Hitting the perfect note
“What’s best in music isn’t to be found in the notes.” Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911), Austrian composer and conductor
When I think back over the past few months I notice that there was a lot more silence than usual in my life. The nightlife in the neighbourhood where I live was quieter than I’d ever experienced before, even at weekends, which usually include very noisy evenings and nights. It was nice to get some sleep, but at some point I began to miss some sounds – at least sometimes.
What I craved most, however, was music. Played live and heard live. Or sung myself. I missed some beautiful tones, new notes, warm sounds – and those that incite you to dance. That’s also why the first concert I attended during the pandemic touched me so deeply.
A so-called one-on-one concert, in which I – wearing a mask and maintaining great distance in a flat I’d never been in before – was lucky enough to get a chance to listen to the Hamburg violinist Johanna Röhrig play the solo Sonata No. 3, Op. 27, Ballade, by the Belgian composer and violinist Eugène Ysaÿe.
This may be why I stumbled a little mentally when I read what has been attributed to Keith Richards. “The perfect tone is silence”, the Rolling Stone is supposed to have said. Does the perfect sound even exist, I asked myself? If so, what is it anyway, this alleged perfect sound? What does it sound like? Is it universal?
So I did some research. The famous tenor Jonas Kaufmann said in an interview that “the perfect tone is the one that brings exactly the right expression in the right place.” To be honest, though, that phrase doesn’t really sound musical to me. After reading it several times I thought of sounds that were perfectly placed and that touched me deeply. Is that what he means?
What about silence? Of course it can be beautiful, and can also be art, as John Cage proves with his famous piece entitled 4’33”. I was able to enjoy it live at the pre-opening of Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie. Eight musicians and a singer lined up in the large concert hall and then – didn’t play.
That’s what the sheet music tells them to do, and is the only reason it could be performed at all then. Not a sound was allowed to be heard until the official opening, after all. It was nevertheless not quiet in the hall. It’s actually never quiet. It’s no surprise to me that John Cage has said that “one always hears sounds.”
Victor Hugo said that “music expresses that which cannot be said and about which it’s impossible to be silent.” Does that also apply to silence? If so, it should also be able to express what can’t be said. But it can’t.
I’m often particularly touched by quiet notes. Just like in life. “Even the loudest roar of great ideals must not confuse us or prevent us from hearing the one quiet note on which everything depends,” as the physicist Werner Heisenberg said.
Are quiet notes also the most beautiful ones? The most perfect ones, above all? Isn’t music made up of sounds and pauses, one could say, and wouldn’t something be missing without sounds?
Music and dancing were allowed in the foyers and on the stairs at the pre-opening of the Elbphilharmonie. The idea of dancer, choreographer and opera director Sasha Waltz to have the dancers in the concert hall simulate the coughing attacks of the future audience was also well received.
Whether the audience experiences perfect sound in the hall, which was designed by the acoustician and sound architect Yasuhisa Toyota, together with architects Herzog & de Meuron, is a matter of controversy among music lovers.
Toyota’s goal, however, was clear. The same perfect sound should be heard from each of the more than 2,100 seats in the large hall. And one thing is definitely very conducive to the perfect note in a concert – silence.