Silence is Golden

Talking with my friend Tony Tenore during the rehearsal break the other week, he was bemoaning the awful ringtones we're bombarded with from all sides these days. Having just acquired one of those fancy mobiles that take MP3 files as ringtones, he was looking for something a bit better than the average. I ventured, "I'd thought of using a few snatches of recorded blackbird song when I get a new phone. The Mog should get used to it after a while." "Not a bad idea" he conceded, "but you might miss it if you were outside. I was thinking more along classical lines. What would you suggest?" Having won the complete Beethoven string quartets on eBay a few months ago for only £12, my first thought was those three anguished notes from the finale of Op 135, beneath which the composer wrote "Must it be?" Perhaps that would do for calls from one's accountant. Tony pondered. "Hmmm…" he said, as he ran it through in his mind. "Yes, but the trouble is, the quality of reproduction of most mobiles is worse than a 1960's tranny." Funny, that, I mused. A '60's tranny contained maybe 6 to 8 transistors in little tin cans. (I bought a transistor to play with when I was about 13, for 6s 8d I think.) Some mobiles today probably contain 100 million times as many, etched onto their silicon chips. There's progress for you. But we digress. "If you can't abide the quality of reproduction" I protested, "you'd be better off sticking to an old-fashioned 'ring-ring'". "But don't you see?" he retorted. "There’s one thing that even the worst mobile can reproduce with almost perfect fidelity!" "No!" I avowed. "But of course!" he declared triumphantly. "Silence!!"

The implications of this astounding insight gradually sank in. Remember that fascinating evening last term when Joseph Phibbs described how all music comes out of the silence that precedes it, making the silence itself a part of the music? Remember our Messiah last year, and Andrew’s 10-months'-pregnant pause before the final Amen? (The choir were at their best - no chattering, no esss-ing, no mobiles going off…) The rests in a piece of music can be the most exciting bits. "How about the pause, like a thousand years compressed into a moment, just before Gerontius gets his glimpse of God?" suggested Tony. "Brilliant" I replied, "but too short for a ringtone... Ah, but do you know Beethoven Op 18 No 1?" (I was back on the string quartets.) "The coda to the Adagio contains 6 whole metronomic beats of silence, repeated three times over. It's incredible." "Perfect!" exclaimed Tony, and he proceeded to conduct 6 beats of silence in the air - a more faithful rendition of Beethoven have I never heard - before pressing the green button on his mobile. (There was no one on the line. He looked at his phone with a puzzled expression.)

Just then we were interrupted by the bell sounding the end of the break, so we returned to our places.

I had occasion to ring Tony later in the week. He didn't answer. Can't think why.

©Philip Le Riche, 2006

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