Working Knowledge: Creating Space Between The Notes Or, Subtractive Epistemology


It may be a bit of a cliché in music to talk about the space between the notes, but it’s a cliché for good reasons and with good intentions.

The space between the notes is where the time of the music is most perceptible. In drumming, for instance, the space between two stick attacks on a cymbal or two hand strokes on a drum can tell you all you need know about the musician’s sense of time. A flurry of notes—cue the drum fill!—can impress, but what reveals time is the space between the onsets of two consecutive sounds.

Can one learn to leave space between notes? I think yes, but this depends on one’s willingness (not ability) to listen to the space to hear what it brings. It helps to have a reason to leave space in the first place. Like clarity. Just give me some space man! I need time to think, so goes the old saying that interweaves space and time.

I’ve been thinking about space recently as I’ve been editing some new music. As it happens, the music does have space in it, in part because its tempo is slow, but editing it has been a lesson in amplifying this already present space. The editing process began with the usual deletion of an accidental note doubling or busy passage here and there to allow what is there and here to be heard more. Standard stuff as far as that goes. But then a last-minute sound substitution (my original sound was buzzing too much) led to its upper register notes sounding thin. So I began deleting these notes (because there was no other way to fix them) and realized to my surprise that the more I took out, the more everything else sounded better. So I kept going. I noticed an unnecessary reverb over here and deleted it. I noticed an unnecessary track doubling over there and deleted that. As Nassim Taleb observes in Antifragile, subtractive knowledge means that “we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right.” Knowledge, he says, “grows by subtraction much more than by addition” (303).

Anyway, I learned something through the process of taking away stuff to create more space in the music. I learned that I was more interested in how the empty spaces were resonating than with any actual silence they might contain. In the empty spaces I heard little traces of the sounds that preceded them—sounds like disembodied chords without attacks, just sustains and releases, vapors and tails without statements and bodies. It occurred to me that this is one of the challenges with composing for the sounds of percussion instruments: often the fact of their sounds being so sharp and fleeting (e.g. a cymbal crash) causes us to miss what the space of the music sounds like in the wake of these sounds. The space between the notes is interesting because it’s the just after part where you have a split second to recall what just happened and anticipate what might yet arrive.

Maybe this is why I keep slowing down the tempo of my music and why editing has become a way to create even more space.

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