As an improviser, Silence Board member, and someone who researches and writes about improvisation I’m often asked about why the humble concrete and cinder block former garage in downtown Guelph that is home to so much independent music-making is called “Silence.” People seem struck by the uncanny resonances of the name, not only because so much sound comes out of such a small venue, but also because silence seems to be such a key concept for anyone who cares deeply about why improvised music matters. So there are a bunch of reasons I usually end up giving or trying to articulate, none of them definitive but all circling around why the name seems to resonate so strongly.
First, Silence is an obvious tip of the hat to John Cage, the great American composer, experimentalist and pioneer of musical indeterminacy. Not only did he publish a book of lectures and writings called Silence but he also authored the infamous musical piece 4’33”––which has been performed more than once at Silence, a “composition” that asks musicians to sit still and not play for precisely 4 minutes 33 seconds thus allowing other soundscapes to emerge from the stillness and indeterminacy of the moment. Given all the improvisatory music that happens in Silence, calling the venue as much reclaims the term for the space and its very particular acoustic ambience––especially since Cage had an adverse (troubled) disposition toward improvisation generally and that we don’t.
Weird fact: after Silence had survived a few years of struggle to keep the space going we discovered that Cage was a regular visitor to Guelph because of his love of mushrooms. The University had in its botany department one of the foremost mycologists on the planet with whom Cage regularly spent time in the summer.
Second, Silence is an ironic, humorous referent to all the noise that gets created in the space––a signal that many voices live and play and sound in the ambiguously noisy (intimate) space called … Silence. Also active is a play with the image of the marginalized artist capable of adventurous soundings in spite of all the ways in which music gets policed these days. And yet a further reference to how so many musicians are silenced because there are so few venues where they can do exactly this sort of adventurous exploration outside of the norms of pop, classic, or whatever musical orthodoxies keep people from finding new sonic iterations.
Third, Silence references intimate listening and stillness practices that are core to how we view improvisation. Whether invoking Pauline Oliveros (deep listening) or Robert Fripp (stillness meditations), silence is the inner space in which you can go deep into the well of your own and others’ creativity, voicings, unheard or unimagined potential––all of which emerge out of silence into improvisatory iteration and agency.
Fourth, silence generally references a state that precedes sonic iteration––let alone the place where all sounds go ultimately. So Silence as the name for the space was an invocation of this sonic/aural journey that is so firmly tethered to the contexts out of which (and into which) soundings/musickings come and go. If improvisation is an ongoing exploration and reflection on how we sound, it is also a reflection on how we respond to silence, the generative space for sounding. And as an independent venue that is deeply committed to sustaining these sorts of explorations it seemed fitting to give it the name out of respect for these sorts of ideas.
Finally, Silence responds, maybe ironically, to a common enough practice one sees with improvisers who express a lot of energy through fast, furious passages delivered with intensity and volume. Other dynamics are possible and naming the venue Silence recalls that there is always a dynamic relationship to be forged, imagined, and experimented with between silence and sound. Improvised music occurs in the real-time decision making and risk-taking context governed by Miles Davis’s principle that where you don’t choose to play is as important as where you do play. Honoring silence in improvisation can leave space for the implied, the unpredictable, the leaning in of artist and audience that creates intense forms of intimacy and interaction, cocreativity. Silence in this context is quite literally the musical equivalent of an artist’s use of space.
So a hodge-podge of reasons why the name Silence gets people thinking––none of these prescriptive or meant to reduce the different forms of musical exploration that occur in the space to any one thing. After all, Silence’s hallmark is respect for musical diversity and the richness of the ecosystem of potential soundings just around the corner.
It’s an evocative name for a space that is so full of sound and musicians and audiences searching out for real connections to why music matters so much and why we are compelled to keep exploring how it shapes us all.