In Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, after a ripping performance of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (about which Salieri says of Cavalieri, his star pupil and unrequited love, “Ten minutes of ghastly scales and arpeggios, whizzing up and down like fireworks at a fairground”), the Emperor Joseph tempers his own rush-the-stage praise of Mozart by hinting at some challenge to which his royal ear could not rise. “Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And, there are simply too many notes. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.” How then might the challenged royal ear have perceived the über-reductive single chord sustain for twenty minutes, chased by complete silence for another twenty minutes, of Yves Klein’s The Monotone-Silence Symphony?
Conceived around the same time as John Cage’s own 4’33” (during which musicians sat for 273 seconds of performance stillness), Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony articulates not only the sound that is present in silence (and for much longer than in John Cage’s imagining), but also the depth and changefulness that is present in the preceding monotone of equal duration, and the rude confrontation of the two.
Imagine a rainy full moon Thursday in the dark, new year of 2017. The audience is sitting under the vault of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, filled beyond the pews’ capacity for a thousand, with the overflow on folding chairs set over the Cathedral’s labyrinth. Conductor Petr Kotik raises his arm: Slam! Chorus and orchestra full forte on a sustained D major chord to fill every orifice. After twenty exacting minutes, an abrupt stop. Twenty minutes of silence.
Written in 1947, Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony has been performed in Paris, New York City, and most recently, at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., for a total of some ten performances—occurrences more rare than a solar eclipse. Now at a cathedral near me. A few years ago, wanting to branch out from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic repertoire that I had been singing, I joined an a cappella chamber chorus that performs only new music, nothing written before 1980. I love dissonance, crunches, uncommon intervals, uncommon and shifting meters, cascading tritones, so when an email came from a music blogger not to attend the Klein but to sing in it—I jumped.
Yves Klein. Painter. Creator of the vibratory International Klein Blue (IKB), 1960. An orchestra struck up the D major chord in the Parisian premiere. Nude female models strode into the gallery, coated their breasts, bellies, thighs with IKB and pressed themselves full frontal onto canvases spread on the floor or mounted on the wall, years before the 1967 Off-Broadway debut of Hair. Thankfully, we did not have to sing nude. Still, performing Klein’s Monotone-Silence Symphony presented challenges I could not imagine.
My voice teacher thought it cool. Are there rehearsals? One, a dress rehearsal, day of.
What note will you be singing? They haven’t told us yet.
What vowel are you singing on? They haven’t told us that either.
How do you practice for that? I have no idea.
A single-page score arrived. Basses and tenors singing in octaves on D. Above those, an F# and an A. I coveted that F#, the third of the chord, the harmony. For twenty minutes of singing one pitch, anything to enliven the experience would help me stay in tune. I have decent intonation and little vibrato, but this piece rides on stamina. I stood in my kitchen under the one clock with a sweep and timed my asthmatic F#: 17 seconds. Second try: 23 seconds. I wasn’t even singing at the forte dynamic. What had I gotten myself into? I checked the score again: two choirs, divisi, in sing/rest alternation. What relief. We didn’t each need to heft the D-chord load every single moment.
We gathered at noon on the day of the performance, twenty-some singers overbalanced by 8 violins, 10 cellos, 3 string basses, 2 flutes, 1 oboe and 3 French horns. Let them carry the flag. We checked in. Milled. Kotik gathered us, made introductory remarks. We began.
We rehearsed a five-minute version: two-and-a-half minutes of D major; two-and-a-half of silence. Know this: the forte sustain is not for amateurs. Halfway through, my jaw went into spasms. I dropped it, mooshed it around, fought the rising panic that I couldn’t cut it, even at the baby length. Sucked in the gut. Tucked in the tush. The longest two-and-a-half minutes in history. Leave this to the young singers, all of whom were conservatory trained. Cut to two-and-a half minutes of sitting still. Present. At attention. An equal and opposite demand.
We took a break. Kotik, a tall, striking, cuff-linked European with expressive hands, spoke a crisp and elegant English. Himself a composer and minimalist, Kotik championed music written by people whose first calling was not composing. Marcel Duchamp. Yves Klein.
