The sound of silence

Posted on: September 1, 2009

“In the Met there’s a painting by Vermeer called Girl Asleep at a Table,” writes Jan Swafford Monday on Slate. “It’s an oddly arranged picture, the subject off to one side dozing on her hand, her elbow on a table with a bunched carpet and objects including a wine jug, an overturned large drinking glass, and, near the girl, a more delicate wine glass with some dregs. Just off-center of the painting is an open door. X-ray studies show that originally a cavalier stood in the doorway. Vermeer painted him out, leaving a door opening onto an unoccupied room with a table and mirror on the other side. This change was an utterly Vermeer move. With a guy in the doorway, we know who left the overturned glass, and we have a painting about something on the order of sex. With a void in the center, we have a painting about a girl dreaming of something we don’t know about after having a drink with somebody we don’t know. The empty doorway shapes a mystery. Vermeer understood the power of withheld information. Composers have a similar understanding that in shaping sound, a nothing can be just as expressive as a something. It depends on the frame, what it is that echoes in the silence.” Swafford illustrates his point with several embedded sound clips featuring musical examples from composers like Handel, Haydn, Beethoven, Debussy, and Webern.

Posted September 1, 2009