Silence is Golden

Silence is Golden (2002-5) has evolved from a live, musico-theatrical event into an outdoor performance disseminated on DVD. The project was initially conceived for a recital given by violinist-actor, Oliver Lewis, at Dartington International Summer School in 2002. It is based on the prison soliloquy from Shakespeare’s dramatization of the life of King Richard II, who granted Dartington Manor to his half-brother, John Holand, in 1384. During the original event, Oliver began his performance between the nylon walls of a child’s play tent, situated to one side of the great hearth at Dartington Hall. A video camera was located inside the tent and its signal fed to a television set, which faced the audience: the performance began when one of its members switched it on. But not all of the original score was realized inside the play tent. The line, ‘Music do I hear?’ provided a reason for Oliver to exit and present the second half of his performance, centre stage, before returning to confinement for the epilogue. The serendipitous use of televisual mediation remained influential in post-Dartington revisions, not least since the soliloquy finds Richard comparing the restricted world of his incarceration with the real one outside his cell. The following is an excerpt from the programme notes for the original performance:

Scored for violin, live and pre-recorded speaking, and electronics, Silence is Golden is best described as a performance of the prison soliloquy from Shakespeare’s King Richard II together with a simultaneous commentary. Imprisoned by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, King Richard compares his solitary existence with the real world. Each line of the first half of the soliloquy is fragmented and the words reassembled into two, pre-recorded groups. Whilst these are delivered through loudspeakers, Richard makes verbal and musical interpolations from within his quarters. For the second half of the soliloquy, he escapes confinement, recites the rest of the verse in its original form and the commentary switches to the pre-recorded track. The fragmentation of the soliloquy occurs in response to Richard’s speaking of ‘still-breeding thoughts’, begotten by his brain (the female) and his soul (the male). The first 41 lines of text have been shattered into two groups of words, each channelled into one of two speakers, widely spaced at either side of the stage. These word-groups interact with each other such that the soliloquy is ‘reborn’ during the performance and forms a singular, audible entity. The assemblage is backed throughout by a pre-recorded electronic track made from computer manipulations of musical elements performed by the violin. And the violin part is itself entirely constructed from pitches that relate to Maurice Ravel’s Tzigane, a work which Oliver Lewis will also be playing in today’s recital.
The electronics in both stage and screen versions are identical; the fragmentation/polarization of the soliloquy is retained within the video’s soundtrack. Originally, however, the difference between types of text – commentary and soliloquy – was easily perceived. The line, ‘Music do I hear?’, for instance, provided the moment at which everything changed: Oliver came out of captivity; the commentary and soliloquy switched modes of presentation. Thus it was possible to sense the ‘liveness’ of some verbal statements in comparison with others. Although video does not offer this same differentiation, it furnishes another kind of delineation with respect to the fixity of sonic elements in reference to the visual domain. Sound and image engage in a mutual process of definition: aural objects are clarified as components of a visual cyclorama. Music’s ‘visuality’ (its nature as something seen) is revealed in reference to its sounds, which are understood as consequences of prior action. The screen version also permits a more compelling realization of the dualism inherent in Richard’ character (his divinity, his humanity), which lay implicit in the original performance. We see him taunting his prisoner-self with carefree abandon, playing his violin against the walls of his cell. The video shows that music is something that results from the actions humans make with the passing of time, which is significant, for Richard has plenty of time on his hands and yet, in another sense, very little at all.

The text from Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) was added after the Dartington performance. Originally, wider reference to music’s power was made solely through quotations from The Tempest and Pericles, which also feature in the video. Burton’s testimony to music, as panacea, militates against Richard’s argument for its cessation. It also problematizes the notion of listening to music as something that consists in apprehending sound alone, particularly insofar as it becomes a disembodied object for intellectual contemplation (‘Musica est mentis medicina maestae’). So throughout the video, Oliver enacts a series of stylized gestures with reference to patterns of bodily movement set in motion when he plays the violin. In so doing, he asks himself where music’s cause might lie, if musical sound is the consequence of action. Other, post-Dartington additions include, ‘A Song of a Beggar and a King’ from Richard Johnson’s A Crowne-Garland of Goulden Roses, Gathered Out of England’s Royall Garden (1612), which is utilized in the performance on-screen, karaoke-style, to boot home the dualist theme (music is also a mass preoccupation). And further, the passage describing famine, from Thomas Sackville’s ‘Induction’ to ‘Buckingham’ in A Mirror for Magistrates (1563), rips a strip out of the soliloquy (‘…these vain weak nails/May tear a passage through the flinty ribs’ etc.), hams it up and launches it, like an egg from the groundlings, at King Richard’s claim to divine lineage.

copyright © N.G.Brown 2002