Introduction: Music, Inarticulacy and Silence

It has been said all too often that our culture is a culture of the image, favouring the sense of vision at the detriment of other senses. As Christoph Cox points out, “prevailing theoretical models are inadequate to [sound art]. Developed to account for the textual and the visual, they fail to capture the nature of the sonic.”1. Cox argues that the resistance of sound based arts to analysis on the basis of representation and textuality has been noted early on, and has given rise to interpretations of music as either “sub-representational” (addressing raw emotion) or “super-representational” (addressing the universal and absolute). This conceptual split seems to be coupled to a sociological and anthropological one. The realm of sound attains both a privileged status and a banished one. Music plays a central role both in sacred rituals and in socially proscribed practices. This ambivalent status is reflected in the treatment of musicians and dancers in many traditions, a combination of reverence and anathema. One of the central ancient myths expressing this ambivalence is that of Orpheus, a favorite myth in western culture, from Claudio Monteverdi’s Opera in 1607 to Jean Cocteau’s film Orpheus in 1950. Between and beyond these two examples lie numerous others, such as the reconstructed references to Orpheus and Virgil in the Brandenburg Concertos of Johann Sebastian Bach2, Gluck’s popular Orfeo ed Euridice (1872), Beethoven’s commissioned portrait as Orpheus (painted by his friend Joseph Willibrord Mähler) and his programmatic references to Orpheus in the fourth Piano Concerto (1807), Jacques Offenbach’s satirical opera “Orphée aux enfers” (1858) and Jan Kott’s critical analysis of Orpheus as the prototype of the musician, artist and actor in “The Eating of the Gods”3. The Devadasi in India, the Geisha, but also the Sarugaku and Kabuki actors in Japan, are well-known examples of castes that are both shunned and revered, while the Gypsies and Roma are marginalized groups whose role as bearers of musical craftsmanship is recognized throughout modern history. These are prominent examples of the subaltern4 in the context of music. In present essay I reflect on an installation about “Narcissus and Echo” presented at the Through the Roadblocks project, as a result of a collaboration between Jean-Pierre Hébert and myself. The installation was inspired by Ovid’s version of the Narcissus myth and evoked an absent Echo through the sounds of swallows circling a delicate structure representing Narcissus. Occasionally, the installation would be silent. Over time this experience has given rise to further thoughts about silence, which are expounded in the present essay.

The connection of music to the subaltern is rooted in a deeper affinity between the mode of existence of marginalized social groups and music as a manifestation of the non-representational aspects of consciousness. Martin Vogel has made a rare attempt to uncover hidden links between music and the animal element in the beginnings of western culture through linguistic, archaeological and anthropological studies. His thesis is summarized in the epilogue of “Onos Lyras” (“The Donkey with the Lyre”) 5: In contrast to Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music”6, Vogel proposes to show “The Birth of Music from the Spirit of the Domestication of the Donkey”. In pursuing his controversial thesis, Vogel exposes numerous links between musical practices in Africa, the Near East and Europe and banished tribes or castes that follow ancient practices of animal domestication. In a series of books, one of which is entirely dedicated to the etymology of European words related to the origins music 7, Vogel uncovers hidden traces in the sound of words and in social practices and myths, linking music to the animal element. These are symbolic hints to substrata that remain from the birth of ancient civilizations and of technologies based on the domestication of animals. One of the threads in Vogel’s investigation regards the connection of words used in chant and music, such as Halleluiah, and the mating calls of donkeys. In the world of pre-modern cultures, the essential characteristic separating animal cries from speech is their inarticulacy. Animal cries represent the instinctive, non-thinking part of animal being in contrast to the logical aspect represented by speech. At about the same time as Vogel, Jacques Attali looked at the unstructured, illogical parts of music from the point of view of its means of production and of power struggles: In his book “Bruits” (“Noise”)8 he took a different sociological approach to the phenomenon of music and representation, linking attitudes towards musical form and function to technological means of production and social hierarchies of power.

