Silence in music

Composers of classical music have always tried to reflect moods, themes, narratives, and settings in their works, sometimes literally as in Respighi’s The Birds or Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. Genre works prefigure the mood, such as Romantic, but even in intellectual or abstract works, listeners inevitably interpret motives and emotional and psychological states, even when the composer may not have intended the specific interpretation. Bach’s mystifying Art of Fugue or Musical Offering are abstract but still reveal the creative mind entering a particular mode of expression that differs from his more transparent keyboard works or cantatas.

Can silence and solitude be presented as program music, or simply reflected in abstract work? Here it is not the quiet morning sunrise of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, or the occasional hushed calm of Debussy’s La Mer. Representations of silence are not the same as a theme that suggests silence. Satie broke down complexity of melody and rhythm while consciously trying to portray an environment of silence in the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, while still maintaining an image linking to “program” music. The music is not less complex or thoughtful for its simplicity. Mompou’s Impressions intimes or Musica Callada (Silent Music) continued this style, which is simple, wistful, and reflective, but not dark, ambiguous, or concealed. No single composer (including Satie) has worked exclusively in this classical genre (the genre proposed here!); some works of some composers before and after have been close to this aesthetic: Fauré, Koechlin, Poulenc, Tailleferre, Milhaud, even the early Cage. And while modern chorale and other composers exemplify a transcendent feeling in their work (Rutter, Tavener, Vasks, Part, Lauridsen, Hovhaness), the sectarian sources they tap may limit their audience.

The transition from classical has been via New Age music genres creating atmospheres or space music. This avenue has long been original and fruitful (Liquid Mind, Jon Serrie, Steve Roach, Rudy Adrian, and many others) but their relegation by industry to a genre of “relaxation” unjustly traps these composers and their work into mental background music. Just as classical music was not originally dependent on publisher profits, the need to break through directly to listeners has arrived with technology and new models of listening.

An interesting contemporary phenomenon, therefore, is the emergence of computerized or digital music, available to composers and listeners without the strictures of profit and marketing, approximating the genre of silence or “silent” music. For example, The Free Floating Music website ( identifies its purpose as promoting this genre, and does so with completely free downloads.

Free Floating Music exists to release and promote serene, peaceful ambient music –- music that grows out of and flows through the silence around it, sculpting spaces for reflection, repose and rejuvenation.

Some of the site’s works are tense or dark, or may feature (even once) a twang or crescendo or unwelcome surprise. But the idea of identifying music that approximates silence is an important insight into a subject that inevitably has an aesthetic component and, ironically, and aural one. The persistence of silent music is significant, a mirror to an ignored reality, a palliative to a frantic world.