Category: Almost Silence

Guy talks about…”silence and place”

useful notes for students in design/architecture at KABK

I have a recording studio in the former US Embassy (no, not shown in the photo – my studio is much much smaller)

The word silence encompasses a multitude of concepts, and varies widely across disciplines and cultures. Silence can be subject, verb, and object. It can be societal, religious, mindful, meditative, diplomatic, political, aggressive, or punitive. Silence is employed in conversation, rhetoric, music, art, religion, and politics. Since the Western words for silence are so overloaded, many works on sound refer as well to Japanese and Chinese terminology, which offer an alternative viewpoint. Fascinatingly, the terms most often used – ‘ma’ and ‘liú bái’ – are both inextricably linked in their original languages to painting techniques (the white space between the ink strokes) as well as to visual design in general (architecture, gardens, ceramics).

  • Questions we could ask about silence:
    • is there a performative stillness
    • are there colors?
    • are there signs?
    • are there symbols?
    • how do you show the absence of something?
    • can we SEE silence?
    • or do we HEAR silence?
    • are there markers or frames?
    • are there gestures or bodily poses?
    • how noisy/quiet is the silence?

societal silence

“Quiet is peace. Tranquility. Quiet is turning down the volume knob on life. Silence is pushing the off button. Shutting it down. All of it.”

(Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner)

To a large degree, silence in society is perceived as a goal to be attained. Against the noise of modern life and its hectic pace, the inner silence must be sought. Yoga, mindfulness, Zen meditation, walking, are all means to this end. Silence has become a commodity, a luxury, and a quest. (Biguenet, 2020; Chayka, 2021) This journey has been documented in countless books, most entertainingly, Silence in the Age of Noise (Kagge, 2018). Erling Kagge spent weeks trekking alone through the snow to reach the South Pole. This is a saga of Zen-infused adventure in which he reflects on snow, walking, solitude, and silence. 

“Alongside so much tragedy and despair, mass quarantine has represented a final fulfillment of the pursuit of nothingness, particularly for the privileged classes who could adapt to it in such relative comfort.”(Chayka, 2021)The disastrous isolations imposed by the corona crisis in 2020 created a sudden awareness of silence, especially silence in nature, but also silence in art and music, at least for those who stopped working. 

three podcasts on silence that I produced

The Silence In Betweenfor Irish Radio, 1-hour show about music and silence, featuring violinist Monica Germino, and Space Satellite engineer Luis Rolo. (2019)
Zindering5-episodes about the Zindering Festival of Music and Silence (Mechelen, Belgium) (2022)
Under/City/Soundexperimental 5-part podcast on silence, covid, isolation, and surviving the first lockdown in The Hague. (2020)

some books to read, in no particular order

“Sound Houses”: Music, Architecture, and the Postmodern Sonic, by Nicholas Till
read it online at:
This book examines different kinds of analogies, mutual influences, integrations, and collaborations of the audio and the visual in different art forms. The contributions, written by key theoreticians and practitioners, represent state-of-the-art case studies in contemporary art, integrating music, sound, and image with key figure of modern thinking constitute a foundation for the discussion. It thus emphasizes avant-garde and experimental tendencies, while analyzing them in historical, theoretical, and critical frameworks. 

Novak, Marcus. “Computation and composition.” In Architecture as a translation 
of music, edited by Elizabeth Martin, 66-69. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994.

book: Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West
by Shoji Yamada; University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2005/trans 2009); translated by Earl Hartman
About Ryoanji, the author writes that it was only in the postwar context that the garden came to be associated with zen, and that this could be an accidental, or deliberate anachronism, tying into the Western interest in modernist art/architecture and search for abstract meaning. The original name of the garden may have been “tiger cubs crossing the river”

Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture 
Author: Barry Blesser MIT press

