BY Harmony Holiday in Opinion | 05 NOV 20

Harmony Holiday on Finding Quietness in a Loud World

From Billie Holiday to Kendrick Lamar, Black music has often created space for rest and repose

BY Harmony Holiday in Opinion | 05 NOV 20

As part of Frieze Sessions, the poets Harmony Holiday and Fred Moten are leading a series of monthly online listening groups in which they share records, writings and ideas. Episode 1: Quietness is available to watch here. Episode 2: Distance takes place on Thursday 19 November.

Hiss approaches hush on sound recordings, where the texture of quiet is captured by machines and reproduced as space and vibe. What we mean by quiet or quietness in music is acquiescence to the sound that’s already there, the act of creating the space to stop and listen, the refusal to be imposed upon by another’s organization of that sound into meaning. Where complete silence can be frigid and mortified, quiet resurrects and builds on murmur, gasp, brush, innuendo: intentional incompletion that holds space for accompaniment but does not require it. Silence is severe; quiet is casual, sometimes a little timid, warm, inviting, it fidgets and teases disruption. Quiet feels stolen and temporary where silence is totalizing.

Roy DeCarava, Edna Smith, 1950
Roy DeCarava, Edna Smith, 1950, photograph. Courtesy: David Zwirner, Hong Kong/London/New York/Paris © The Estate of Roy DeCarava

It’s been so loud lately – as if every rational act is interrupting an endless collective primal scream – that quiet music, and the quietness of deep listening to cushion the doomed silence of the unknown, feels like the only counterspell. Quietness – that aura of rest, repose and privacy – is the secret muse of so much Black music because we’ve grown accustomed to the kind of noise the rest of society is encountering now and we have always used music to blunt it. Sun Ra titled an entire album A Quiet Place in the Universe (1994) and used the album to make that place; Flying Lotus made Until the Quiet Comes (2012); in Larry Young’s song ‘Hello, your quietness’ (1973), his bandmate Tony Williams responds in near whisper with a lyric linking quiet to departure (‘there comes a time to get out of to what’s happening’). The duets between Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane quiet the spirit, Hartman’s deep vocals softening into love ballads so soothing they enter the surreal and let you join them. Miles Davis uses the mute on his trumpet to moan and keel for us, discovering tones so tenuous and impalpable they would disintegrate under any other touch. Billie Holiday writes ‘hush now don’t explain’, forgives us for treating her like a symbol and calling it love; Nina Simone ebbs into the quietness of telling secrets, spreading rumours and naming names on Four Women (1966). Digable Planets are quiet and verbose, extending the low tones of jazz music into hip hop. Mos Def’s ‘Climb’ (1999) is a lullaby – he swoons; you long for nightfall. Amiri Baraka writes ‘I think about a time when I will be relaxed [...] and my songs will be softer and lightly weight the air’; Jill Scott whispers ‘the light of the sun on my back’ over and over, a chant and a promise; Kendrick Lamar’s B-sides on untitled unmastered (2016) are tender bridges between his persona and his true resonance; Gil Scott-Heron announces so softly: ‘It’s winter in America, and ain’t nobody fighting because nobody knows what to save.’


Listening with Fred Moten and Harmony Holiday. Episode 1: Quietness

The deliberate quietness invoked in these musics extends to Black gesture and makes the way the musician moves as audible as the song. Mingus’s fingers vibrate with or without sound; they teach us how to assemble visible and invisible forces, they are tone. Sun Ra spirals like a dervish in his cape somewhere in Egypt and we hear that as song, rhythm, spell. The music that offers quietness stills things just enough to let us see what we’d been ignoring or smudging into one incoherent mess of motion. From this vantage, where we can hear ourselves think again, we reconsider everything. Holiday’s arm, bent like a guillotine while she delivers ‘Strange Fruit’, becomes a missing verse, the body of the singer inseparable from the song, as haunting and quiet as the ghost it redeems. Coltrane’s tone on ‘My One and Only Love’ (1963) matches the wounded sweetness in his eyes; his patient bows in a photograph has become a gif that loops in our minds alongside his sound. Alice Coltrane’s monastic seductiveness when she speaks of John after he’s gone blends into the memory of his song, of his bend, and the way they move is so complimentary that it seems as though he never leaves, that they are in an eternal meditation together. D’Angelo objectifies himself in the ravenous space between notes on the video for ‘(Untitled) How Does It Feel’ (1999). With his oil-slicked skin and perfectly chiseled abdomen he is both an unflinching, statuesque sex symbol and a man so hyper-visible that he almost disappears, repeating his quiet inquiry, ‘How does it feel?’ Quiet music moves us from subdued and pensive to the erotic and back.

Sun Ra and his Sun Ra Archestra perform with a steel sculpture on September 23, 1978
Sun Ra and his Sun Ra Archestra perform with a steel sculpture on September 23, 1978, at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Photograph: Leni Sinclair/Getty Images 

Black music that offers and yields quietness is dangerous because it prepares us for ambush; it works against the idea that there is something else we should be listening to, that there is some bounty in resisting pleasure. Black quietness is our antidote to dread in the realm of the senses: no more tyranny, just space to rehearse and re-hear, to pay a deep attention to the calm we have earned and pursued and become.

Main image: American jazz singer Billie Holiday performing at the Club Downbeat in Manhattan, 1947. Courtesy: Getty images; photograph: William Gottlieb/Redferns

Harmony Holiday is a poet and performer. Her books include Reparations (2020) and A Jazz Funeral for Uncle Tom (2020). Her latest book Maafa will be released later this year.