Tacet. “Is silent.” Latin. Verb. Infinitive: tacere, “be silent”. Cognate with French taiser, as in tais-toi or taisez-vous “shut up”. Not cognate with Taizé, a style of Christian worship that makes good use of simple chants and some silence.

Tacet is a direction in a musical score, an instruction for a specific instrument (or instruments). It says the instrument is silent for that stretch; i.e., don’t play. Violin? It is silent. Voice? It is silent.

But while violin or voice is silent, something else is usually playing. The score says “It is silent” of the instrument in question. But the score does not say simply “It is silent,” as you would when stepping outside on a silent night. The it that is silent is a specific it.

John Cage wrote a piece, a tacet for one or more instruments, called 4ʹ33ʺ. It has three movements; they add up to four minutes and thirty-three seconds in length. During that time the instrument does not play. It is silent.

The “it” in the previous sentence refers to the instrument.

Have you ever sat in a concert hall, lights down, conductor at the ready, waiting for the baton to go up? Or in a pause between movements? It is not silent. The orchestra is silent. But you will always hear something.

Normally you ignore it – it comes through your ears to you brain, passes through your awareness, is treated as insignificant and is disattended and forgotten. (Unless it’s remarkable in some way, or at least annoying – crinkle crinkle crinkle of a cough candy inexplicably wrapped in the noisiest substance available, perhaps.) But it is there. It has value. It has aesthetic potential – perhaps not of the same kind as the performance you are waiting to hear, but more than none.

John Cage was a Zen Buddhist. (By the way, nearly everything that uses the word zen these days has less than nothing to do with Zen. Cleanse your mind of all marketing and lifestyle articles that have ever used the word.) He knew that there was something in everything, a value in even the slightest sound. Sitting simply watching your breaths can be as enjoyable as licking an ice cream cone. Pay attention. Don’t just do something; sit there.

He also knew that pure silence simply does not exist. One thing can be silent, but there will always be some sound somewhere in hearing. Stop and listen, he says: what you hear is now the aesthetic object. Ceci n’est pas une silence.

If you go into an anechoic chamber, where effectively all ambient noise is absorbed and prevented from reaching your ears, you hear your body, your nerves, your blood, all of a sudden almost deafening. It’s always there; you just don’t usually notice it.

Taisez-vous. You will find that silence is filled with simple chance.

Go out on a silent night. Perhaps the snow is falling and, because nothing else is moving, you hear the snowflakes landing. A car or train in the distance? A small animal? Just your breath, perhaps, and your heart. And the music of the spheres, the underlying hum of the universe, so low and slow you would never hear it, but scientists have found it, a slow soft vibration many octaves below middle C. We are part of the instrument. We may give it our tacit approval, but we can’t help it even if we don’t approve or we aren’t tacit. (Tacit is an adjective, tacet a musical direction. I.e., they differ.)

What is the shape of tacet? Between two crosses (obelisks, marks of obsolescence) or two plus signs (additions), we have ace, which is one, but which is also three: an A minor chord, or the letters for 1, 3, 5. What is the sound of tacet? A soft sound of a tassel, perhaps, if you should pass it and brush it, or perhaps an expanded hiss to admonish someone to be quiet: not “sshhh” or “tsst” but just a bit more.

And so what? What does any of that mean?

Why must everything have a discursive and rationally analytical meaning? Let it be an experience.

So there is no silence?

You will never get silence of everything at once. But there is always silence of everything that is not making noise at the time. The silence of some things will let you hear, if you pay attention, the sounds of other things. Not the sound of silence: the sounds in the silence.

All sounds are in silence. Every time you hear something, think of the things you could also be hearing but aren’t. In order to make out the sound of something you need the silence of other things in the area. Go to a noisy factory and see what you can hear.

So there is no silence but there is always silence. There is no silence of everything at once but there is always silence of many things at a time. And the more silence there is, the more we can hear what is still not silent in the silence and stillness.

Tacet. What it really means: “Let the other instruments be heard without you.” And if there are no other instruments? Let that be heard too.

One response to “tacet

  1. Monroe Thomas Clewis

    Thanks for highlighting the importance of silence, something worth noting
    amidst the clamor of Christmas. At the same time we should not overlook the obvious connection with “tacit.” According to Etymoline:

    tacit (n.)
    c.1600, from Fr. tacite, from L. tacitus “that is passed over in silence, done without words, assumed, silent,” prop. pp. of tacere “to be silent,” from PIE root *tak- “to be silent” (cf. Goth. þahan, O.N. þegja “to be silent,” O.N. þagna “to grow dumb,” O.S. thagian, O.H.G. dagen “to be silent”). The musical instruction tacet is the 3rd person present singular of the Latin verb.

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