Music, sound and space
edited by Georgina Born
Abstract: Music, Sound, and Space is the first collection to integrate research from musicology and sound studies on music and sound as they mediate everyday life. Music and sound exert an inescapable influence on the contemporary world, from the ubiquity of MP3 players to the controversial use of sound as an instrument of torture. In this book, leading scholars explore the spatialisation of music and sound, their capacity to engender modes of public and private, their constitution of subjectivity and the politics of sound and space. Chapters discuss music and sound within specific settings, including sound installation art, popular music recordings, offices and hospitals, and music therapy. With international examples, from the Islamic soundscape of the Kenyan coast, to religious music in Europe, to First Nation musical sociability in Canada, this book offers a new global perspective on how music, sound and space transform the nature of public and private experience.

experimentation in sound art with silence

While Cage was experimenting with silence on-stage, Max Neuhaus was trying out similar silences on the streets of New York and in art galleries. I’ll come back to his radical “LISTEN!” walks later.

Meredith Monk, Joelle Léandre, and Pauline Oliveros offered music which reached out via community involvement, deliberately un-silencing non-dominant voices, and also leading new explorations of musical silence via improvisation. 

Matt Rogalsky has concatenated silence from BBC radio broadcasts, using software to remove all but the silences, and then creating a new artwork by playing the silences sequentially: “All the sounds I collect, which fall below a very low threshold, become quite noisy on their own, when they are placed together end-to-end without gaps between.” (Hodkinson: Presenting Absence pp. 188-189) 

Douglas Webb’s installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York offered the audience a chance to experience a quiet – inspired by anechoic chambers. Note how the posed photo resembles a fashion shoot. This is silence as luxury:

architecture as container for silence

The urban-, architectural-, or built- environment plays a key role in our experience of silence, both musical and non-musical. 

“In Egyptian temples we encounter the silence that surrounded the pharaohs […] The silence of architecture is a responsive, remembering silence. A powerful architectural experience silences all external noise; it focuses our attention on our very existence, and as with all art, it makes us aware of our fundamental solitude.” (Juhani Pallasmaa: The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture of the Senses. London 2005, p. 52)

The silence of a church, the silence of cloisters, the silence of a garden, the silence of an inner courtyard or a quiet room: these are places to experience silence and shelters from the noise of contemporary life. As early as 1882, Nietzsche (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) foresaw the need for calm spaces to seek refuge from the noises of the city.

Hush City is a smartphone app that helps the public worldwide document (photography, describe, and record) urban places and rate their silence quotient. Led by Antonella Radicchi, this open source project has allowed “citizen scientists” to register hundreds of spaces worldwide. I wish the information they provided were more detailed. It’s far too vague for my interests. But I see a lot of potential. 

In Belgium there have been many recent responses to the need for silent places. Although architectural engineer and artist Jolien Naeyaert (A+ Magazine, December 2019, p 67) laments that the language of silence seems to be disappearing from architecture, she has hope that new typologies are being created to respond to modern societal needs, for example by Studio Thys Vermeulen, specializing in the re-purposing of unused churches. 

The design team of Peymen Jellema, whose motto is “architectuur as gebaar naar verstilling”, has been studying the possibility of “le lieu-refuge” or “luwteplekken” since 2012.[1] Their research did “not reveal what silence is, but went in search of what permits stillness in public space.” (Peymen Jellema, De Luwteplek: 2017 p. 6) They have created an analysis tool (image right) for measuring both quantitative and qualitative experiences of silence. (“Architecture in Belgium,” 2019, p. 5)

signs of silence

this is just the beginning – there are a lot of icons and symbols which tell us to be quiet, to shut up, to silence ourselves or our music or our words…fortunately, there are also more subtle visual ways of encouraging quiet or creating a restful environment…to be discussed!

Short Film about Silence and the former US Embassy in The Hague

Some quotations

Silence is unidimensional acoustically (defined only by its length) but multidimensional perceptually (describable as tense, relaxed, too short, arresting or disturbing)

—Margulis, 2007, p246

L’armature intellectuelle du
poème se dissimule et tient – a lieu – dans l’espace qui
isole les strophes et
parmi le blanc du papier : significatif silence qu’il
n’est pas moins beau de composer, que les

—Mallarmé Livre 

“What silence requires is that I go on talking” 

— p 109, Silence, John Cage

“the words help make the silences”

— p 109, Silence, John Cage

Silence requires one decision: sound or no sound. Sound requires a great many more decisions. These shape the sound and give it its quality, feeling and its content. Thus silence, in its comprehensive, monolithic presence always stands as one against an infinite number of sounds or sound forms. 

