Music without sound

Music without sound

Music without sound can refer to music that falls outside the range of human hearing (typically 20 Hz–20 kHz) or to compositions, such as visual music, that are analogous to or suggestive of conventional music but in media other than sound, such as color, shape, position, motion and literature (see Discursive music below). It is commonly taken for granted that music is wont to be performed or recorded, but some sound works simply won't fit on a disc or on stage, being either extremely discreet (like Robin Minard's Silent Music) or un-complete (Varèse's Unfinished music). Additionally, silence can be regarded as the via negativa of music and has induced long lasting fascination to music composers of all kinds. A composer deals with the absence of sound as much as he deals with sounds. Therefore, this article includes several examples of apophasis in music (like Algorithmic music or Gesture Music).

"It seems to me that the most radical redefinition of music would be one that defines 'music' without reference to sound."
Robert Ashley, 1961[1].

Gesture Music

Sofia Gubaidulina
Silence in music happens when the music stops during a performance. It is sometimes replaced by gesture music. In his Sofia Gubaidulina biography[2], Michael Kurtz mentions the silent solo performance by the conductor included in ...Stimmenn... verstummen..., an orchestral work from 1986.

The symphony is notable for its careful and innovative use of silence. Though the eighth movement has the largest proportions of the work, the climax actually takes place in the ninth movement when the conductor motions before a silent orchestra. The motions the conductor makes are meant to make his hands move increasingly farther apart from each other according to the Fibonacci sequence. This "conductor solo" is repeated at the end of the work, when after the last note is sounded the conductor continues to motion for several minutes.
From Wikipedia ...Stimmenn... verstummen... article
Milan Knizak's 1965 Snowstorm N°1

Milan Knizak
From 1960, the International Fluxus Movement created a number of Events or Verbal Pieces, whose temporal structures were typically vague so as to be sometimes without beginning nor end, with or without sound, with or without music. A remarkable example is that of Czech artist Milan Knizak's 1965 Snowstorm N°1 whose score states: Paper gliders are distributed to an idle and waiting audience.

Another Event, by Czech Fluxus artist Milan Knizak, is called Snowstorm N°1 (1965) and simply instructs that ‘Paper gliders are distributed to an idle and waiting audience’. What results is a snowstorm of quietly gliding paper airplanes as the audience returns them back and forth and so on. The exchange of sheets is experimentaly beautiful, like the caring gesture toward the instrument as tended by Brecht.
[From Not the Other Avant-garde][3].

Helmut Lachenmann
Lachenmann composed Salut Für Caldwell for 2 guitars in 1977. The piece includes silent moments when « the players silent motions and gestures created a space of unheard music » [Michael Kurtz[4]]

Takehisa Kosugi
In 1963 Takehisa Kosugi composed for Fluxus 1 a musical piece called Theatre Music in the form of a rectangle of cardstock that bore the trace of a spiral of moving feet. This was paired with the instructions: "Keep walking intently".[5]

Algorithmic music

Johann Wilhelm Stadler (1748-1833)

A sequence of finite instructions according to Wikipedia, an algorithm relates to computation, which ultimately relates to music. Eighteenth century algorithmic music is a contemporary of automaton machines, like Jacques de Vaucanson's duck or Wolfgang von Kempelen's chess player, or Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage's 1822 difference engine. In 1787, W.A. Mozart (1756-1791) devised an aleatoric system called Musikalisches Würfelspiel (Musical Dice)[6] published 1793 by J.J. Hummel in Berlin-Amsterdam, to compose waltzes with a pair of dice and a set of written bars on paper cards[7]. The combination of all the 16 cards and transitions, of which there are theoretically 1029 combinations, constitutes a minuet[8].

Austrian composer Maximilian Johann Karl Dominik Stadler, also known as Maximilian Stadler (1748-1833), created a table to compose minuets and trios with a pair of dice. In the case of the minuet version, there are 16 cards with one bar each and preconceived transitions between certain musical measures. Mathematical games columnist Martin Gardner once remarked in an article about automated music composition. "If you fail to preserve it, it will be a waltz that will probably never be heard again."[9]

The method of pure aleatoric music was used in the 20th c. by US composer Lejaren Hiller.

The optophonic piano

Optophonic disc, paint on glass, diameter: 40cms, ca. 1920-24

Wladimir Baranoff-Rossiné[10] started building his optophonic piano in the 1915s. A set of painted glass discs are rotated via the small keyboard. Light is projected through the discs onto the wall. The player can control intensity of light and speed of rotation. 6 or 8 keys of the 3-octaves keyboard are devoted to colored discs. It is not clear what kind of sound the keyboard is able to produce. Oscillator frequencies (as stated in some articles) are rather unlikely between 1915-1920. More probably the light show was performed with piano accompaniment, maybe performed on the reduced keyboard of the Optosonic Piano, akin to a toy piano.

