The great pianist Debussy, when asked how he could play those notes so beautifully, responded “It is not in the notes that the beauty of the music lies; it is in the silences between them.”
The value of space is not limited to music: In art, visual design, web and graphics design and paintings – the blank space is what defines the picture. In writing, the most artistic and successful editing is that which does not go back and add or rearrange but rather subtracts.
“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add but when there is nothing left to take away,” reminded French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Music, writing and speech are processes that improve by subtraction of content, not addition. When I first write a piece I see a lump of clay in front of me, that I have to chisel away at – mercilessly – before it gets too old and dry. And, well, lumpy.
So we have the tune, or words – now what gives it meaning, and life? Tone, inflection, facial expressions, body language and the rhythm of the silence. Any latin music lover knows about “clave” – which in English means “code” – the syncopated rhythm pattern, usually silent, that forms the backbone of the music and gives it clarity, form, substance and meaning.
A good example of where we don’t have clarity is email. All we have are bare naked words. No tone, inflection, expression – no “clave.” We can’t extrapolate true meaning from it, so the best we can do is project ourselves onto it – which tells us nothing about the intent of the sender. The use of email should be restricted solely to the transmission of necessary factual information. How many of us wished we could have unclicked it as soon as we sent it? Or woke up in the middle of the night running to our “send” box, hoping that we just dreamt it? How many times have we misunderstood (or have been misunderstood) and misinterpreted an email and then responded accordingly, leading to an argument, hurt feelings – even a damaged relationship? The format of email is insufficient. Frighteningly so. Our projections are almost always wrong – Because they are sourced in the receiver, not the sender.
We have all heard countless times people saying “But I don’t know what to say to him/her/them.” This encompassess three false beliefs: One, that not knowing how to make noise in advance is bad, two, that silence is bad, and three, that it is your sole responsibility to fill the silence. Rather than ruminating on what you want to say to others, let go of that false sense of responsibility and allow the space – between each other and between your ears – for what they might like to say to you. Listen to their words and their spaces. If they can simultaneously do the same with you then you find yourselves dancing to a beautiful piece of music.
Self-reflecting, or meditation, if you will, is so difficult because it’s just too damn noisy. Simplify it. Stop adding, perseverating, interpreting and embellishing. Start subtracting – All those things that really don’t and never mattered: The breakup you thought would end your life, the awful first time you had sex, and all the times you didn’t, the “one” you should have married, and the one you did; the job or partner that doesn’t “make you happy” (as if they are supposed to). And then the all-too-familiar narrative: “I’m too old, too poor, ugly, a failure, a loser – and all those “I coulda-woulda-shoulda’s .” It is ALL nothing more than CLUTTER. NOISE. GET RID OF IT – Toss it in the celestial dumpster – the cosmic repository for “All Things That Do Not Matter.”
If you can clear out the clutter, even a little bit at a time, and embrace the silence, you will end up with a poem. Or a song. When there is nothing left to subtract you will see in what remains all that is here and all that really matters. You will hear the silence. You will see the spaces.
What I am left with is Love, in its many different forms – the synergistic power of kindred souls, the bond of a friendship not describable in words, or the love between two people who live and die for it but can never explain it.
So I say: “Love, let us just be quiet –
Let’s look at each other’s faces – I’m excited to find out if we smile, or laugh, or cry.”
We touch, we look, we embrace.
We hear the silence between the notes and know the music for the first time.
Copyright December 2017, Dr. Bill