The title of Attali’s book, “Noise” is indicative of the turn of attention away from the structured to the in-articulate aspects of music in the 20th century. The switch of focus from concepts such as articulation, formal unity, relations of whole and parts, proportion and structure to the contrary concepts of noise, chaos, flow and the inarticulate in the 20th century, reflects a rising preoccupation with those levels of culture and consciousness that lie beyond the reach of logic. Cage 9 writes that “music is continuous only listening is intermittent”, while Deleuze 10 writes that “One can […] conceive of a continuous acoustic flow […] that traverses the world and that even encompasses silence […] A musician is someone who appropriates something from this flow” (p. 78). The recognition of the chaotic and unformed as a substratum of music contrasts with the older focus on logic, articulation and structure as the axiomatic and indisputable foundations of musical art. While recognizing the link of music to affect, the theoretical tradition of western music had cultivated an approach emphasizing the structured and articulate. Since the late Renaissance, music has been based on rhetoric as the art of persuasion, of expression and of the communication of ideas. The development of polyphonic and harmonic musical genres that led to the Classical Style of the 18th century is founded on highly formalized rules for the construction of musical form in a manner analogous to rhetorical argument 11. This goes hand-in-hand with Rationalism and its bias towards clear structure and order. Thus, the failure of modern theory to disengage from the representational, and its preoccupation with the textual approach has deep historical roots. As Kim-Cohen puts it: “If there is such a strata of experience, we must accept it mutely. It finds no voice in thought or discourse. Since there is nothing we can do with it, it seems wise to put it aside and concern ourselves with that of which we can speak”12. In this context, Cox calls for “a different sort of theoretical analysis – not a theory particular to sound, but one capable of accounting for sound and the other arts.”13. An undertaking at that level requires some fundamental methodological considerations. As a step in this direction, the present essay considers an element of the sonic universe that is perhaps least analysed in relation to its importance: Silence, the absence of sound. Silence relates to the topic of inarticulacy in several ways: It is unstructured itself, yet it is the most absolute and clear structural element. It may be regarded as the quintessence of music as an art of the ineffable; for it is empty of content and by virtue of this it can adopt or be charged with any content. By consequence, the spectrum of semiotic uses of silence in music is remarkably rich, arguably richer than that of any other element. Yet while there exist morphologies of melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre, no morphology of silence has ever been proposed. One might say that attempting such a morphology would be contrary to the essence of silence as an object of study. Because of its protean nature, silence resists categorization. How might one then approach the topic of silence within the scope of a theory that starts with sound but embraces other arts, as Cox has posited? The objective of the present essay is to indicate some of the roles which silence can play in the formulation of such a trans-disciplinary theory.

