The Music We Love and the Silence We Need

Do we enhance our appreciation of music by listening to more of it?

The need for silence goes back in time. Man evolved in a world of natural sound and soundlessness. Big cities and machines brought the screech of the elevated train against metal tracks, the rumble from underground subways, and the shout required to be heard above both.

When the conductor Simon Rattle was new to the compositions of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Rattle’s mentor Berthold Goldschmidt said to him, “Will you please remember what the phrase “ohne hast” (without haste) means in a time when there were no automobiles.Nor the sounds from such motor cars, he might have added.

Amplified sound became like floor-to-ceiling audio wallpaper over the course of the twentieth century. Civilization capitulated to its growth.

At first, Western society sought realistic prerecorded melodies. Who among us realized we would pay for this miracle, not just in money spent on phonographs, discs, and streaming services?

Convenience and ubiquity leached away some of the thrills of performances created in our presence. The novel sense of a special occasion diminished. The sonorities we loved became routine.

For music to produce its intended effect, the airborne notes must grow out of silence.

Carlo Maria Giulini, another maestro who mentored Simon Rattle, compared his musical conception to perspective in visual art. This artist wanted “air and space” around the sound to set it in relief from other sounds, just as a painter renders foreground against a background. The painter’s or musician’s hand can produce a third dimension’s magic.

Music now enters us through tired and overused ears. To create impact, performers are tempted to make it louder than in quieter times. More people brought bigger halls. The volume of sound enlarged.

One can speculate about a time-transported Beethoven’s reaction to the intrusion of machinery. Think of the brook he tried to evoke in the second movement of his “Pastoral Symphony.Of course, we can still find streams in the countryside, but we can’t guarantee a chainsaw won’t intrude on the birdsong taking place nearby.

The listener of today is jaded. Television, movies, elevator music, and computers outflank him. Nor does he want to be free of them. Some of us remember the quality of everyday life before stereo recordings. Later, an electronic hum from residential gadgets joined us within moments of relative stillness. Home appliances “speak” to us now.

How often would a music lover 100 years ago have heard a Mozart Concerto in a modest-sized hall? Now we can listen to the same creation more in a week or two than was possible in a lifetime. One needn’t even leave the car or public transportation he takes to work.

I admit music has given me much joy. I’m a veteran concert-goer and recording collector. Yet, I also understand something has been lost.

International concerts in 2021 would have included the tail-end of a world-wide observance of the 250 anniversary of Beethoven’s birth in 1770. A wise and necessary idea?

Long before a pandemic aborted the plans to laud the birthday boy, the legendary conductor Otto Klemperer thought otherwise. Musical America published an interview with him in 1927 in commemoration of the composer’s death 100 years before:

If you ask me the best way to celebrate his centenary, I will tell you it is not to play him for a year. He is played too much. Everyone plays Beethoven and no one wishes to hear the (people) who write today. Beethoven has become a business for the box office.

Well, Klemperer got his wish and then some, albeit a little late. Oscar Wilde reminds us, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.


The first image includes a selection of silhouettes of Gustav Mahler created by Otto Bohler (1847-1913) in 1899.  The photograph of Carlo Maria Giulini is from the cover of Thomas Saler’s superb biography of the conductor, Serving Genius. Finally, a photo of Otto Klemperer, part of the collection of The Library of Congress.

The Therapist’s Office as a Refuge

Therapy sessions have changed. Or perhaps I should say, they are the same as always, but the world isn’t. The consulting room remains a quiet place for quiet conversation. Everywhere else is noisier and more crowded, with fewer spaces of refuge and much distraction. Almost nowhere are you (and you alone) the sole concern of someone who is not your small child.

You are worse for this, but something can be done. More on taking action later.

First, let’s look back before the advent of cell phones. I’m speaking of the days prior to elevator music (unless you brought a violinist with you), TV, and radio. In other words, less than one hundred years ago.

If you don’t live a rural life or reside away from flight paths and railroads, you probably don’t know what has been lost.

Where else, other than in therapy, do you obtain the undistracted concentration of another? Not over dinner if the TV is on or music is playing. Not if your phone is on. Not if you or your partner are reading or looking out the window.

I recall a single-cell cartoon showing a middle-aged couple over coffee. He is reading the newspaper and his partner is talking.

“I’m sorry dear, I wasn’t paying attention. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we married?”

The draw of the personal phone is powerful. According to a 2013 survey, “At least 9 percent (of those surveyed) admitted to grabbing the phone while having sexual relations. Among those 18 to 34 years-old, the number climbs to 20 percent.”

This finding gives new meaning to the word “threesome” and the phrase ménage à trois.

Some patients might benefit from a public address announcement requesting them to turn off electronic devices. Would they want their surgeon to take calls while operating on their brain? For much of my career I made sure I couldn’t be summoned instantaneously. Patients understood I checked messages a few times a day. The ER was available if they needed urgent care. Nobody died.

Many of us complain of lacking intimacy, but the little bugger in our pocket mocks those complaints. Should you wish someone’s full attention, start by giving it.

Why must the TV be on during dinner, creating a hurdle to conversation? How many TVs do you own? The husband of a friend installed a television in every room of their home, including the bathrooms. He was neither a patient nor a patient man, by the way. I recall a famous therapist who carried two cell phones. I once saw him holding conversations on both simultaneously.

I’d guess, for some of you at least, the unconscious draw of counseling is not only your therapist’s help, but that the time is yours, yours alone, without disturbance: a refuge.

I realize a few of you need noise — the hum of things — to distract you: the radio or TV chatter makes you feel secure and reduces your loneliness.

However, if you don’t fear the stillness, and want greater relationship intensity and intimacy, here is some guidance: an antidote for the monstrous, electronically hectored life you live.

First, acknowledge that your life is partly of your making.

Then, take control. Make the days what you wish them to be, don’t simply endure them.

You need not tolerate people who invite their phone to dinner with you. You can say, “I thought this was for the two of us alone,” nodding in the direction of the inanimate third-party on the table. Smile sweetly when you do.

Sell or junk all but one or two TVs. Exclude electronics from dinner at home.

The family will not cheer this: “Mom! Dad! This is the 21st century! Everyone else does this. Why are you punishing me?”

Turn off the music. Sound proof your room. Get ear plugs. Go to quiet restaurants. Spend time in the country. Alert companions that you are no longer a slave to your phone, the Twitter account, and the latest update on their visit to the w/c.

If you struggle to do these things, perhaps you need to talk with a therapist about self-assertion.

Whose life is it? Who’s the boss, applesauce?

Have a nice day!

No. Make a nice day.

Rant over.