Right now listening to Radu Malfatti's Nonostante II, a piece of solo piano. It stretches well over 30 minutes, but - and this is the crux - there is about ten minutes of music on the cd (and then I am being generous, I think it totals even less).
Though I was forewarned by a review in The Wire, I still thought it was some kind of mistake, since the first minutes were reasonably filled with piano tones. But then a strange thing happens. You literally have to count the minutes before you get served some more notes. Sometimes you get three notes, sometimes only one, sometimes four or five. In between there is just silence.
It creates quite an awkward atmosphere. You are actually waiting for the music to come. So, what to do while you are waiting? Listening, of course. And while you are listening the sounds of the immediate environment (me typing this, lighting a fag, my pets moving through the loft, public transport in the streets) get sort of amplified. Silence yes, but no void.
With Nonostante III it is mostly the same, though the instruments (mostly clarinet) are different. The thing is, you do not mind, because it kind of puts you in touch with your surroundings, something a melomaniac like myself tends to forget. Music tends to fill up your living space, be it as a mere backdrop or as a more intense experience. Moments of silence change all that. It allows your hearing - and your body - to build up a system of suspense and release.
The effect is different also from a radical piece like Cage's 4' 33". In that case, you know there will not be any music played at all, and although Cage put it forth mostly with philosophical considerations, silence has become some kind of a gimmick, employed from time to time by many a lesser spirit, solely as an empty reference.
For the majority of people, for whom pop music is the only music they recognize as such, silence has become a threat rather than a moment of contemplation. Silence forces the mind inward or outward, stasis becomes impossible. Anyone who attends a live show these days will have noticed that artists regularly have to ask the audience to shut their big mouths. People nowadays just do not know how to handle silence anymore.
With Malfatti's recent music your listening experience is continually suspended. The surprising element of improvisation comes alive again. Most improv sets tend to be exciting for just one listening, but this way the discovery is allowed to happen time and time again.
Note the difference with minimalism. With minimal music (be it La Monte Young, Steve Reich or or the ultra-minimal techno of Richie Hawtin and Wolfgang Voigt) you tend to fill in the empty parts with your imagination. You amplify not your surroundings, but a single element within the minimal composition, which becomes a focal point. Or, alternately, you switch from one element to another, choosing to single out one sound over another. Returning silence compells you to listen more attentively, it instigates a search for sound in itself.
Ultimately this leads to the realization that silence is a defining part of music. Classical and jazz musicians and people who are into musique concrète or sound art will consider this a truism of course. But like most truisms its significance has long been lost.