People from all over the world are drawn to visit sacred places such as Assisi in Italy and the sounds of many different languages fill the small streets and picturesque squares from morn to night. This year it is noticeable that even more tourists are flocking back to a beautifully restored Assisi after the damage caused by the earthquake a few years ago. Signs written in many languages are to be found in the many sites sacred to the memory of St. Francis, one of the most common instructions being to be respectful of silence. At times in the great Basilica built over the Saint's tomb any rise in the sound level is punctuated by a loud and highly resonant 'Silenzio' from one of the Franciscans charged with taking care of the space. A few relatively silent moments follow during which it feels for that brief period of time that a deep sense of community is created amongst the visitors of all ages and from so many different countries. As Max Picard (1952/2002) writes: "Within the realm of creative silence the individual does not notice any opposition between himself and the community, for the individual and the community do not stand against each other, but both face the silence together" (p.65). In the Basilica this sense of joining and facing the silence in the present moment is almost palpable. The imagination is also given space and time to make unspoken connections with the millions of people who have shared similar times of quiet stillness and reflection in this space, this year being the 800th anniversary of St. Francis' conversion.
I have been coming to Assisi during the latter part of every July since 1982 when Juliette Alvin invited me to deputise for her at a music therapy congress. Since then I have joined a group of teachers on the oldest course of music therapy studies in Italy. I am proposing this year to make this my last regular visit and it seems both an appropriate time and place to reflect on how we can make more space for silence for both ourselves as musicians and for those with whom we work as therapists.
From early morning to evening the days in Assisi are also punctuated by a musical landscape of beautifully sounding bells of wide-ranging pitches and timbres. There is a particular richness to the quality of these sounds as they interrupt the early morning silence, starting at a discrete few minutes before seven o'clock and well before the first tourist coaches arrive. My week of two daily two-hour classes are entitled 'From listening to playing', the students exploring a range of listening experiences and the transition to active responses in improvisations and other artistic expression. I have referred to these classes in a previous column for Voices. Perhaps it will come as no surprise, with all these sonorous bells near at hand, that I play quite a bit of the music of Arvo Pärt during the sessions. As Julie Sutton (2006) reminds us in her recent chapter on silence in music and music therapy Pärt's music moved into a new phase after his shift from serialism and a period of intensive study of mediaeval music. As Pärt explored the meditative effects of silence he evolved the approach he called tintinnabulation (little bells). Exposure to Pärt's music appeared to help the students to listen more attentively to how sounds emerge from and return to silence. After listening to his bell-inspired music their improvisations this year began to explore more of the contrasts between sound and silence. More care seemed to be taken with starting to play from a place of stillness. As the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Gilbert Rose (2004) has observed: '"Music is not about playing notes; music consists of silences that breathe and shape the sound, engendering depths of feeling to be experienced without the necessity for immediate understanding" (p.3). A close sense of shared listening to the sounds and silences, of being held together in the music, seemed to create a deeper sense of quiet community amongst the students.
I was reminded of Pärt's period of retreat whilst being drawn into the very silent world of enclosed monastic life as portrayed in Philip Gröning's award-winning film Into Great Silence where he documents life inside a Cathusian monastery, the Grand Chartreuse, high up in the French Alps. Such phrases as 'A Meditation on Life' and 'A Contemplation of Time, Silence, Repetition, Rhythm' are part of the publicity blurb on the cover of the film's DVD box. Clearly the tough discipline of the Western silent recluse is not for all but this contemplative fall into silence and the gaps between sounds and events seems to be a deepening experience for mediators whatever system is practised, from within both Eastern and Western traditions. Julie Sutton in her aforementioned chapter reminds us of the positive nature of silence in many Eastern cultures with links to this sense of presence and purpose. Likewise I understand that the gaps between words in many sacred texts are often associated with this numinous sense of the Other.
In our music therapy practices we are regularly in touch with many positive aspects of silence and the links between silence and patterns in early holding environments have been well documented and do not need airing here. But as we are also aware these early environments are not always positive and, as the psychotherapist and advocate of music therapy Jan Van Camp (1999) reminds us and also in Sutton's (2006) chapter, a silent space can also potentially carry within it difficult and traumatic memories. I remember, for example, a GIM client who used the intense silent moment at the climax of Barber's Adagio for Strings not only to recall vividly but also to let go of an abusive traumatic memory, one that had plagued all of her adult life.
John Lane (2006) selects these opening lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Habit of Perfection at the beginning of his book The Spirit of Silence, Making space for Creativity. The same stanza seems appropriate to end these few reflections on making space for more silence.
Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Lane, J. (2006). The Spirit of Silence: Making space for creativity. Dartington, Devon: Green Books.
Picard, M. (1952/2002). The World of Silence. Wichita. Kansas: Eighth Day Press.
Rose, G.J. (2004). Between Couch and Piano: Psychoanalysis, music, art and neuroscience. Hove/New York: Brunner-Routledge.
Sutton, J. (2006). Hidden Music: An exploration of silence in music and music therapy. In Deliège, I. & Wiggins, G.A. (Eds.), Musical Creativity: Multidisciplinary Research in Theory and Practice. Hove/New York: Psychology Press.
Van Camp, J. (1999). Reflections on Music in Music Therapy. In Wigram, T & De Backer, J. (Eds.), Clinical Applications of Music Therapy in Psychiatry. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bunt, Leslie (2007). Making Space for Silence. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved June 10, 2013, from http://testvoices.uib.no/?q=colbunt130807