Caught Unawares


Sometimes a new shift in our apprehension of the world can come in a manner that tips up all expectations in the most surprising, sometimes almost ridiculous way. The disruption to the pathway of our thoughts can act as a clearing jolt – like wiping the whiteboard and making room for something new to be written. As I get older, I welcome this process because whether joyous or painful, I know it will either deepen or stretch or redirect me, and always, always expand my inner space.

This time, it ‘happened unawares’ at a musical performance. I went with a dear friend to hear the Adelaide Chamber Singers at St Peter’s Cathedral, late at night, during the Festival of Arts. It was the second session of the Bach Motets.

I did not research what we were to hear, just skimmed the translation in the program notes, and chose to close my eyes and let the music wash over me. The polyphony was exquisite. The parts rose, fell away, turned and wove, refined and repeated into a richness of emotion that insisted on a human response. This was what I came for: the music dreamed so long ago in the mind of a human person, who seemed almost to be present. He was still revealing himself to us through his work.

Unlike a work of art created in a physically permanent medium, two hundred years later this music required people to read its message, to learn and befriend it and to release it again into the air of the night. What a gift for us! What a risk composers take to create and set down their music, never knowing if it will be heard, or who will listen, or how they will experience it.

There was a point of summation, when all the sounds and tapestries lifted to a whole in one instant and hung in the cathedral light. I felt as if I was breathing it in, all of it at once, and my heart hardly knew how to hold it…and oh, then I can hardly tell you the perfection of what the composer did next. He put in a rest.

Just one bar’s rest.

The music was still breathing itself into us when the rest bar began, and the sound faded gently away exactly to the point of silence . The conductor – so intimately aligned to the work – allowed the merest glimpse of what it is to stop, that emptiness of any sound. The meaning of all the singing, its layered joy, pain, life and searching, was found in the rest.

I wanted to shout ‘Yes!’ but it was all I could do to breathe, and to recognize without words that this was the sense of all my life, all our lives, what it is all about.

The music flowed on after that one bar’s rest, and the tears slid down my face, but there were no words at all.

I went to hear the music. I was found by the rest.


About Pauline Small

After a long and varied career in teaching, I am now able to pursue my other love - writing as a form of exploring the depths of life's experiences. I live in South Australia, in an ordinary house in an ordinary suburban street, which is where the extraordinary happens every day.
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2 Responses to Caught Unawares

  1. Glorious rest! The sound of space. Thanks for this beautiful reflection, Pauline.

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  2. This is such a lovely piece of writing, Pauline. You catch the moment so well: the way that sound can make the silence become more, or perhaps it’s the other way around. Your replies to my post nudged me, after a busy weekend, to post the response I’d been thinking of. Just after I read your piece I read this letter by Helen Keller, responding to Beethoven. Not exactly the same as yours, but so much akin, I thought you might like it:
    http://www.lettersofnote.com/2014/03/my-heart-almost-stood-still.html

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