Silence and Repetition: Echo and Identity

In “Dracula’s Legacy”14, Kittler uncovers the relationship of the mechanical recording of sound and speech to the role of women in psychoanalysis. As Josh Epstein notes, “Kittler seems to be approaching the issue of the different ways in which we as subjects receive sound as emanations from the individual signifier, and not as signified objects of “sound.”15 Since mechanical reproduction is what enables the separation of sound as an object from its source, and sound is a prime conveyor of the signified, it is a natural (but brilliant!) idea of Kittler to investigate the impact that this separation has on the relationship between the sender and receiver of the sound as carrier of a communication act. Kittler argues that mechanical reproduction caused the split of the communication process of psychoanalytical discourse into two separate feedback loops: one feminine and one mechanical16. He points out the parallels between that and another recording activity in which women played a key role: The recording of proceedings on a typewriter. As exemplary subject in this scenario, he analyses the role of Mina in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” as the typist whose records create the main cohesive narrative in the novel. On the transition from the animalistic “Id” to the rational Ego, Kittler remarks: “In order to replace the Id with an Ego, to replace violence with technology, it is necessary that one first fall into the clutches of this violence. The beginning of every romance reverses for a certain period of time the roles of hunter and hunted.”17. Geert Lovink18 remarks that in this essay Kittler develops for the first time his thesis of “the woman (Mina Harker) who controls the registration apparatus (in this case, the newly invented typewriter) as medium of the man”. In his later works, Kittler turned increasingly to antiquity, and this is where a story about the separation of the voice from the speaker can be found, one that involves the concepts of the hunter and hunted, in reversed roles than those of Dracula. It is the story of ‘Narcissus and Echo’ as told by Ovid. The starting point for the parallel is straightforward: Like Mina, Echo has no voice of her own, but repeats the sayings of her male interlocutor. However, there are multiple reversals, and some telling differences. Here the hunter is identified with a female supernatural being who repeats the sound: Echo. Contrary to Mina, Echo is the hunter and the supernatural being at once (Note that Narcissus is out hunting deer when he is first spotted by Echo.) The alternate source repeating the sound is not a technical medium but a (super-) natural phenomenon. Underneath this lay manifestations of silence: The silence of Echo that never voices words of her own. The silence into which the words of the caller are echoed. And finally, the silence separating individual repetitions of an echo. Here is silence revealed in its purest incarnation, as an articulating inarticulate element. The primal musical counterpart of Echo is antiphony (a call and response type of singing), a ubiquitous, primeval musical form. Deleuze made this form a central subject of his thought through is writings on “refrain”, in conjunction with further central notions: repetition and difference. One may say that silence is revealed as that which makes repetition possible. Furthermore, the myth of Narcissus and Echo exposes silence as a vital if inaudible element of dialogue. The refrain is a special variant of antiphony, which separates the roles of the partners in a dialogue: One partner spins the tale forward, while the other provides a stable ground through repetition. In the refrain, the repetition becomes decoupled from the forward-moving, changing discourse of the narrating actor, in order to provide a stable ground or orientation point that provides the setting for the narration. Here we already have terms that start from sound to encompass other realms of expression: “Ground” or “ground bass” denotes a repeating theme that is steadily repeated (Italian: Ostinato), forming the basis for a piece through variations. In discourse, the Ground is the Echo, the partner that reflects the tale spun by the active narrator. The term ground expresses the foundational, stability-lending role of this element. The term ground also links to the idea of background in the visual arts.

Silence, Rupture and Distance

Silence started being used as an expressive device in music at the point of transition between the Renaissance and Mannerism and the Baroque period. Notable examples are found in works by Gesualdo da Venosa, and in the Italian Madrigals of Heinrich Schütz (1610) and Claudio Monteverdi. The importance of silence is acknowledged in Baroque musical rhetorical theory through a group of figures used to express either silence or a break in the composition: Apokope (an omitted or shortened final note in one voice), aposiopesis (a rest in one or all voices), abruptio or ellipsis (the sudden breaking off of musical passage), homoioptoton, homoioteleuton, tmesis, suspiratio, and pausa. Abruptio is used to express loss, downfall, or destruction19. Johann Sebastian Bach’s work contains an extraordinary example of abruptio combined with aposiopesis, a rare instance of a piece ending with an incomplete melody fragment followed by notated silence. It occurs in “Actus Tragicus” (“Tragic Act”, BWV 106), a funeral cantata that Bach composed when he was barely 23 years of age. The silence is situated at the pivotal point of the piece, separating the first part representing the Old Testament view of death from the second part representing the New Testament’s view. This is one of the most striking expressions of rupture in the musical repertoire. It is introduced by a dense, sombre and dissonant passage embedded in an antithetical setting: Low strings and voices illustrate the words “human, you must die” while a single high female voice contrasts this, chanting “Yes come, Lord Jesus”. The parts of the low layer break off one after the other, leaving the high voice soaring alone, until it also fades away (pianissimo) with a phrase suspended in mid air. There follows a bar of silence. This setting connects silence to death, to rupture and to the expectation of transition. Here, silence forms part of a group of signs that signify rupture and death: The contrast between high and low register, downward melodic leaps, and finally, what one might call the “broken” or “crossed” tetrachord. This is a sequence of four scale steps (g a b c), which is broken in the middle by a downward leap to the lower octave between a and b. The motif figures prominently in the beginning of the above movement, as theme of a fugato to the words “It is the old testament”. Here emptiness is expressed by the distance between a and b, heard as a break in the stepwise movement of g a b c. This motif is found in many other works, spanning Bach’s entire output (e.g. “Motet Komm Jesu Komm” BWV229, the theme of the g minor Fugue from the Well Tempered Clavier, WTK 861, the middle movement of Brandenburg Concerto No 6 BWV 1051, divided between two oboes in the the opening of St John Passion, BWV 245). It also figures prominently in major works of the classical repertory such as in the last movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, the Scherzo of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the last movement of his 3rd Piano Concerto.

