Between Silence and Gesture: An interview with Alberto Heller | ALICE YUMI SINZATO e EUCLYDES DA CUNHA NETO


Alberto HellerAlberto Heller

Alberto Andrés Heller distinguishes himself as pianist and composer in South America and Europe, in solo performances, chamber music and together with many orchestras. He has twelve recorded CDs and works with both interpretations and original compositions. Heller had his undergraduate and major as concert piano performer in Weimar, Germany. In Brazil, he has a master’s degree in Education and doctor’s degree in Literature through the Federal University of Santa Catarina, and a specialization in Gestalt-therapy through the Müller-Granzotto Institute. He gave lectures at the Fine Arts and Music School of Jena, Germany, and at UDESC (Santa Catarina State University, Brazil) in the Music Bachelor’s course.

In parallel to his musical practice, it has been many years since his interest has been turning to interdisciplinary studies, especially in the fields of art, philosophy and psychotherapy. One of the partnerships that is fruit of interdisciplinarity is the work with Paulo Gaiad, which resulted in the exhibit Fragmentos de um Noturno.

Heller is author of Fenomenologia da Expressão Musical (Phenomenology of Musical Expression) (2006) and John Cage e a Poética do Silêncio (John Cage and the Poetics of Silence) (2011). In 2007 he received the Edino Krieger Award as Musical Personality of the Year through the Academia Catarinense de Letras.

The musical outlook within the reflection on contemporary art can open up many enquiries. In this interview Heller describes through his work the approximation between John Cage and visual arts, specifically to the work of Robert Rauschenberg, who influenced Cage’s further studies on the subject of silence. The inquiry on silence and Zen itself is shared by many artists and thinkers, it is a recurring subject in contemporary art.

Heller proposes to think about musical expression through the line of phenomenology, and by doing that the duality between author and interpreter loses value, since from the act of reproducing there is also creation. The inquiry on copy and pastiche is polemic within the field of visual arts. Didi-Huberman (2007, p.4) says that “the archive is something constructed and censored, that is full of gaps, that the classification is an interpretation and that, therefore, induces to certain hermeneutic effects”.1

Heller presents through phenomenology a new way of seeing musical expression, giving value to the body and the expression of the gesture, to the lived time in music, and to silence not as being mute, but silence that turns the word into flesh.

Euclydes da Cunha Neto: Your book2 brings an analysis of John Cage’s work in his perception of silence. You report that Cage saw himself encouraged to talk about silence from the moment he stumbled upon Robert Rauschenberg’s work. How do you see the relation between the plastic artwork and Cage’s musical research?

Alberto Heller: I got very interested in John Cage, he was a great expert in interweaving fields. Since early on he was very interested in the question of silence. Cage began to think about these studies by the artist Robert Rauschenberg3 from the inquiry of silence. What does it mean, to exist something inside silence? What could be a silent work, would it be possible? Cage then created a work he entitled 4’33’’. The first performance was in the city of Woodstock, when a pianist went up in the stage, sat by the instrument, stood in that position for four minutes and thirty three seconds without doing anything, thank the audience and left the stage.

Actually this wasn’t mere provocation. A lot happened within these four minutes and thirty three seconds, there were noises in the audience, some coughing, others laughing. In other words, there was a spatial displacement from what was expected. When a musician enters, there already is an architecture predisposing that something is going to take place there, through the hands of that musician. We are already in expectation, the presence of the musician causes expectation, as if the silence is already present in this waiting.

Later on John Cage writes a book and inside there is a phrase that goes “no sound fears the silence that extinguishes itself, and there is no silence that is not pregnant with sound”4, in other words, from each nothing emerges the next something, and in every something there is a nothing. The sound wave itself is made of presence and absence.

After 4’33” Cage continued to think about what silence could be. In the musical score silence is represented by a symbol, the pause, which allows the musician to do nothing for a period of time, but this is actually an expressive pause. Saint Augustine, in his treaty De Musica, defines in latin terms several names for the different kind of pause. You need a certain time for something to end, there are pauses that accumulate tension and connect two things in space and time, pauses of expressive nature.

There was a time when John Cage wanted to hear silence and had then an experience in an anechoic chamber5. He stood there for a certain amount of time and began to hear a low pitch sound that was from his own heartbeat, and a high pitch sound that would be from the functioning of his nervous system. In other words, there always is something, even in silence.

All of our acts produce sound, and Cage wanted to cross this frontier of what is noise and what is musical sound. He asked himself the reason of us considering certain sounds as musical and others as not. The sound I make in the piano is a musical sound and the noise of a chair hitting the ground is not musical. Why do we think that?

Alice Yumi Sinzato: When thinking about musical or artistic sound and other kinds of sound, how does Cage sees the relation between art and life?

