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Shaping the Silence

Quiet’s dangerous. We live in a world of bluster. But then again, some people don’t have any fear, and play it half as fast and half as loud as the others. You can’t look away, when it’s quiet like that.Sippican Cottage

As fate often had it in those dear dead hippie days beyond recall, I was in the booth watching and listening long ago when the great Glyn Johns was producing “Willow” with Joan Armatrading. His largest problem with getting the take was getting Joan to overcome her innate shyness — even in the studio. To “come out from behind the piano, dear,” and address the microphone.

This vid might be from that session — it was long ago, and my old brain fades — but it shows how a singer can shape a song by surrounding the silences. It’s an amazing clip. Through the microexpressions on her face, you can track her mapping, thinking, feeling, reaching within, and then shaping the song around the silences.

In those sessions and others, it was Glyn Johns’ habit to let the song begin, listen to the first few bars, and then shut the whole thing down by punching up his mike and saying, “Sorry. Not sold.” Then the band would begin again and… “Sorry. Not sold.” and… then again “Sorry. Not sold.”, and…

As I recall it, once this take started he just let everything roll.

Come running to me
When things get out of hand
Running to me
When it’s more than you can stand
I said I’m strong
Straight
Willing
To be a
Shelter
In a storm
Your willow oh willow
When the sun is out

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Auntie Analogue June 18, 2019, 10:58 AM

    Holes.

    “You got to leave holes in the music” comes from a music instruction book I bought in 1966 (not sure of the exact quote because that book is buried deep in my massive Archives). The book, titled Blues Harp, was by blues harp player Tony “Little Sun” Glover who was quoting an earlier blues harp player’s admonition. The point is that silences create emphasis in the playing (or in the singing), that knowing when and how to “leave holes in the music” is as vital as knowing when to make the music.

    There’s a video of Stevie Ray Vaughn playing opposite Albert King; the video airs every year or so when my local PBS station does its pledge drive. It’s a revealing video because Vaughn, despite having been a tremendously excellent technician – he mastered all the riffs, seemed never to know when or how to “leave holes in the music,” and he instead crammed every measure with his fabulous technical legerdemain, and the result was overkill. On the other hand Albert King knew when to “leave holes in the music,” and this illustrates perfectly the difference and distinction between a technician and an artist. This is also true in visual arts: knowing when and how to use negative space is the equal in importance with knowing when and how to apply positive space.

    In music I see and hear the same thing with the Aussie Tommy Emmanuel. The man is a brilliant guitar technician, but he almost never “leaves holes in the music” because he’s too intent on stuffing every measure with dazzling fingerwork-sound. He’s a technician, but he’s not an artist.

    Sinatra knew when and how to “leave holes in the music.” So did and does every other genuine artist. You can distinguish easily between the technical master and the genuine artist by noticing which one does and which one doesn’t know when or how to “leave holes in the music.”

  • Vanderleun June 18, 2019, 11:11 AM

    Oh yes…. those are very excellent observations. Very… har..mon..ious.

  • Sam L. June 18, 2019, 11:24 AM

    Come BACK, Mr. Sippi! Many of us miss you. Still, I suppose you’re in seclusion for your safety. Hope you, Mrs. Sippi, and the younger Sippis are well.

  • justsomeguy June 18, 2019, 1:39 PM

    I wrote him back in October 2018 and he answered that he hoped to be more active on the internet soon. So I continue to check his blog. In vain, thus far. But hope springs eternal. And at least the Borderline Sociopathic Blog for Boys is back.

  • downeasthillbilly June 18, 2019, 6:37 PM

    It’s called a caesura – the strategic silence. I learned that on Eddie and the Cruisers. I used to listen to Joan years ago. Somehow I lost the connection. It’s good to hear her again.

  • Millie Woods June 18, 2019, 7:29 PM

    I always found Armatrading’s music to be depressing. One album and I’d feeling like crying, two and I’d be like ‘if I can just hook my big toe in this trigger guard….’

