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Organising for Edgeless Silence

September 2, 2014

‘How do you think it’s going?’

I asked my friend in between sets at a late night Fitzroy gig years ago. He leaned over his guitar with a thoughtful look on his face.

‘Hmmm, it’s like we’re leaving a lot of space, but we’re not playing the space’.

It’s an expression that might sound odd in another context, but I knew exactly what he meant. I’ve been thinking recently about what I learned concerning creative work in groups and principles of organisation from my time studying and working as a jazz musician.

There’s much to be said – in fact much has been written – about musical metaphors for organisation. Rather than attempt to cram multiple ideas into this post, I want to focus on just one (or two).

Silence and Space.

It took me a long time to actually hear the space in (my) music. To realise that the notes only exist because of the silences in between them. But there are different kinds of ‘silences’. There are silences that are still busy, cluttered with concerns or crowded with uncertainty. Silences that full with questions – should I play-do-say something now or wait? Happenstance silences that are unconscious spaces in between activity.

Then there are beautiful silences. Silences and spaces that are full of awareness. Silences that are as consciously played as the audible notes. It’s the quality of listening to these silences – whether audience or performer – that shapes the music.

There’s also centred silence. Stillness that become a womb, nurturing action and movement for its appropriate time.

When we create models, we often ignore the silences, the spaces in between our scribbles.

When I read music on a page, my attention gets absorbed in the notes and I often forget the spaces, at least until I know the music so well that I can find them again.

When I work with organisations, most of the attention gets absorbed on the boxes and arrows, not the empty spaces in between. But the empty spaces give life to the boxes, become the silent context for the action to take place. If we look and listen close enough, the coloured dots and sounds themselves are made up of empty space, edgeless stretches between the contours of pixels and sound waves.   

spaces in betweenWhen Miles Davis died, Keith Jarrett wrote a tribute article in the New York Times*.

“Try to imagine the first musician. He was not playing for an audience, or a market, or working on his next recording, or touring with his show, or working on his image. He was playing out of need, out of his need for the music. The original musician was not looking for his image; he was using his voice to learn about the world. He knew the world to be liquid (i.e., not made up of discrete entities). Whatever noise was around him, Miles still played from that need, his sound coming from that silence, the vast liquid, edgeless silence that existed before the first musician played the first note. We need this silence, because that’s where the music is.”

I read this book about 14 years now and this passage has stayed with me since. I know what playing the space is like with music. I can’t always do it, but I’ve experienced and I see great musicians playing it effortlessly. I wonder what playing the space between the boxes and arrows looks like in other work, in organisations.

My friend and colleague Neil Houghton reminded me yesterday of John Cage’s revolutionary work, 4’33. I remembered a story from school, that Cage became so fascinated with the possibility of absolute silence that he visited an echoless sound absorbing studio at Harvard University. But he found that even here, he could hear two sounds, the low pulsing of his blood circulation and a high hum of his nervous system. It inspired me to revisit the context and inspiration in which Cage wrote it and I came across this line:

The realisation as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33’.

Cage discovered that absolute (living) silence is impossible illusion, a kind of Zeno’s paradox.

The emptiness is always full as much as the fullness always empty. 

What would playing the spaces look like in your work and life?



*Quoted in Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner


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