—Jürg Frey, 1998 “The Architecture of Silence”

Sounds make the silence possible by their ceasing and give it a glimmer of content. As the space of silence stretches itself out, the sounds weaken in our memory.

—Jürg Frey, 1998 “The Architecture of Silence”

“You know you open the score for the first time and it’s really complete silence. But this is the only way also to train your ear, to imagine what you’re gonna hear without having the actual sound.  Again Giulini was saying that music is an art form that doesn’t live unless you bring it to life. If I show this to most people, it doesn’t mean anything. So it needs to actually be brought to life. But conductors, we have to bring it to life in our mind, to hear it in the silence. So that when you actually hear it for real, you can have a meeting of the imagination and the reality. “ 

—conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin of Montreal, now of the Metropolitan Opera, in a PBS documentary

some of my favorite cartoons about silence:

[1] Early in their research, they identified sixteen “luwteplekken” which had high values of stillness for Gent residents. Involving actors on the state and local level, community groups, and students; as well as healthcare agencies run by religious orders (who own many of the properties), they created protection for these sites on the basis of their societal value.

Aletta Becker & Guy Livingston

Location Lange Houtstraat 8, Den Haag centrum (around the corner from the Mauritshuis, see map below)

Program: Lost for piano and spoken word (in English and Dutch). Script by Aletta Becker.

Saturday June 19th at 7pm

Het verhaal van de Rattenvanger van Hamelen speelt zich af in het schemergebied tussen mythe en geschiedenis. Bekend in tenminste 42 landen en 30 talen, zijn de personages terug te vinden in de beeldende kunst, literatuur, klassieke muziek, animaties en musicals. De Rattenvanger wordt afgeschilderd als de duivel en als de Dood; als dichter, zanger en zelfs als ’Solar Hero’. In alle verhalen komen kinderen voor, maar dat geldt niet voor de ratten…
Guy Livingston en Aletta Becker volgen in dit muzikale essay in dialoog met elkaar en het verhaal de ontwikkeling, interpretaties en consequenties van die verschillende versies.
Zijn de kinderen van Hamelen omgekomen of verdwenen?
Met dit onderzoek naar de kracht en de valkuilen van het vertellen van verhalen, blijven in ‘Lost’  beide opties mogelijk.

The story of the Pied Piper resides in the indeterminate area between myth and history. It is known in at least 42 countries and 30 languages and its characters appear in the visual arts, in literature, classical music, plays, cartoons and musicals. The piper has been depicted as the Devil and as Death, as a poet, a singer or even as a Solar Hero; in all stories there have been children, but there haven’t always been rats… In this musical essay, Guy Livingston and Aletta Becker dialogue their way into the lineage of the story, exploring the interpretations and ramifications of its many renditions. 
Did the children of Hamelin perish or disappear?
While investigating the power and the pitfalls of storytelling, ‘Lost’ leaves both options open. 

Aletta Becker schrijft teksten voor theater en maakt fictie en non-fictie audio voor podcasts, on-site installaties en musea. Ze studeerde theaterwetenschappen aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam en montage en regie aan de Nederlandse film en Televisie Academie. Op Schrijversvakschool Groningen geeft ze les in het schrijven van theaterteksten.

Aletta Becker writes plays, scenarios and poetry, and produces fiction and non-fiction audio for performances, podcasts, on-site installations and museums. She holds a MA in theatre science from the University of Amsterdam and graduated in directing and editing at the Dutch National Film School. She teaches writing for performance at Schrijversvakschool Groningen.

