Music and Silence Part I

Yes, I do realise that music and silence seem mutually exclusive, BUT it is possible (consider John Cage’s “4,33” for example). In Vasilii Grossman’s writing for example music leads to deep silent contemplation (see Krymov in Life and Fate). Silence has been a very popular point of literary and philosophical analysis over the past decades. For me the interest lies in its relationship to trauma, and its almost unchallenged status. In trauma studies silence marks an impossibility of responding to the overwhelming nature of the experience. Silence however, does not necessarily mean an absence of something, silence can be very charged and full of meaning.

One such instance that I particularly love and admire is the silence in the iconic Soviet spy-series “Seventeen Moments of Spring” (or Semnadtsat’ mgnovenii vesny). (big leap I know, but it only struck me recently how silent the film is) This miniseries is something that every Russian knows of and has seen. I remember its theme as a constant melancholy background in my childhood that made me wonder who this Shtirlitz is and what happened in those dark days of World War II. My father’s absolute love for the series also made me think that there must be something utterly exquisite about it. I also found that he was strikingly alike my grandfather, whom I never had the pleasure to meet but whose albums I used to spend hours looking through, seeing photos of him in his uniform on various marine missions. (My favourite one was a picture of him holding a huge bunch of bananas, now that was exotic!) It is only recently that I managed to watch the entire series and see the scene that everyone I know says is one of the most powerful cinematic moments. It is heart-breaking. The whole series is full of silence as Shtirlitz is a spy and thus carries an unspeakable secret; silence is at the centre of the story. In this scene however, Shtirlitz meets his wife in a cafe and cannot speak to her, due to the fact that he is a spy and cannot have any contact with his family. The two sit and look at each other across the room, like true “star-crossed lovers”. It is a very powerful scene that is made all the more moving due to the emotive and beautiful music that accompanies the scene. The music oddly highlights the silence in the scene. I also find it quite curious how the cafe in which they meet is called Elephant, and although there is no saying in Russian, there is one in English about “the elephant in the room”. So, it may only make sense to the English, but there is definitely an elephant in the room in this scene that creates the silence. Enjoy…

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