Kotik launched into the ten-minute version—five of monotone, five of silence—which turned out to be easier than the baby version. Because we were warmed up? Because we knew what to expect? We had learned something about stillness? Yet when he signaled The End we were spent. Depleted. fffffttt. I asked one of the violinists what the rehearsal was like for her. “My bowing arm was ready to fall off.” Kotik did not rehearse the forty-minute concert version. He said we would be too exhausted to perform. Perhaps he would have been as well.
Though the score was written with divisi choir—Choir I starting in the odd numbered bars, and Choir II on the even ones, in sing/breathe alternation—Kotik did not assign divisi or specify breathing, or define the tempo, or talk of maintaining an even, uninterrupted sound. “Forget the score. Breathe when you have to.” Then he dismissed us until the 5 p.m. call.
Three hours to kill. Lunch was brought in, classy for its unexpectedness. My soprano friend, Ruth, the other older adult, went to visit a friend, to rest, refresh. She weighed the merits of hydrating against needing to use “the loo.” She coated her lips with Vaseline. I also went to a friend’s house where there was soup and a light lunch at the ready. I ate sparingly and drank all afternoon, five, six tall glasses of water. I barely had a chance to lie down before it was time to return to the cathedral.
The young singers arrived, talented, smart, hip, and the women elevated the uniform concert black with sexy heels and spankin’ boots, hard to appreciate as we were performing sitting down. The chorus had swollen to thirty, beefing up the bass and tenor sections, adding some muscle to our sound. Big guys, big instruments. I hoped they got the memo to hydrate. The audience quieted. Concert producer Dominique Lévy spoke. (“It’s not art, not a performance, but an experience.”) Kotik spoke. Then he turned from the audience, lifted his left arm and beat out a four-count prep. Bang! Full forte D major.
KOTIK SWEEPS TIME LEFT ARM AT 12 O’CLOCK Drive the forte what one single chord demands breath tunefulness I sing through others’ inhale they sing through mine lift the tits drop the diaphragm air rushes in sweet silent breathing Kotik’s arm micro-inches relax sing for eight counts breathe for two pay it out be animated be still this piece is full of contradiction KOTIK’S ARM STRAIGHT OUT 3 O’CLOCK five minutes fifteen to go sag in pitch in energy forte meh Kotik urges Reiterate! More More suck in the gut engage everything listen even strings go out of tune in heat humidity a fight with the boss drop the tongue wet my lips bar by bar KOTIK’S ARM HANGS DOWN 6 O’CLOCK ten minutes ten to go halfway Point of No Return Kotik’s right arm relieves his left the long upsweep home doable bar by bar nips up suck tuck forte with ease what was that note what did I just sing reassert F# dry mouth unstick the tongue swallow vertiginous swooze Saharan haze Where the heck are the sopranos string players’ bowing arms screaming KOTIK ARM AT 9 O’CLOCK FIFTEEN DOWN five to go feed FEED that hungry D support forte forte forte seventeen minutes reiterate the pitch sit taller poor Kotik eighteen minutes NINE TEEN MIN NITS Kotik’s left arm lifts to pair the right landing gear’s down nineteen and a half our eyes blur fix on his palms on the gap of light in-between we got this wait for it wait wait Gap Closed.
Tall. Sit tall.
Kotik’s right index
Four in. Four out.
the lips. Swallow.
One violin still up. Bow
hovers off the strings.
Kotik 3 o’clock.
Five minutes. Eyes
ahead. Don’t look around.
Open eyes. Violin
half lowered. Admirable
6 o’clock. Midway. Kotik
switches to left index.
Violin is down.
Bow is down.
Blue light right alley.
Kotik’s shirt Klein Blue.
Violinist’s head still
cocked. As if.
Cable car clangs B.
Front pew. Guy
Kotik lifts right index
to meet the left
Nineteen and a half
Silence is not absolute. Not on earth. Not in the vacuum of deep space.
Between the cable car clang and the heartbeat in your ear: birdsong, squeaky pews, rustlings, murmuration, tinnitus.
Someone likened the silence portion to watching “a living painting.” A tableau vivant.
Both cathedral alleys were lit in Klein Blue. Were the lights on before people arrived? Did they come on at the start of the monotone? At the start of the silence?