Silence, Spans, Erasure, Stasis

In “Music Discomposed” Stanley Cavell gives the following example of a question that a critic might ask about a work of art: “Why does Beethoven put in a bar of rest in the last line of the fourth Bagatelle (Op. 126)?”20 Of all possible questions about Beethoven’s work, this is one of the most perplexing ones: The pause appears quasi out of nowhere, with nothing to suggest its place in the flow of the piece. The context of the Bagatelles as playful explorations of formal possibilities suggests that this piece is an experiment with pauses. Two previous pauses in the same piece confirm this. These pauses are reminiscent of Haydn’s experiments with pauses, as for example in the String Quartet op 33 No 2 (“Joke Quartet”). While Haydn’s style is still close to baroque rhetoric, it extends beyond that: His pauses, embedded in the symmetric structure of periods of the classical style, trick the listener into trying to complete mentally that which appears to have been missed or discontinued. Haydn’s pauses are not just semantic complements in the rhetoric of the piece, they challenge the structure of the narrative itself. They create a puzzle: Why is the performance suddenly interrupted between phrases? Here silence is a device that points to the performance of the piece itself as an object consisting of sound and action. In other words, Haydn’s pauses are no longer just signs in a musical score. They point at the sound as object in itself and not merely a manifestation of the written text. Heightening the effect of this device, the quartet ends in a silence following the initial short phrase of the last movement, thus negating the structural sense of an end by a beginning, and creating both a closed circle and an open structure that continues into “empty” time. In Beethoven’s Bagatelle, the silence is inserted at the end of a transition, as if obliterating the passage that modulates to the next section. It is as if the text has been deliberately erased from the score, leaving emptiness where there surely must be something. Haydn’s and Beethoven’s pieces are like precursors of Lothar Wolleh’s portrait of René Magritte, with a photo of the artist outside the frame, and the head missing under the hat in the picture itself.

Silence can also hide behind a curtain of sound. Such is the case in the opening of Chopin’s Scherzo No 4, Op. 54. This silence behind a single chord held for the entire second part of a period is the subject of analysis in Hasty’s contribution to a Deleuzian theory in music21. This held pause at once suspends the movement of the piece and creates a sense of aporia (“Where is this going, and why are we suspended in air?…”) This is answered in the second appearance of the opening theme in the middle of the piece, where the (previously removed or hidden) chords are inserted underneath the held chord. The above pieces of Beethoven and Chopin can be seen as precursors of sound montage, where parts of the sound are removed or added as objects. Silence thus is a prerequisite for the conception of the sonic object, Pierre Schaeffer’s “Objet Sonore”22.


Silence is the element of music that allows the greatest disruptive and semiotic power at the same time. The unfolding of its different aspects has been a gradual process throughout the history of Western music. The break created by silence opens views to otherwise hidden aspect of cultural semiosis. It also acts as a tool to effect a change of view, perspective or level. Discontinuity, inarticulacy and emptiness are revealed to be potent motors for imagination, creativity, and dialogue. In the program outlined by Cox, that of a theory of sound that encompasses also other arts, silence is the bridge between inarticulacy and the articulate. By virtue of this, it opens gateways to the exploration of pervading human experiences which are otherwise difficult to externalize, such as the sense of absence, separation and distance.


