By Meghan Hendley

“Silence is very important. The silence between the notes are as important as the notes themselves.”–Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Jacob Kirkegaard AION, 2006 Courtesy of the artist Photo: Jacob Kirkegaard

Inspired by the celebration of the birthday of John Cage, who made history with a piece of music that contains no notes or tones, the Menil is featuring a series of programs and events this fall, centered around the essence of silence. Take a nod from Cage’s 1952 composition, 4’33”, a piece for solo piano, where the performer expresses the music between the tones and melodies. The origins of the piece come, not in music, but in painting. Cage used Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, whose lights, shadows, and starkness seeped into the notion of silence as a moveable force in aural landscapes.

Silence, the Menil Collection exhibition (ongoing through October, 21, 2012) conceived by Toby Camps (curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil) and co-organized with the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, explores the many ways that artists– including painters, sculptors, filmmakers, musicians and performance artists– invoke silence to shape space and consciousness. Four free public programs accompany the main exhibition.

At the Montrose museum haven, Silence includes a bevy of artists whose ideas and concepts flourished in the 1950s and 60s, including Giorgio de Chirico, Rene Magritte, Robert Rauschenberg, Ad Reinhardt, Joseph Beuys, and Yves Klein. These artists embraced the notion of silence and how it shapes a vision of space and perception. Displayed in the stark, hallow spaces of the Menil, the pieces intertwine, yet cause static between each other with a sense of reverence and stillness. Some experimental, some elusive, some seeping with undertones– each piece acts as its own narrative in the thought of silence. Rauschenberg’s White Painting (Two Panel), which connects back to Cage’s homage to silence, is also on display.

Additional events in the Silence series:

The Sounds of Silence: Three Evenings of Film

The Sounds of Silence is a three part series that tracks media artists and the various ways they engage sound, and its counterpart– silence. The three-week series explores the artists’ use of sound in film through scores of silence to clamors to samples. Each Monday evening in the three week series features six or more films that relate to a specific treatment of film and sound. These films are organized by Steve Seid, Video Curator for the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum, and the Pacific Film Archive.

A Kind of Hush

Monday September 10, 2012, 7:00 p.m.

Rice Media Center

A Kind of Hush explores silent films and how those with some sound were considered oddities and unusual for their time. Films featured include Meshes of the Afternoon, The Riddle of the Lumen, Zen for Film, Threnody, four words for four hands (apples.mountains.over.frozen.), and Soundtrack.

Sonic Slippage

Monday, September 17, 2012, 7:00 p.m.

Rice Media Center

The second of three films in this series, Sonic Slippage, documents film and tapes that all make use of sound but display the ways in which the picture track is drastically changed by the addition of sound.

Sourcing Sound & Image

Monday, September 24, 2012, 7:00 p.m.

Rice Media Center

Sourcing Sound & Image is a film that combines the source of sound and picture in an intimate and engaging way. During parts of the film, the pulse and date are split, which creates a new expression on the same impulse.


Music for Silence

October 9, 2012, 7:00 p.m.

Menil Foyer

Originally premiered at Woodstock in 1952, John Cage’s 4’33” will be the center point of this concert featuring an artistic icon of classical music in Houston, pianist Sarah Rothenberg. Known for her intelligent flair and beautiful interpretations, Rothenberg will perform a piece in which she will never touch the piano nor ring out notes from the mammoth instrument. Instead of the listeners engagement with the actual music, Cage calls for those to be affected by the sounds of the environment around them. Every creek of a chair, each sigh, all the fidgets from the audience create a sound scape living in the notion of silence. As a composer, Cage striped himself and the performer from the actual presentation of the piece, for neither can dictate what ambient sounds that will be heard by the audience. Other pieces on the program include Erik Satie and Arnold Schoenberg, both favorites of the late composer.


Deborah Hay: Richmond Hall

Saturday, October 13, 2012, noon and 3:00 p.m.

1500 Richmond Ave.

The Silence series closes with a site-specific work at the museum’s Dan Flavin permanent exhibition. One of the founding daughters of postmodern dance, Hay reaches back from inspiration during the same time period as many of the artists in the exhibition. Currently residing in Austin, Hay studied with such modern dance juggernauts as Merce Cunningham and Mia Slavenska. Heavily influenced by the work of Cunningham and John Cage, Hay crafted her work based on the dialogue of dance with other art forms lending itself to various levels of engagement and consciousness. This performance brings together the combined forces of the exhibition and event’s arsenal with this final engagement of silence.

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