“My ears were burning at the sixteen-minute mark.” Ruth wanted to cover her ears, turn off the sound. She heard overtones, thought the organist was playing. There was no organist. Her lips were chapped. She had worried about covering other singers’ breaths, then focused on her own rhythm, and settled into a cadence of breathing in for two counts, singing for eight. She counted her “bars” into the silence, got to 297 before realizing she could stop. But, what was her tempo? Her eight counts might well have differed from mine in duration. Perhaps we all had settled into a heartbeat meter of roughly sixty ticks per minute. Though any conductor will tell you: roughly is not unison, is not singing in time.
I had hoped for a transformative experience, for insight. But for insight, I might have had to be silent for longer than twenty minutes, not taking in my periphery, not making mental notes. More inwardly focused. Did I need something so structured, so public, so communal in order to be silent for twenty minutes? At the Zen Center I could be silent for days. Or, I could take a solemn vow. Solo in a desert walkabout, where hydration requires even more imperative preparation and commitment. As a child I heard many criticisms, but my fondest was, “She can’t sit still.”
“What? That was twenty minutes? But we’ve only just begun.” This, from Sigrid to herself, at the abrupt end of the monotone, fellow alto in the audience with her husband, Jim, and Simone, the poet. Of the monotone’s beginning, she said: “It was beautiful. I looked around and wondered if anyone would mind if I sang along.” D major is contagious?
Jim: “I heard the cable car clang, too. Twice. The sound was in and out.”
Sigrid: “Yes. The sound was not even, not flat. Not vibrated. In and out.”
Jim: “Almost like waves. Mostly it was a solid wall of sound.”
Simone: “We weren’t so much receiving the music as we were being bound up in it (and in the silence, which was also the music).” He asked himself why he was captivated by the changefulness of the monotone, that it had a body “like an ocean . . . tidal. In and out. Coming and going. It wasn’t sonic. It was textural. Like running your hand over something that looked even but finding it has all these small weird bumps in it.”
I can address the bumps. The wall of sound would not have been continuous when produced by anyone who uses breath to animate his instrument: singers, wind or brass players. I shudder to think of the demands on embouchure. Even string players had to stagger their bowing. This was no looped playback track, but a twenty-minute bar of D major. Followed by a twenty-minute bar of rest. The metronome needed to mark this tempo would be taller than the Burj Khalifa.
On the one-page score, choir I and II alternate singing with a switch-over an eighth note after the downbeat of each bar (a visual conceit as it was no more aurally invisible than switching over at the bar line). Had Kotik set a meter, had we sung it as written, you would have heard a cyclical hairline gap on that eighth note handover. His directive to breathe when we needed to resulted in more random, unaligned discontinuities, a smoother monotone. By arbitrarily spreading out our breaths, we minimized them. Had we been a hundred singers; had we a moving line instead of a drone, the sound might have appeared more placid. Also, less mysterious.
At one point I heard the sopranos’ A drop out for a couple of beats when all of their random breaths lined up, like in those moments in Ligeti’s 1962 Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes, when the wooden pyramids, each set at different tempi (from the heart attack Prestissimo to the near flat-lining Larghissimo), come into coherence as their periods finally coincided. Breathtaking and magical unison after the percussive hee-haw. Just as you were savoring clarity, the remaining metronomes fall out of phase and wind down until the last sentinel stops ticking, its pendulum coasts in silent sweep. The Klein sopranos scrambled and reclaimed their A.
At one point I had found myself drifting from my F# to their A and jerked back in line. No matter. It does matter. My A has a different timbre than Ruth’s A, or your A. There would have been a change in color or texture, even if minimal or subliminal. If these were considered two missteps, there were surely more. That’s if we all sang and played in tune. (“Tunefulness,” one conductor is fond of saying, “is a lovely thing.”)
Were those present in the Cathedral engaged in the monotone and contributing to the silence of the symphony, or were they planning Saturday’s dinner? In the front pew, some looked around, like nonbelievers during prayer, Am I supposed to close my eyes here? There was, after all, no rehearsal for the audience.