  • Jeff Brokaw June 18, 2019, 8:05 PM

    Auntie – I get your point about “holes” and largely agree with it, and can think of plenty of examples that illustrate that point, but … Tommy Emmanuel is not one of them.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree on that. There’s more to being an artist than just leaving holes. It’s mostly about evoking emotion and telling a story — an especially challenging task for a solo guitar player who does not sing — and Emmanuel is great at all of it. Musicians who are at a certain level can create the “holes” concept in more subtle ways while continuing to play something (solo guitarists cannot leave much dead air for obvious reasons).

  • Auntie Analogue June 19, 2019, 12:07 AM

    @Jeff Brokaw:

    The following exemplars do, I consider, refute the argument that leaving holes is “an especially challenging task for a solo guitar player who does not sing”: Leo Kottke, Les Paul, Jorma Kaukonen (on instrumental numbers), Tony Mottola, Tal Farlow, Chet Atkins, Django Rheinhardt, to name a few such.

    I’m not saying Tommy Emmanuel isn’t a brilliant guitarist. He certainly is. But I sense that his urge to be a showman moves him to fill almost every measure with notes, chords, cadenzas – and I can’t say he’s not a showman because he certainly is one. If I’m in the mood to see a show that dazzles, then Tommy Emmanuel’s performing fits the bill; but if I want to see or hear a performance that moves me emotionally, I’ll listen to one or another of lots of other pickers.

    In the end, all of this comes, of course, under the heading of de gustibus non est disputandum.

  • ghostsniper June 19, 2019, 4:29 AM

    The “holes” are little rest stops for your brain to catch up, to take a breath.
    After a couple Emmanuel toonz I am exhausted, and I’m a player!
    Listen to Mason William’s “Classical Gas, then listen to Emmanuel’s.
    Then you’ll understand what “holes” are.

  • rabbit tobacco June 19, 2019, 8:20 AM

    ouspensky or krishnamurti: In order to truly listen, you must listen to the silence between the words & sounds

  • rabbit tobacco June 19, 2019, 8:20 AM

    ouspensky or krishnamurti: In order to truly listen, you must listen to the silence between the words & sounds

  • Skorpion June 19, 2019, 9:39 AM

    Re “holes” in music: that might explain why Rush (the band) has always left me cold. They’ve always seemed so desperate to cram their songs full of virtuoso playing and *Big Messages*, that there’s no room for these spaces — much less any nuance or subtlety.

  • ghostsniper June 19, 2019, 1:40 PM

    For me, it’s the opposite. I do understand what you mean though. I’ve been a guitar player since about 1968 and when I heard RUSH the first time in 1974 I was instantly smitten. A more perfect band could never be. They traded their drummer Rutsey the year before for Peart and perfection was achieved. It’s quite a skill for 3 people to do what is normally done by 4. Each participant has to do a little bit more. If you listen close, and know what you’re listening to, you will see that trio weaves a very tight web, a multidimensional story, with just the right amount of white space. In my opinion. I don’t compare them to other bands, for their is “nothing else” out there like them, so I compare them to themselves with each new album. I’m always impressed. I don’t like all 173 of their songs but I believe about 30 of them are without equal. Stunning musicianship by each and epic novel like lyrics by Peart. When my wife and I first got together in the early 80’s and I found out she didn’t like RUSH I briefly considered kicking her to the curb. But her charms subdued me and I succumbed. After a year or 2 of marriage she said she didn’t like how I was when I played RUSH music and I asked her what she meant. She said I got too contemplative and withdrew into myself. I told her no other music is as effective at stimulating my mind as RUSH is. She just said, “Hmmm.”, and walked off. By about the early 90’s our son was taking piano lessons and teaching my wife the same. I have a vast array of music books spanning many instruments and I started noticing one book was always out of order. My RUSH “Chronicles” book. I asked my son about it. He said he and my mother had been playing “Subdivisions” and were using the book for guidance. He then pulled a video up on his computer showing him playing elect drums and my wife playing a keyboard. Subdivisions. She and he were now smitten as well. I jokingly told her I don’t like how she gets when she plays RUSH. She glared at me. I left the building. I didn’t want to have to indian leg wrestle her again. j/k

    “”Triumph is another Canadian power trio that does a stellar job of filling the wall of sound and keeping everything tight. Check out “Hold On”.

