Neal Gittleman: The Power of Silence at TEDxDayton (Full Transcript)

Neal Gittleman – Conductor of ‎Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra

Let me guess what you’re thinking “Uh-oh! He is nervous.” “He forgot what he’s going to say.” “TEDxDayton’s first epic fail.” No. No. And I sure hope not. We just experienced the power of silence. In this case, the power of silence to make us uncomfortable.

We don’t really like silence. That’s why we fill it with background music, with talk radio, with cat videos, with podcasts and playlists. But there isn’t enough silence in our lives. Our lives are too filled with noise, too filled with distractions, too filled with stuff. Silence is nature’s beautiful antidote to all that craziness.

I’m a conductor, surrounded by music, the opposite of silence. But every piece of music I conduct begins from silence and ends into silence. It’s crazy, but I conducted orchestras for more than 30 years before I ever realized that. And I never truly appreciated the real power of silence until three years ago, when I went on a five-day retreat at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky.

Gethsemani is a Cistercian monastery founded in 1848. It’s perhaps best known as the home of the great philosopher monk Thomas Merton. Silence is an integral part of a monk’s life at the abbey. The monks use silence as a tool to focus their attention inward to prayer and outward to work. Among other things, they make killer fudge. Some batches even flavored – Some batches even flavored with good old Kentucky bourbon.

But the monks aren’t completely silent. Seven times a day, they come together in Gethsemani’s church to sing psalms (Music, chanting). Every two weeks, they sing their way through all 150 psalms, and then they start all over again. So, how did an agnostic, Jewish conductor find himself on a five-day retreat where he sang psalms seven times a day with a bunch of otherwise silent Trappist monks?

First of all, like many people, I had read some Thomas Merton, and I found his takes on life, religion and humanity deeply fascinating. Second, I fell in love with the chant liturgy when I was a freshman in college. First semester music history is basically the story of music in the early Roman Catholic Church. And one of the first things you learn about is the monastic life and the chants and psalms that monks sing as part of their daily routine.

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So three years ago, when I was about to go into rehearsals for Dayton Opera’s production of Aida, I was looking for a place where I could get away for a few days, clear my head and just study the opera. And I realized that the answer was three and a half hours south of Dayton at Gethsemani. One of the most powerful experiences I had during that first retreat to the abbey was running into an old friend of mine, Don Haack, retired first trombone of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, someone I hadn’t seen in more than ten years.

Don and I found ourselves sitting next to each other at lunch one day, eating in silence and gazing out at the incomparable beauty of late winter turning into early spring. We didn’t say a word. But the silence we shared was amazing. You’d think after all those years we’d have lots to talk about, and we did. Later on, we got together on a bench outside the abbey to catch up and reminisce, but somehow I felt as if we said more to each other during that wordless lunch than when we actually spoke. And that’s when I realized for the first time the true power of silence.

Silence, of course, is an important element of music, too. Music is made up of notes. But when there aren’t notes, there are rests. And every rest is a silence. Musical silences can be quite short. Here is the shortest one I know: the silence that begins Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony – 14/100 of a second. It’s the tiny sliver of time between when you first see the next slide and when you first hear the music (Music). For me, that itty-bitty little silence is like the instant of the Big Bang: setting off an explosion that creates an entire musical universe.

Now, if that’s maybe the shortest silence in all of music, this is probably the longest: 4 minutes and 33 seconds by the bad boy of classical music, John Cage. I think this is the most important piece of music of the 20th century, and I know it’s the most misunderstood. That’s because 4 minutes and 33 seconds is really 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. But it’s no joke. Cage was dead serious when he wrote it in 1952 for pianist David Tudor, who premiered it at the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York. Maverick is an amazing building with walls open to the outside.

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So, when David Tudor sat at the piano for 4 minutes and 33 seconds and never played a note, there wasn’t silence. The audience could hear the sounds of nature all around them. And that’s what Cage was after. He wanted his audience to listen to 4 minutes and 33 seconds of the world with the same attention and the same concentration that they would normally devote to four and a half minutes of Mozart or Beethoven or Brahms. When the piece is performed, and it does get performed, it’s usually done in three movements as David Tudor first played it.

This is what the sheet music looks like. The first movement is 30 seconds of silence. “Tacit” is music lingo for don’t play. Then comes 2 minutes and 23 seconds of silence and finally 1 minute and 40 seconds of silence with the beginning and end of each movement marked by the opening and closing of the piano lid. Now, you know how they say, “There’s an app for that”? Well, there’s an app for that. An app that lets you record and then upload your own performances. So, let’s make TEDxDayton history and record one on my iPhone right now.

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