Monica Germino & Guy Livingston

Location TBA (Centrum Den Haag)

Program: The Silence in Between, featuring two premières, text by archy, and a sneak preview film about the whisperviolin

Date pending

Amsterdam-based, American/Dutch violinist Monica Germino is on the cutting edge of new music. Hailed by The Sunday Times (UK) as a ‘striking presence’ whose ‘virtuosity was exhilarating,’ she has collaborated with such composers as Louis Andriessen, John Cage, Heiner Goebbels, Michael Gordon, David Lang, György Ligeti, and Julia Wolfe. Together with sound designer Frank van der Weij, she has revealed new possibilities for the solo violin and presented multimedia programs worldwide. Her performances often feature singing and playing simultaneously. She co-founded the international ensemble ELECTRA and now serves as its artistic advisor. 


Past and Future Silences

Guy Livingston, piano, Ned McGowan, flute; Nafiss Nia, poetry; met Madelief Lammers, vocals; Magdalena Spinka, vocals; Maya Willemse, piano

Spoken Word, Music, Poetry, Electronics, at the Maarten Luther Kerk, Amsterdam Zuid

with special guest artists from the HKU

Date: Friday, June 18th @ 7pm

Program: music of George Crumb, Anton Webern, Ned McGowan, Vanessa Lann, and Guy Livingston, plus “silence” music by performers and composers from the HKU Musician 3.0 program!

Ik wil terug naar het verloren moment
naar de vergeten lach
naar de tuin en de vijgenboom.

Nafiss Nia, uit esfahan mijn hoopstee

Ned McGowan is a flutist and contemporary classical music composer, born in the United States, living in the Netherlands. Known for rhythmical vitality and technical virtuosity, his music has won awards and been performed at Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw and other halls and festivals around the world by many orchestras, ensembles and soloists. As a flutist he plays classical, contemporary and improvisation concerts internationally and he has a special love for the contrabass flute. Ned is a professor of composition, ensembles and Advanced Rhythm and Pulse at the Utrecht Conservatory and lecturer of Artistic Research at both the Codarts University of the Arts Rotterdam and the Fontys School of Performing Arts Tilburg. In September 2016, Ned started an artistic research PhD about speed, frame and time in music at the Leiden University and the DocARTES program in Ghent.

Nafiss Nia is dichter, (scenario)schrijver, Filmmaker, cultureel ondernemer en public speaker. 
Nafiss is tevens directeur/Hoofdprogrammeur van Stichting Granate in Amsterdam en programmeert in die hoedanigheid festivals als Granate FestivalDuizendenéén Film&Poëzie, Televisieprogramma 1001 Gezichten en het project Poëzie op de stoep

Gedichten en andere werk van Nafiss zijn opgenomen in meer dan veertig verzamelbundels, bloemlezingen en (literaire) tijdschriften. oa ‘Blauw goud’ samengesteld door Patrick Riubroeks en Thomas Mölmann en ‘Ik weet niet welke weg je neemt’, samengesteld door Arie Boomsma en in Tirade, Meander, Liegende konijn, Balustrade, NRC next, Trouw, Volkskrant, Groene Amsterdammer en Deus ex Machina. Ze draagt regelmatig haar gedichten voor op literaire podia.

MINI-FESTIVAL: Almost Silence

Guy Livingston curated a mini-festival of music and silence in The Hague in June 2021.

Guy Livingston

Featured artists were flutist Ned McGowan, poet Nafiss Nia, writer and radio-maker Aletta Becker, violinist Monica Germino, and pianist Saskia Lankhoorn. Concerts took place in The Hague and Amsterdam. See the menu above for details. Each event featured musical or poetic themes of loss, disappearance, absence, calm, and quiet.

June 13

“Almost Silence”, a piano concert by Guy Livingston in a secret courtyard of The Hague.

June 18

Poetry of Nafiss Nia, with flutist Ned McGowan and pianist Guy Livingston. PLUS “Future Silence” with artists from HKU.

June 19

Lost“, a reflection in words and music on the Pied Piper of Hamelin with theater-maker Aletta Becker and pianist Guy Livingston.


Music and Silence“, a piano recital by Saskia Lankhoorn.


The Silence in Between” with Monica Germino and her whisperviolin; and Guy Livingston on clavichord (postponed).

These performances are made possible by a grant from the Fonds for Performing Arts (FPK).