Daniel Barbiero ‘Stillness-Energy-Sound: Notes on Negative Space’

“I am interested in stillness, in the silence that emanates from objects. I see this stillness as a form of energy that these objects radiate.”–Reiner Ruthenbeck[1]

If stillness is a form of an object’s energy, then its sound is the realization of that energy in its active form.

Consider stillness as the sound latent in objects. Sound is released from stillness the way energy is released when, for example, an atom’s nucleus is disturbed. In a more prosaic, musical context, disturb the string by plucking it or pulling a bow across it and a series of vibrations is released, which we receive as sound.

(Moving beyond conventional musical instruments, we can find sound lying dormant in nearly any kind of object if we approach it properly and with open minds.)

On this view, the sound is in potentia here in things as they are, as a force that’s always-already there and simply needs to be realized by the activity of the person attending to it. The silence emanating from objects simply is their sound signatures, as yet unrealized. Imagined this way, sound and stillness aren’t opposite qualities or states existing in an orthogonal, mutually canceling relationship to each other, but instead are the obverse and reverse of the same phenomenon.

In the realization of a composition or the performance of an improvisation, sound and stillness appear as positive and negative space respectively.

Positive space is the presence of intended audible matter, i.e., the realization in sound of the composition or improvisation. Negative space is the opening produced by the absence of intended audible matter.

Negative space can have two functions. The first is a structural function separating and apportioning events consisting of intended audible matter. The second is as a carrier of possibility, as a space in which something could happen: that is, in which a sound could arise. Thus negative space is by no means empty space; rather it is a space potentially inhabited by sounds existing outside of, and surrounding, the sounds produced by the realization of the composition or the performance of the improvisation.

Both positive and negative spaces play a role in the ecology of the listening situation by soliciting the listener’s attention in specific ways.

Positive space invites attention to the internal relationships defining and characterizing the work, that is, to its compositional structure, harmonic and melodic content, phrasing, timbre integration of pitched and unpitched sound material, and so forth.

Negative space, when embodied in significant passages of stillness, directs attention to the work’s external relationships, and thus to itself. This is because the work’s most fundamental external relationship is that between positive space and negative space.

The analogy here is to Robert Morris’ observation about a certain type of sculpture: that the work “takes relationships out of the work and instead makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision.”[2] When we make the necessary changes to allow for differences of media, we find that the piece of music that integrates significant negative space moves the focus from one exclusively concerned with relationships within the work itself (of, for example, tones to rhythms, tones to timbres, tones to themselves) to one now including the relationship of the work to the physical context of its presentation—its relationship to the room in which it occurs, say, or to the listeners individually and as a group, or to the accidental sounds present. Certainly these contextual elements overlap: The room, for instance, is a physical space defined by not only by its dimension, materials and boundaries, but by the collection of listeners it encompasses.

(Because any given sound signature will be affected by the contingent facts of its release, the physical environment in which that release takes place conveys information about itself through its shaping of the sound. Some environments—particularly “live” ones constructed of hard reflecting surfaces, for example—may play as great a role in shaping sound as will the instruments or objects used by the performers.)

These external relationships by definition are not relationships between parts contained within the work. But there is no reason why significant occurrences of negative space cannot be one of these parts and hence an element of the composition.

Significant events of negative space do not necessarily function as ends in themselves, much as they may at first appear to. On the contrary, a focus on compositional stillness is liable to lead out beyond itself to a focus on the compositional events surrounding, and surrounded by, stillness.

Stillness as a compositional or performative element in fact fosters a heightened attentiveness in the listener such that it frees the listener to become acutely aware not only of the performance’s environment, but of the composition or improvisation being performed.

Through the listener’s awareness, stillness in a sense leads through itself to a point beyond itself. This self-overcoming of stillness is what we might call the essential dialectic of negative space.

This is an area I have explored in recent work such as such as Not One Nor, Eighteen Events for Double Bass, and x-(y+z)=0, which take as their focus the phenomenological structure of the listener’s absorption in the reciprocal relationship between positive and negative spaces. These works attempt to represent or create an image of the zero point at which the perceiver interfaces with the world through an opening inhabited by the flux of perception.

The musical material in these works is minimal, often consisting of long tones, pitched series or unpitched sounds separated by substantial passages in which no intentional sounds are produced. The hypothesis is that our apprehension of alternating sounds and rests follows a certain pattern of increasing sensitivity to nuance, of detecting subtle variation in appearances we initially take to be simple.

Thus the goal of these and similar works is to create a sound environment in which positive and negative spaces are mutually implicating and equally weighted, as quite often is the case in everyday situations in which our attention is directed to the intermittent beckonings of aural stimuli—that is, to the sounds emanating from objects.


[1] Quoted in Tony Godfrey, Conceptual Art (London: Phaidon Press, 1998), p. 231.

[2] Robert Morris, “Notes on Sculpture,” in Gregory Battcock ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 222-235. Quote on p. 232.

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