When the D major tank crashed into the brick wall of silence, none of the soft words served: fade, dissolve, decrescendo. Bang in/bang out. Like the ocean’s surface where water meets air (where most drownings occur). Like that nanosecond when we leave the womb and take our first breath. Like a shot of NOS. Like blasting into hyperspace. On first hearing the Klein in 2007, producer Dominique Lévy said at the monotone’s dead stop, “I had all these conflicting feelings of wanting to laugh, and then confusion, and then finally, deep emotion.” Roland Dahinden, who has conducted the Klein in Europe and in Washington, D.C., said, “There is such a beauty within the piece. You sit in the audience and you start to hear some melodies and some fragments of melodies, and yet nobody is playing them.”
Bass player Richard reported: “I play a lot of new music, avant-garde music. It was a total gas. One of the coolest things I’ve ever participated in. I’ll never forget it.” Lenny, a saxophonist and jive spinner of tales, declined to attend. “Gee, I don’t think I can keep my mouth shut for twenty minutes.” Elliot, a tenor in the audience, was underwhelmed, had found Kotik’s opening remarks “precious.” Elliot frequents pot-infused, playa-dust, make-art, bbq-the-effigy Burning Man. He might have enjoyed the Klein more had there been spontaneous combustion at the end, the IKB lighting gathering speed to incinerate even stone walls a foot thick. In Amadeus, Salieri said to Mozart, “Do you know you didn’t even give them a good bang at the end of the songs so they knew when to clap.” Convicted is the artist who dares the quiet finish, who trusts the power of the hush and what’s alive in it. That sensibility more Ozu than Tarantino. What might Elliot have made of the 2007 Paris performance when a pigeon flew into the church drawn by the D major surround and stayed, immobile, attentive, to fly out again only after the end of the Silence and its decay?
D major is the easiest key for children to sing in tune because it sits in their comfort range. It’s a resonant key for stringed instruments given that two of the four strings of each are tuned to notes in the D major chord. The key is perceived as one of joy, triumph, victory. Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus. Mozart’s giddy kids-chasing-each-other-around-the-park Sonata for Two Pianos in D Major I first heard played by Murray Perahia with Radu Lupu and immediately put on loop. Like dark chocolate. Like slow sex. Synesthetes say D major is the “Golden Key,” that when they hear a piece in D major, they see a golden light. Scriabin and Rimsky-Korsakov saw it as golden-brown. Perhaps for Klein the approach was not from musical key to perceiving color, but from seeing color to hearing tone. That when he saw ultramarine, when he looked at sky’s limitlessness, he found in D major an aurally vibrant equivalent, this key that is emotionally associative with joy, and with it, an expansiveness.
One afternoon in 1946, young Klein (18), lying on the beach, looks up at the sky and has an epiphany: the sky belongs to him, the sky is his creation. Instead of seeing in birds a magical defiance of gravity, Klein felt deeply affronted, that birds flying through space interrupted the spiritual infinite of the sky that was “his.” For Osip Mandelstam (according to Andrew Davis in his introduction to Voronezh Notebooks), “the sky (nebo) most often suggested not some paradise or heaven but sexless, inhuman, asphyxiating emptiness.” Here, some lines from Mandelstam’s “Steppes” (from Stolen Air, translated by Christian Wiman):
Openness or emptiness, I’m sick of it:
Infinity forced down the gullet . . .
Better to live alluvial,
Better to live layered downward,
To be a man of sand, of hollows, shallows . . .
Better to live alluvial. The imperative of the terrestrial, as opposed to the celestial, sublime, and all that is earthly associative: dirt, solidity, the undercurrent molt, ochres and loam, fire, its agitated reds, crisp leaves, decay, rot, messy bloody screaming miraculous birth. The anti-blue. A different music, one of rhythm and pulse and impulse and malleable, changeful mouthfeel.
Klein Blue. Without limit. Klein would later reframe Gaston Bachelard: “First there is nothing, next there is a depth of nothingness, then a profundity of blue.” In a study of 100 college students asked for their emotional response to color, blue invoked “relaxation and calmness, . . . happiness, comfort, peace, and hope.” Michel Pastoureau, in Blue: The History of a Color, said blue “violates nothing. It reassures and draws together . . . It is the color of the UN, UNESCO, and the EU.” Of International Klein Blue, he says it is “at once very deep and very luminous.” Klein, in his Sorbonne lecture of June 1959, talks of visiting the Scrovegni Chapel and being struck by the Giotto ceilings whose celestial proto-Renaissance saturation is a direct antecedent to IKB. To spend a life bathed in this luminosity.
