The Sound of Silence

Mountains, Water, Deep Affection 

I have watched 'Feelings of Mountains and Waters' many times since it was first released in 1988 and I watched it again today, and it is indeed a masterpiece. It is a work that speaks to me on so many levels, a work that captures both the extraordinary beauty of the visual and the aural, a work that engages the heart and soul. 

 The conventional rendering of the title in English is 'Feelings of Mountains and Waters.''Feelings' might be better translated as 'love' or 'deep attachment,' rather than simply 'feelings.' 'Water' could refer to lakes, rivers, a waterfall, a brook. The word for landscape in Chinese is literally 'mountain(s)  and water.' So we could say: 'A Deep Attachment for Mountains and Rivers,' or 'A Love for Chinese Landscapes,' or 'An Affection for Mountains and Water.'

 We could also say: 'A Deep Affection For What Can Be Discovered in Mountains and Water.' Such a title conjures up a vision of what we can discover when we 'read' a scroll landscape painting: a mountain hidden in the mist, a recluse disappearing into the clouds, an old man playing the seven-stringed qin zither or a little boat carrying a hermit to a riverbank through a narrow gorge.

This short animation brilliantly melds the brush, ink and paper of landscape painting with music. There are the natural soundscapes of water, wind and rain, now and then the swoop of a bird, a harsh wind stirs, the wind dies down, all is still again. The boy blows a reed calling out into an infinite space, into a great vastness. When I heard the first three pitches of the reed a whole expanse of space began to open up within me. 

The reed is actually a sheng, a free reed instrument made up of a number vertical pipes with a long curved mouthpiece. 

The performance space of the scholar-recluse and the qin is an iconic motif found in Chinese landscape paintings. Here the space is a qin master and his newly-acquainted student. The qin master instructs and the boy imitates.

 To practice a musical instrument in Chinese is called lianqin (练琴). Practicing is also called 'practicing love or affection' (lianqing, 练情). The student who practices for hours a day gradually develops a relationship with the instrument, a bond that can grow deeper with practice. The boy practices and at the same time, an affection for his teacher also deepens. 

No words are exchanged between the qin master and the boy. Within the silences a whole new world is revealed, the silence that announces the encounter of a qin master who falls ill and a boy from a nearby fishing village who looks after him, the silence that the qin master and the boy are predestined to meet, succinctly expressed in a Chinese saying: 'Though born a thousand li apart, souls which are one shall meet,' the silence of parting, and the silence when you remember those you met or loved.

'The roots of our English term ‘silence,' writes George Prochnik in Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (2011):

sink down through the language in multiple directions. Among the word’s antecedents is the Gothic verb anasilan, a word that denotes the wind dying down, and the Latin desinere, a word meaning ‘stop.’ Both of these etymologies suggest the way that silence is bound up with the idea of interrupted action. The pursuit of silence, likewise, is dissimilar from most other pursuits in that it generally begins with a surrender of the chase, the abandonment of efforts to impose our will and vision on the world. Not only is it about standing still; with rare exceptions, the pursuit of silence seems initially to involve a step backward from the tussle of life… [I]t’s as though, as a culture, we’ve learned to ‘mind the gaps’ so well that they’ve all but disappeared.

In this 'ink and wash animation,' we are witness to a silence that speaks of a shared affinity, of deep affection. If we expressed it in words, its beauty would be gone. It is the same silence that permeates the entire canvas of this work: the trees, the birds, the fish, the mountains, the sky, the qin master and the boy.

The greatness of this work lies in the silences. Through silence alone we discover all kinds of hidden treasures among the mountains and rivers, and as these treasures and gifts are revealed to us, an affection, a love, a longing grows.

If I should ever cease to be wonderstruck by the magic of mountains and rivers, I should declare myself dead.


*You can access the animation from youtube typing: Feelings of Mountains and Waters.

©Peter Micic


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