  1. Christoph Cox. “Beyond Representation and Signification: Toward a Sonic Materialism,” Journal of Visual Culture 10 (2) Special Issue: Sonic Arts and Audio Cultures (2011): 145.^
  2. Philip Pickett. “J.S. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos. A New Interpretation”. Concerto. Available online at (accessed January 2014). Also published in: Philip Pickett. (Liner notes to:) Johann Sebastian Bach, Brandenburg Concertos, New London Consort Philip Pickett. (L’Oiseau-Lyre D 206896, 1994).^
  3. Ian Kott, The Eating of the Gods An Interpretation Of Greek Tragedy. (Chicago, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1987).^
  4. Gayatri Chakravorty. Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, edited by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271-313.^
  5. Martin Vogel, Onos Lyras: Der Esel mit der Leier (= Onos Lyras: The Donkey with the Lyra), (Düsseldorf Germany: Orpheus Verlag für Systematische Musikwissenschaft, 1973).^
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Birth of Tragedy,” in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, edited by Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: Modern Library), 15–144.^
  7. Martin Vogel. Chiron, der Kentaur mit der Kithara, (= Chiron, the Centaur with the Kithara) (Bonn, Germany: Orpheus Verlag für Systematische Musikwissenschaft, 1978).^
  8. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1985).^
  9. John Cage, “‘Introduction’ to Themes & Variations,” in Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (New York, NY: Continuum, 2004), 224.^
  10. Gilles Deleuze, “Vincennes Session of April 15, 1980, Leibniz Seminar”, trans. C.J. Stivale, Discourse 20(3) (19981980): 78.^
  11. Dietrich Bartel, Musica Poetica: Musical-Rhetorical Figures in German Baroque Music (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1997).^
  12. Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art (New York, NY: Continuum), 112.^
  13. Cox, Beyond Representation, 148.^
  14. Friedrich Kittler, “Drakulas Vermächtnis,” in Friedrich Kittler Draculas Vermächtnis: Technische Schriften (Leipzig, Germany: Reclam, 1993).^
  15. Josh Epstein, February 25, 2012, “Audio Books: Engl 147AB,” , accessed February 5, 2014.^
  16. Kittler, Drakulas Vermächtnis, 52.^
  17. Friedrich Kittler, “Draculas’ heritage,” in Friedrich Kittler: Essays: Literature Media Information Systems edited and introduced by John Johnston, article translated by William Stephen Davis (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 56.^
  18. Geert Lovink, “Friedrich Kittler’s Dracula’s Vermaechtnis. Review of Friedrich Kittler, Dracula’s Vermaechtnis Reclam Verlag Leipzig, Band-1476, 1993, ISBN-3-379-01476-1, German-text, DM22. Written for Mediamatic magazine, April 1, 1994). Available online at: (Accessed: February 5, 2014)^
  19. Bartel, Musica Poetica, 203^
  20. Stanley Cavell, “Music Discomposed,” in Must We Mean What We Say? A Book of Essays (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 182.^
  21. Christopher Hasty, “The Image of Thought and Ideas of Music,” in Sounding the Virtual: Gilles Deleuze and the theory and philosophy of music (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 14-17.^
  22. Brian Kane, “L’Objet Sonore Maintenant: Pierre Schaeffer, sound objects and the phenomenological reduction,” Organised Sound, 12(1) (2007).^


Iannis Zannos has a background in music composition, comparative musicology and computer music with emphasis on interactive performance. He has worked as Director of the Music Technology and Documentation section at the State Institute for Music Research (S.I.M) in Berlin, Germany, and Research Director at the Center for Research for Electronic Art Technology (CREATE) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has taken part at numerous international collaborative New Media Arts projects and has realized multimedia performances both alone and in cooperation with other artists. He is teaching audio and interactive media arts at the Department of Audiovisual Arts and at the postgraduate course in Arts and Technologies of Sound of the Music Department at the Ionian University, Corfu.


ID: 1700
Posted: 27 June 2014
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TEXT: Iannis Zannos


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