Patricia Ondek Laurence (1991) in her book The Reading of Silence, writes that the meeting place of silence and sound in Virginia Woolf’s work is rhythm. Woolf writing to the composer Ethel Smythe says, ‘All writing is nothing but putting words on the backs of rhythm. If they fall off the rhythm one’s done’ (1978, p.303). Ondek Laurence defines these rhythmic encounters as a ‘metalanguage’ (1991, p.7) that creates ‘rippling sentences, oscillating themes, alternating structures and flickering visions of reality’ (ibid, p.170). Through rhythm, Woolf creates moments rich in sensation, motion, and thought; imbued with both silence and language.
Ondek Laurence notes how in Woolf’s work, these rhythms are a movement that can cross the boundary of the body. ‘Silence is part of the rhythm […] from the surface events of life to the silent depths of the mind’ (ibid, p.14). Through rhythm these silences are punctuated or delineated; rhythm drawing to the surface of language the silent movement of thought.
Silence and words are not mutually exclusive but continually pass through each other. The articulating of our imagination, our words in the air half made, half realised on the breath as we juggle our thoughts into language – some take flight, some fail. The patterning of words moment to moment permeated with silences, jolts, reappraisals, repetition, interruptions and gaps becomes a heightened ‘metalanguage’ embracing a rhythmic musicality; silence and words counterparts in a movement of conversation between the body and the world.
In the anechoic chamber, John Cage hears the beating of his heart; its rhythm throwing into relief the surrounding silence. The faltering or heightened heart-beat a creative metaphor of how by slowing or accelerating this rhythmic interaction, words can cover over and deny silence, or be used to annotate its presence. Can move closer to silence, move closer to the moment, move closer to stoppage, to death, to life…