A.H.: Cage began to consider what could be this relation between life and art, he wanted to make these two concepts closer and said that slowly art was on the way to returning to what was its own, which is to life. This way he gets a lot closer to oriental thinking, the Zen, where more important than he work os the gesture through which it appears. What really matters is the gesture, the truth in the gesture.

In the western world we would do this gesture very cautiously, we would correct it until it got perfect. In the oriental gesture there is no correction, since the imperfections of the brush (thinking about Japanese calligraphy) are expressive in themselves.

What could be the non-edition of our noises? In the case of psychoanalysis or other therapeutic ways, more important then the speech of the patient is what he/she doesn’t say, what is omitted. If we edit everything, we lose what is more human. That is the noise and, on final thought would also be the silence.

E.C.N.: You make an analysis of Cage’s thinking in relation to oriental philosophy, from Cage’s studies themselves. How do you relate this philosophy with western studies, within the perspective of silence?

A.H.: This is an impossible and captious question, since there is no “the western” nor “the eastern. There is a fantastic book by Edward Said6, where he presents the term “Orientalism”, making this criticism; we have a fantasy of what the oriental worlds would be, as well as they fantasize about what the western world would be.

There is no eastern and western, even more so in the 21st century, where everything is mixed. There are some characteristics that are more fitting to the western or eastern world, but when we think in an abstract form, we end up making an impossible, caricatural and anthropological mix.

The western way would apparently be more compromised to the work as monument – later Michel Foucault talks about the monumental aspect of a work of art7; we want this to be the great work, we are very worried about size and importance, in an identification of author and work –, while the Zen cares about the action itself.

E.C.N.: In your other book8, in the first chapter, you talk about the difference between rhythm and meter. Why does the society we live in confuses meter and rhythm?

A.H.: This is an interesting question, since it doesn’t concern only musicians. Everybody has seen a metronome. The word metronome comes from meter, otherwise it would be called a “rhythmometer”.

The ancient greeks, pre-socratic, already had an understanding of the word rhythmos, rhythm as the flow of tides. There is a certain recurrence, but in this recurrence there is no symmetry. No wave comes exactly at the same interval of time. Later on the romans put in the word rhythm a numerical notion of symmetry.

We study in musical dictionaries that music is a temporal art because it happens through time, but actually it is not in time: it creates time, since it creates the sensation of time itself.

Even when we talk about height of sound – which we call a sound more high or low pitch, or high and low sound in terms of volume –, this height comes from rhythm (makes vocalizations exemplifying the height relation in sound). Melody comes from rhythm, rhythm is the most basic thing we have, the rhythm of breathing, the pulse.

A.Y.S.: “There is no playing without creating, nor creating without playing”9. This comment touches a little the visual arts field, where this relation created conflicts through the notion of copy. Where is the author and where is the interpreter?

A.H.: When we talk about create and play within music – I imagine that in visual arts as well – sometimes we have a separation, this came on to being in the last centuries with the separation of knowledges. We have the figure of the one who composes: the creator, the creative; and the figure of the interpreter, as someone that simply plays a Beethoven sonata, for example. If we were to open ourselves up, we would see fifty recordings of the same work, and all would be different.

We then realize that every interpreter is creating, even if he doesn’t want to. Saint Augustine used to say: “there was no moment when you didn’t create, for you created time itself”10. It can be a more or less active creation, but it does happen.

Karl Kraus said that making art would be to “learn to see abysses in ordinary places”11. Sometimes we think something is already a given, but what else is there? When we start to question, to dialogue with the object in front of us, it begins to show itself.


1 DIDI-HUBERMAN, Georges. Un conocimento por el montaje: Entrevista com Georges Didi-Huberman.Interview given to Pedro G. Romero, Minerva Magazine. Madrid: 2007.

2 HELLER. Alberto A. John Cage e a Poética do Silêncio. Florianópolis. Letras Contemporâneas. 2011. 156p.

3 Works entitled White on White, Black on Black and Black on White.

4 CAGE, John. De segunda a um ano. (A Year from Monday). Translation by Rogério Duprat reviewed by Augusto de Campos. São Paulo: Hucitec, 1985.

5 A chamber that has no internal reverberation and is isolated from external sources of noise.

6 SAID, Edward W. Orientalismo – O Oriente como invenção do Ocidente. Trad. Tomás Rosa Bueno. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2003.

7 FOUCAULT, Michel. A Arqueologia do Saber. Rio da Janeiro: Ed. Forende Universitária, 2007

8 HELLER, Alberto A. Fenomenologia da Expressão Musical. Ed. Letras Contemporâneas, 2006.

9 Ibid.

10 AUGUSTINE, Saint. Confissões. Translation by J. Oliveira Santos and A. Ambrosio de Pina. São Paulo: Nova Cultural, 1996.

11 KRAUS, Karl. Aforismos. Translation by Renato Zwick. Porto Alegre: Arquipélago, 2010