The Pact of Music and Silence (and Some Brief Thoughts on Platon Karataev’s New Single)

The relationship between music and silence is so rich and complex that books could be written about it, or nothing at all. Like other relationships, it is difficult to get right, but there’s an ease to it too. It is like a pact: you find the rules for the particular music, the particular silence, and you hold to them. Only the rules change as you go along, and the pact gets renewed again and again.

First of all, the shaping of sound inevitably involves some silence. Any melody has its breaks and pauses, if only for breath; any melody comes to an end. Add harmonies and counterpoints, and you have many different silences coming in and out.

Rhythm itself requires a kind of silence, because for there to be a beat or pulse at all, its absence also has to be there. Even punk music has a kind of silence, lots of it.

Then textures: how thick or thin the sound will be, which instruments will play and when, all of this implies its counterpart, silence.

Repetition is a kind of silence, because it refrains from doing something completely new. What is known sinks into you, like an evening.

The very language of music is the language of silence, because music doesn’t say things directly. Even songs are only partly verbal; the words ride the music.

Music also requires silence in the room, maybe. When you’re recording or performing, you usually don’t want background noises that will interfere (like the thump-thump-thump of a drum machine). But this depends, also, on the type of music and the situation. Jazz and blues want the audience to make sounds too. Some musicians (of any kind, except classical, probably) feel less intimidated if there is some chatter in the room. Also, some background noises, like the sound of the Duna flowing under and around the TRIP Hajó, bring something to the music that will never be there in that same way again. So there are no absolute rules regarding background noise, but it’s something to think about.

Music also needs the times when it is not there. The time when the concert or recording is over but it’s still in the head, the time when it is longed for. Or even the time when it is gone. Also, new songs can come out of silence.

This is just the beginning, but it illustrates, at least briefly, how important silence is to any kind of music. More than important: intertwined with it. That is why many musicians need to spend some time alone.

I think of this when I listen to or remember the gorgeous new single by Platon Karataev, “Partért kiáltó” (“Crying for the Coast,” also the title of their forthcoming album). It has most of these kinds of silences, and to be heard well, it needs the other kinds too. The vocal melody repeats and repeats, until the end, when there’s a variation, which itself is a kind of silence, because the phrase does not complete but instead leaves off. So many subtle things are going on in throughout the song that you can get happily lost in it, listening to it again and again. There’s a wonderful silence at the words “nem eső ez, csak a tenger dadog” (“this isn’t rain, it’s just the sea stuttering/stammering/faltering”). The instruments pause, but the sound carries through. This happens once earlier in the song, too, but it was here that I first noticed it. There are also silences in the rhythm of the lyrics, the way the syllables are sung. And more and more things to discover.

I think “Partért kiáltó” requires silence from the listener too, a willingness to come a distance for it, to be with it, to stay with it, like the one being addressed in the lyrics. It is beautiful right away. But so much happens when you listen many times, which means taking time without talking, without writing. And so this piece ends here.

Update: Here are some more thoughts on the song; this, too, is just a beginning.

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  1. “siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél….” | Take Away the Takeaway

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  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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