    Tidbit.
    In the live Xanadu video there is a place just prior to the lead section where you can see Geddy setting up his keyboard to continue the well thought out bass line, then right at the proper second Alex stops rhythm playing and goes into lead and Geddy stops playing the bass and takes over the rhythm on his double neck Rickenbacker that has a 6 string for the 2nd neck. If you only knew what it takes to pull something like that off, live.

  • Dirk Williams June 23, 2019, 10:03 AM

    Amazing stuff, thank you. I’m heavy into vintage stereo gear and monster speakers, I love music. No I love ” GOOD” sounding music, you know the stuff, where if you turned your back, you would think the band was playing behind you, where you hear every note, every drum stick hitting the floor, kinda music.

    I’ve got high end, more modern kit, but my HHScott 299c’s and my Stromberg Carlsen ” Stereo 24″
    circa 1960ish, Tube amplifiers, ALL put out blessed music. Thru the right speakers and the music’s, magic!.

    Thanks for keeping it real.

    Dirk

  • Vanderleun June 23, 2019, 10:26 AM

    I do love the sound of that sound setup. It sounds, well, very sound.

  • ghostsniper June 23, 2019, 12:04 PM

    @Dirk, I too have been entranced by vintage stereo, from the 70’s, when all the major contenders were warring like their hair was on fire. But truthfully, I don’t listen to music any more like I used to. I have to be in the mood, but that mood strikes hot and fast sometimes and when it does I’m reelin’ in the years.

    My office rig is wrapped around a Pioneer SX1250 receiver rated at 160 REAL watts. I have 4 Pioneer HPM 100 speakers bolted up to it. Yeah, the 200 watt silver blow hole models. On top of the 1250 is a range expander/compressor, noise reduction, and a reverb unit – all Pioneer. Next to that stuff sits a Pioneer PL570 turntable with a legendary Empire 2000Z cartridge, and a Pioneer RT1020L 10 1/2″ reel to reel, a cassette and an 8 track. Yeah a Pioneer 8 track, and it records. And 1 of Pioneers first CD players from about 1983. There is a speaker in each corner of my office and a different colored lava light on each. On a separate switch are 2 4′ dbl fluorescent black lights on the ceiling. I’ve been known to break out some long necks and blackjack, cut the lights and turn on the psycho lights and fire up that reel with the 18 Pink Floyd albums on it and zone out – just like the good ol daze. But only rarely.

  • Dirk Williams June 23, 2019, 9:56 PM

    Ghost, love it. I collect 60/70 stereo gear. I’ve got modern tube gear built by David Berning, which is incredible.

    The HHSCOTT 299c, may push out 12/15 watts thru the tubes. The Stromberg Carlsen, may put out 12 w thru the tubes. I’m currently using a set of Klipsch Kornwalls, stacked. 2 per system. I’ve got a set of klipsch corner horn clones, from speaker lab out of the Seattle area, 70s era, basically everything in Em is klipsch.

    I’ve still got four Dynaco A-25s, I’m gifting to an associate, and a kenwood receiver circa 1970ish.

    I’ve got Conrad John’s kit, I’ve got more Scott tube gear, I’ve got 15ish sets of speakers from Meganpen to Delquist 20i’s. Also got two sets of Warfdale 90s and two sets of Warfdale 70s. My kitchen set ups AD/S SS Kit, thru stacked Warfdales. Magic.

    Bedroom sets. quicksilver Tube amp thru a set of Delquist 20s. Amazing music comes out of this aswell. The Quicksilver maybe pumping 12w.

    In my travels I’ve discovered it’s not one component or another, it’s the ” Right” combo of the amp pre and the efficiency of the speakers.

    I also use tube pre amps ” Dynaco” and tune Tuners. HHScott. And I have a nachshima ? DRAGON cassette player. Right place, right time.

    I’m blessed with my good fortune and timely purchases over the past several years.

    Dirk