Klein ground his own pigments, a marriage of vision, intent, and mania. With Paris art supplier Edouard Adam, he bound ultramarine from lapis lazuli to polyvinyl acetate to create the matte and eponymous International Klein Blue, that seemingly flat, but intense, vibratory, royal blue that is full of depth. A profundity of blue. I haven’t seen Klein’s monochrome paintings, but I do know that the “monochrome” of Rothko is anything but. I had sat in the Rothko Chapel, nearly alone, looking at length, and felt after an hour a deep sense of well-being, of arrival. The more I looked at the Rothkos, the more I saw. I might even have seen images that weren’t there.
Kotik said if had we rehearsed the forty-minute version, we would have been too exhausted to perform. Perhaps he feared some of us would not return. Roland Dahinden, who has conducted The Monotone-Silence Symphony four times in Europe, said, “You can’t really do a full rehearsal of something like this. It’s too hard. Everyone would just die.” Would I do it again? I’d love to be in the audience because, as they say, you can’t step in the same river twice. I also want other musical thrills. Thrills that I cannot yet imagine (greedy little songbird), like Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, written to be performed in the octagonal meditation space designed by Mark Rothko, in collaboration with Philip Johnson (of the minimalist, transparent, visually and architecturally silent Glass House), but finished with other architects after the two butted heads over the lighting, which Rothko insisted be solely by skylight. Perception of color shifts with the shifting light, with the changing seasons, with the angle of the sun. As he painted, Rothko draped his New York studio skylights to replicate what the chapel light in Houston might look like, the light, its source, its changing intensity. Lighting was germane. Rothko was adamant. Johnson, out.
Rothko Chapel, Feldman’s site-specific homage to his friend who died the year before, the fourteen Rothkos—all were commissioned by John and Dominique de Menil. Collectively a mural, Rothko’s fourteen “black paintings” were not out-of-a-tube monochrome, not flat, but dimensional. They recede. Advance. Are mutable and dark, yes, some say even ominous, as that’s the associative feeling with black—night, evil, death, the unknown (which could just as well fill us with wonder). Even when Rothko’s blacks bled to deep purple and luring reds, his “black” paintings did not threaten, but invited. If they presented a vision of the hereafter, then there was a palatable peacefulness. As I sat there on the bench, was I falling into the paintings, or were they coming toward me? For me?
A year before the chapel was completed, Rothko slit his wrists. Cutting the wrists severs the tendons to the hands, those instruments of his calling. Were these paintings his sense of an ending? Or did realizing these paintings free him from his bonds to earth? Had he said the culmination and all of what was in him to express?
Feldman scored his twenty-five-minute sacred lament for soprano and alto soloists, choir, an array of percussion, viola, and celeste, in a stately, minimalist dirge sung—hummed—in subtly shifting meters that quiets at one point to a near silence, ppppp, then splinters into 12-part divisi for the upper voices, whose effect is a shimmering both vibratory and encompassing, a music that corroborates the edgelessness and dispersion intrinsic to these Rothkos. I have sat in the Chapel nearly alone and in silence, for an hour. Went back the next day for more. As much as I would love to sing the Feldman, and there at the Rothko Chapel, I fear I might lose my sense of self. Dissipate into particles and waves.
Without beginning and without end is how Klein often talked of his symphony, that it was the summation of all that “I wish my life to be.” His “blue” monotone D major blast defined the ensuing silence. Silence was where the piece lived. Silence stands in relief to the absence, perception and memory of sound. We need silence and solitude in order to discover what we think, to define our center, so we can arrive at cogent, deliberative thought that synthesizes the seemingly disparate and amorphic into something considered and concrete. Edificial. Edifying.
We dared a live performance of something we hadn’t rehearsed at the specified, longer length. Would we run a marathon having only run a quarter of the course, without any idea of the remaining terrain, whether it was potholed, gravelly, or if a downpour would slick the road on the steep descent? Would we have the confidence we could finish and not keel over from heart attack or dehydration? Would we, after running flat out, then be able to pull up and stand still for the length of time we spent running flat out? Not a twitch. No water. No Power Bar. No Gu. Richard, the bassist, said the challenge was not the monotone but having to be still in the silence.
