculation has made of us a society of measures---how tensile the steel, how quick the 100-meter dash, how slow the drip from the ketchup bottle. How well has given way to how much, how many.

So it should not surprise us that music has become quantitative too. One record on my shelf fills me with wisdom; three more records multiply it. One of my colleagues claims more than 50,000 items in his collection, and I know hardly any in my business with fewer than 10,000. Such a privilege---to have in one's home the capacity to hear Brahms's Fourth Symphony played 19 different ways!

In the South of my youth, where concerts were as rare as eclipses of the moon and Ernest Tubb ruled the airwaves, each new long-playing record was a discovery; the ecstasy was in that first moment, never to be relived. Listening machines and their paraphernalia advertise to us what they cannot fulfill---a reenactment of epiphanies. Each new Brahms Fourth promises such a rediscovery. Will Toscanini via RCA, or Bruno Walter according to CBS, bring us close enough to touch that first thrill again? Some avenues bring us nearer than others, but none near enough. We measure these nearnesses one against the other, and ask: who shall be first among Brahms Fourths?

Fishing in my pitiful collection of records the other day (my filing system is of the I Ching persuasion), I did find a recording of Brahms's Fourth. I put it back on the shelf, I'm not quite sure where. I am not worried. I know how it goes---the key of E minor, two beats to the measure, upbeat swoops down, upbeat swoops up, very beautiful in its austere way. This is how I relive (and therefore live) this music---in my imagination.

The imagination is our great healer. It is also the world's leading interpreter of the Brahms Fourth Symphony. The 19 performances that other critics have at their fingertips seem puny beside it. And my imagination does other things---it calms the wow in my turntable, smooths the distortion of my woofer.

The walls of records in my colleagues' homes, arranged, catalogued, cross-catalogued; the giant loudspeakers the size of refrigerators looming in their living rooms---all help explain to me why musical masterpieces no longer move me as they once did. The technological prowess of these new instruments of music is amazing. But they cost dearly: they usurp our capacity to dream. As a young man, I cherished the B-minor Mass, the Quartet for the End of Time, the Symphony of Psalms principally as voices speaking within me. On my shelf today, they are measured like real estate, by the frontage foot.

The ear plots its escape, but fails. Even the streets are not safe, and subway platforms ring with Bach's solo violin sonatas or the Spanish guitar. New England villages worthy of two gas pumps now add summer festivals to their inventories. One approaches their outskirts apprehensive, car windows rolled shut. In restaurants, Mozart serves as aural garnish for the fish of the day.

We are strangled by the very volume of our resources, dwarfed by them too. I think back to my friend with his claim to 50,000 records. How small he seems beside them, like a computer scientist facing an immensely potent machine that he does not quite know how to address. Modern science instructs us---shames us with the fact---that the universe has become very big and we very small. Beethoven, you will remember, promised us to take fate by the throat; one wonders if its size today might not exceed his grasp.

Music, indeed, seems to have become that popular science-fiction nightmare---the manmade creature that grows beyond expectations, seizes autonomy, and smothers its masters. The quartets, the masses, the songs and sonatas that once rose as isolated protests against the vastness of time have become something very different. They have swollen, then merged and melted into time's fabric. They have become a form of silence themselves.

Footnote: Bernard Holland is a music critic for the New York Times. Copyright 1987 by Harper's Magazine. All rights reserved. Reprinted from the July 1987 issue by special permission.