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March 2023
Vol. 22, No. 6
32nd Annual San Diego Music Awards

Zen of Recording

Silence and Space

by Sven-Erik SeaholmJanuary 2014

My earliest memory is of silence.

I’m an infant, a couple of months old.

I am lying in a bed next to my sister Janice, who’s about 2½ yeas old.

She is sleeping peacefully.

I wordlessly raise my head upward and gaze out the window above me.
Against the backdrop of this velvet-black movie screen, I can clearly see delicate flakes of snow, slowly falling out of view. It is an endless and beautiful image, enveloped in such quiet, perfect serenity that it has come to stand as a particularly iconic representation of my personal ideal: Peace.

Even within the details of that story, there was always a tiny tinge of doubt within myself. Just the feeling that it was on overly romanticized vision that might have somehow been manifested by my intermittent need for just that sort of tranquility.

Until I saw it again.

That same leaf-like arc, in its familiar, unhurried descent. Part of the almost monochromatic, high-contrast pitch that only snow can tune you into…

Almost 52 years later, It feels euphorically hypnotic. Like being flooded with memories of dreams I can’t quite recall the details of… but at the same time, I am overwhelmed by that same sense of peace.

I’m sure that much better writers than I have found the metaphors and similies that impart a sense of the taciturn majesty of it all. All I can say is that walking amongst the Utah drifts with my son Miles, the icy wind feels like the arms of our Viking forebears reaching to embrace us.

Or maybe it’s just the ones from Michigan.

Miles is almost 2½ now and he’s loud. He can get to like 118 dB loud, which is somewhere between sandblasting, a really loud rock concert and… pain.

He also isn’t sure if I actually speak his language, so it seems like he says everything just a little LOUDER to me than other folks. I’ve started teaching him to whisper recently. Of course, now when he starts to whisper, I’ll lower my head to hear him better and he suddenly… well, you get the picture.

This is all compounded, of course, by the simple irony that I work as a record producer and professional musician. Three or four studio projects are going on in my house currently, with more on the way. Even this week-long holiday visit has three gigs to be played while we’re out here! Not that I’m complaining, but it does go a long way toward illustrating what a rare and wonderful commodity silence can be in just this one person’s life.

Not just silence, but space.

Thoughts, ideas, dreams, and inspirations all need a little room in which to bloom. The ability to explore a simple notion, allowing it to stretch out and fully unfurl, is crucial to the creation of music. It’s not just a quiet place we’re looking for, it’s an empty one; free of clutter and distraction.

A musical composition can work in much the same way. By using fewer parts, for example, we can more clearly define a musical statement or motif, without the “diversions” that can come as a result denser arrangements.

This can even be applied and observed at the macro-level, by examining the space between notes in a simple bass line. By establishing a rhythmic pattern, an environment of expectation and reward is actually being created between the performer and the listener. Let’s say our pattern is two quarter notes, followed by two eighth notes, followed by a quarter note (1_2_3 and 4). Once this pattern is played a few times, a listener will come to expect that to happen, in essence taking it for granted, so that they can free up those mental resources to appreciate other elements, etc. When the pattern suddenly changes by dropping the third beat (1_2_ _ and 4), there is a mild anxiety that is created by the absence of that expected third beat. When it doesn’t arrive, we subtly panic, until the “and 4” returns, assuring us that was only a fun little detour that we’ve safely returned from.

We can break this concept down even further, by observing the mechanics of groove or “feel.” Looking again at our previous example, let’s picture in our minds (or program in your sequencer) the established pattern being played exactly. on. the. beat…

Now let’s make the 2s and 4s arrive ever-so-slightly a little ahead of their beat. This “surprises” your listener, who wasn’t expecting those to get there so soon, creating a feeling of driving tension.

Let’s try moving those same 2s and 4s just a little later, or behind the beat now. It feels so good when they finally arrive, doesn’t it?

There are zillions of enzymes and endorphins at work there that I can’t even begin to understand, but look at how much can happen within just those few little nanoseconds of space!

After watching Miles trudge off into the snow (bundled in 17 layers) with his Mom in tow, I am left to ponder within this beautiful white canvas of fresh silence. Snowflakes the size of pennies are falling all around me and I remember: It’s not just what you do play that matters, but what you don’t play and where.

Sven-Erik Seaholm is always glad to revel in sound, as several 2014 recordings will show. Happy New Year!

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