Yet, knowing the limits can make the arduous bearable, even though we hadn’t done it before, at that length. We could call on past performance experience, extrapolate our reserves. We can count to forty minutes. That’s only 2,400 seconds. There’s an end to both the music making and the engaged stillness. But when what is to be endured is more dire? When we don’t know the term of our imprisonment or how long before our captors give us water? Or when we cannot see the limits of their capacious and imaginative torture? How to persevere? Find resolve? Hold faith?
Summer, 1999. Near the end of vacation, three college friends from Colorado set off on what would be a life-defining climb of Yosemite’s Glacier Point Apron. Peter Terbush belayed as Kerry Pyle led the climb. The cardinal rule in belaying is always to keep your brake hand on the rope that tethers the lead climber and keeps him from crashing to earth should he fall. The belayer feeds out rope when requested and takes up slack when requested, brake hand ever on the rope. The third friend, Joe Kewin, waited at the bottom with belayer Pete Terbush. A 525-ton chunk of change broke free above Kerry Pyle, smashed into a thousand pieces as it ricocheted down the face. A million pounds of rock. A few hit Kerry, split his scalp. He clung. Joe Kewin did what anyone would do: he ran for cover. Pete Terbush maintained his brake hand on the rope, took a direct hit. Died.
I’ve thought of these two men on and off since reading about the accident at breakfast, them, their relationship, the symbiotic dependency, the trust the lead climber has in the person belaying him, and the commitment to the safety of the climber the belayer is anchoring. When the rock broke, Kerry Pyle slammed in a couple of quickdraws, flattened himself against the face and hung on. Pete Terbush held on too, a veritable Hodor. When a climber hears a sharp crack, he doesn’t have to look up to know that some rock might have his name on it. Instinct tells him to put his hands up, protect his head, run. To hold the line, to maintain the belay, is a conscious decision to man your station against your instinct for survival. If the belayer runs, he’s left his climbing partner to die and will have to, for the rest of his life, live with the guilt and the second guessing of his own character. Pete Terbush hung on, whether because that is a solemn promise every belayer makes, and that’s what you’d wish your belayer would do for you, or because of ingrained climbing protocol worked over countless climbs until maintaining the belay is a part of your marrow. You are the anchor, this is your contract. So steadfast was Pete Terbush that even in death, Kerry Pyle was still anchored to the mountain. The third man ran to wrest one friend’s brake hand off the belay to allow the other to rappel to safety.
Five hundred tons of granite smashes to earth. Was there cacophony? The mad flapping of wings? An obliteration of bird- song? In those few pregnant moments might Pete Terbush also have heard—in his commitment to stillness—a resonant and revelatory silence?
A cloudless day, Fontenay-aux-Roses outside Paris, 1960: a cyclist in a trench coat pedals away from us, enlivening the far end of an empty street. We do not hear the crunch of tires on rough pavement, nor the shouts of Harry Shunk as he snaps the photo, nor do we see in the subsequent black-and-white montage that the sky is blue. Skies appear blue because air molecules absorb the longer wavelengths of light’s rowdier red, yellow, green and violet. János Kender, the second photographer, jumps on his bicycle in a flash of spontaneity that was not part of Yves Klein’s concept of being captured airborne, this image made in the year of the premiere of The Monotone-Silence Symphony and two years before his death at age 34 from his third heart attack in a month. I knew this photo, yet was startled when a few months after singing in his symphony, I chanced upon a blow-up of it fifteen feet tall, monumental, and mounted floor to ceiling in the lobby of La Proa Cultural Center in Buenos Aires announcing their Yves Klein exhibition. It was as if I had stumbled onto that street in Fontenay-aux-Roses. I looked up, saw Klein in a dress shirt, suit and tie, swan dive off the second floor of a brick building—avian, wings spread, toes pointed, face lifted to the skies. The cyclist pedals, Klein hovers. Leap into the Void.
The beloved blue that Yves Klein finally pierced? It’s a white light.