“The music is not in the notes,
but in the silence between.”
― Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The song ends.
The last word of play is spoken.
And there is that silence.
That rich, resonant, heart-stopping silence that blooms and blooms
through the room and seemingly out beyond it.
That silence that has more to do with the presence of mystery than with the absence of sound.
And then we clap our hands.
The silence shatters like fragile glass.
The breathless moment cracks open.
We awaken from the shared dream and tumble back to the ordinary world.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this.
What if the entire purpose of the song or play or poem is to create the resonant silence that comes afterward? What if the silence at the end is not a by-product, but the whole point of a performance? I wonder if we clap to end the feeling of vulnerability that comes when we encounter something deeply beautiful?
The word “applause” originates from the Latin word applaudere which means “the beating of wings.” (Imagine the sound of thousands of wings beating in a large concert hall! Oh, the wind we would stir up!)
But we humans don’t have wings. Our hands make a sharp sound that instantly demolishes any lingering vibrations.
It’s true that an audience needs a way to express its gratitude and appreciation for the gift they receive from a performance. We’ve all experienced that full-hearted, joyful grief that comes when we’ve been gifted with something extraordinary. We have an urgent need to offer something in return….something precious and palpable.
My favorite alternative to clapping is the form of applause common in the deaf and hard of hearing community – waving the hands in the air. It’s an exuberant expression that leaves the resonant silence in tact. I’ve been on the receiving end of such acknowledgement and it is beautiful. Each pair of hands is fluttering in its own rhythm. The room is full of those beating wings.
Last Friday I sang to close a gathering of fifty people at the Heartland Transformational Leaders Circle (www.heartlandcircle.com) in the Twin Cities. I invited the group to tone on a single note while I sang a simple melody. When the song was finished, the sound faded away and I quietly sat down. Nobody clapped. We lingered in the depths together for a good while. The song was still in the room, just in a different form. The moment passed. A quiet word of dismissal was spoken. We stood up and dispersed into gentle conversation.
I know that the tradition of applause isn’t going to go away any time soon. I will continue to contend with my own disappointment when a lovely silence ends too soon. Perhaps you will, too. But now and again, we will taste delicious stillness, witness the quiet jubilation of waving hands, and breathe mystery in a room full of beating wings.
“Still” — music and lyrics by Barbara McAfee