Unfinished/aborted music

At one point, the music exists in the composer's mind. In 1928, Edgar Varèse started working on an opera called L'Astronome based on North American Indian legends, a project he never completed and destroyed the drafts. In 1932, he asked Antonin Artaud to write the libretto of a large scale oratorio, Il n'ya plus de firmament (There is no longer any firmament). In his book Phantasmatic Radio Allen S. Weiss translates the beginning of Artaud's text:

Darkness. Explosions in this darkness. Harmonies suddenly broken off. Harsh sounds. Depressurized soundings. The music will give the impression of a distant cataclysm and will fill the room, falling as from vertiginous heights. Chords will originate in the sky and then deteriorate, going from one extreme to the other. Sounds will fall as if from very high, then suddenly stop and spread out in bursts, forming vaults and parasols. Tiers of sounds... [in Phantasmatic Radio[11]]

The piece was never completed and Varèse turned to other projects, including a radiophonic work involving various synchronised choirs located in different places of the world. He never found the technology for it. In 1948, Artaud insisted on having noise sounds included in his Pour en finir avec le judgement de Dieu (To have done with the judgment of God). This was done in the Radiodiffusion Television Française studios where Pierre Schaeffer was working at the time.

Silent music

Silent Music (1994)[12] is an installation work by Canadian artist Robin Minard (b1953) with several hundred wall-mounted piezo loudspeakers and four-channel audio. The miniature loudspeakers are displayed in plant-like shapes on the walls of public spaces. They reproduce the minuscule ambient sounds of the public space where they are installed or play random synthetic sounds at barely audible volume. Minard deals with remote sounds best suited to intimate listening. In 2006 he created 'A voir en silence', a small artist book with loudspeakers and hand-written text[13].

Discursive music

Marcel Proust
The Sonate de Vinteuil (or Vinteuil Sonata) is an imaginary violin and piano sonata by fictitious composer Vinteuil recurring several times in Marcel Proust's A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), particularly in Un Amour De Swann (1913). In the latter volume, Charles Swann associates strong emotions and memories to the melody composed by Vinteuil. The French composer Reynaldo Hahn noticed how much Marcel Proust "vivait la musique de son temps" (experienced contemporary music)[14]. For example, Proust immediately praised and enjoyed Debussy's 1902 Pelleas et Melisande opera. Critics disagree on which composer inspired the Sonata. Possibly Gabriel Fauré[15] or César Franck. In Les Plaisirs et les Jours (1896), Proust focusses on Hans Sachs's monologue from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Act II. In Jean Santeuil (1952), a Camille Saint-Saëns Sonata for Violin and Piano (op. 75, 1885) plays a key role and is presumably the model for the Sonate de Vinteuil. In Un Amour De Swann, the Vinteuil Sonata is played during evenings at the Verdurin's by pianist Dechambre. The main character's emotions are mirrored by Proust's musical reminiscences. To readers of La Recherche, the Vinteuil Sonata is as real as any sheet music.

Walter Marchetti
A good example of imaginary music can be found in a Walter Marchetti poem where he mentions a Juan Hidalgo imaginary composition (both Hidalgo and Marchetti were members of the Spanish Zaj Group of Madrid in the late 1950s).

Eat an iced popsicle and thus perform his free
transcription, for only one performer, of
Music For Five Dogs, an iced
Popsicle and Six Male Performers
by Juan Hidalgo.
Walter Marchetti in A Zaj Sampler[16]


  1. ^ Michael Nyman, Experimental Music, 1974, p. 10.
  2. ^ Michael Kurtz Sofia Gubaidulina: A Biography, p 184, english translation Indiana University Press, 2007 (written 2001)
  3. ^ James Martin Harding and John Rouse (editors) Not the Other Avant-Garde: The Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance, University of Michigan Press, 2006, ISBN 0-472-06931-4, ISBN 978-0-472-06931-6
  4. ^ Michael Kurtz Sofia Gubaidulina: A Biography, p 192, english translation Indiana University Press, 2007 (written 2001)
  5. ^ Charles Mereweather ed., Art Anti-Art Non-Art, Getty Research Institute, 2007, p. 21
  6. ^ Musikalisches Würfelspiel (Musical Dice Game), K.516f in the Köchel catalogue of Mozart’s music
  7. ^ See Hideo Noguchi's article: Mozart Musical Game in C K. 516f, 1990
  8. ^ Computation from John Chuang in a 1995 article
  9. ^ See Ivars Peterson's article Mozart's Melody Machine on Science News
  10. ^ See Baranoff-Rossiné's official web page
  11. ^ Allen S. Weiss, Phantasmatic Radio, Duke University Press, 1995, page 42
  12. ^ Bernd Schulz (editor) Silent Music - zwischen Klangkunst und Akustikdesign/Between Sound Art and Acoustic Design, book+CD, 1999
  13. ^ Susan Meinhardt Silent Music/Adelaide Festival DVD, Australia, 2007
  14. ^ See Adrien De Vries' article: Sources de la Sonate de Vinteuil, April 2007 (in french)
  15. ^ See Margaret Hunter and Abigail Al-Doory's article: L'homme et la Musique Dans Un Amour de Swann, 1996
  16. ^ Something Else Press, New York, 1967, reissued by Great Bear Pamphlets

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