Bach Pilgrimage Episode 2

Friday 4th May - The Sound of Silence 

The first ‘event’ on my journey was at Malling Abbey, a place I had got to know after playing there at a festival in September last. It is a rather unique place. Suggestive remnants of the forbidding eleventh century buildings of the Benedictine community of nuns founded in 1090 survive. They loom and tower over tranquil meadows orchards and gardens. But after a long wait post-reformation, these buildings - with the help of some beautifully sympathetic additions - now reverberate again to the rhythms of religious life. A small and, it must be said, now dwindling community of nuns continue the dance of spiritual observance there and offices are chanted throughout each and every day. It is a place of long silences but of palpable energy of the sort that does not arrive by command.

I had felt that it might be an ideal place to gather my energy as I set out. And so by arrangement with the Mother Abbess I was to play all six works of Sei Solo over three sessions in the course of a day interlocking with the sung offices. At 9.00am the first Sonata and Partita; at 1.00pm the second of each, and at 5.00pm the final two. We had agreed that a small group of invitees together with the Sisters themselves would treat it as a day of meditation and quiet and that there should be no applause or speaking.

Arriving at 8.30 to hear the Sisters going through the office of Terce, I began to realize that I was not at all in the right frame of mind – suddenly becoming aware of overwhelming fatigue, of anxiety and stress and an almost complete sense of not being properly prepared. I mumbled something to this effect as I was gently ushered into a small ante room. Gently, but with upmost clarity I was told that I would be looked after and that all would be well.

With no protocol to govern anything, I walked out in to the reverberant air and saw in front of me the nuns and a few others sitting in an attitude of ...what? I hesitated, fighting a desire to simply to start playing and break the almost unbearable pregnancy of the moment and its silence. I managed to stand still for a few seconds; a few more. The silence of presence - not of absence – seemed to beckon. I found from somewhere the courage not to interrupt it, sensing that the moment to let my instrument speak had not quite arrived. And then it did, and I put bow to string. The sound I made met my ears in a sort of waterfall of vibration – how, I wondered, had I never heard a G minor chord like this one before? It moved me, and though I was sure it was me who had played it, it seemed to beckon me on. Again, as I reached the final chord of the Adagio and it tapered and tapered into the lofty space above and around, I waited. With a little more confidence this time I stood still – hesitated until the moment to kick into life the fugue seemed to present itself. I jumped on, as if clinging onto a route-master bus as it left a stop. And this rhythm was repeated with each movement – a longer pause between the two works. And then finally to playing the last Double of the B minor and the last ‘B’ took me to a place where applause would usually break the spell, shatter the silence of the music. Not a sound, no one moved. I at last allowed my violin to leave my chin and to look into the room. Everyone silent, motionless; my eyes briefly met the Mother Abbess’s who gave me a look of ‘all is well’. And so I stayed for more moments of what I can only describe as a sort of naked blissful emptiness that was yet far from empty. This seems silly as I write it. Perhaps because it is these things which can never be convincingly written about; or not unless you are a great poet.

Is this what Benjamin Britten meant when he said ‘Music is everything that happens between the notes’? Or why TS Eliot said that we must ‘learn to sit still’? After the day I found myself reflecting on how easy it is to talk over and blot out these most precious moments, whether to each other or to ourselves. With the help of a great building, some supremely supportive and receptive people and just enough courage to accept what was happening, I had found my way back to knowing that they are always there, waiting patiently to be discovered.