Silence, Voice, and the Dialogic Scream

Xenia Hanusiak

Described as the ‘High Priestess of Harmony,’ whose writing has ‘enjoyed exceptional public approbation,’ Xenia Hanusiak is a festival director, writer, scholar, opera singer and cultural diplomat. Committed to the exchange of ideas through culture she has contributed to every Australian festival, Aarhus Festival, Banff Festival of Arts, Next Wave Festival, Brooklyn Academy of Music Festival, Kennedy Center, Singapore Arts Festival, Beijing Music Festival, and the MODAFE Festival.  With a PhD in Literature and multiple degrees in music she has held positions at Columbia University, Melbourne University, National University of Singapore, and Beijing University. Her collection of essays and commentaries can be read across the globe from The Australian to The South China Post, The Boston Globe, The New York Times, Music and Literature, The Log Journal and La Scena Musicale. Xenia has held diplomatic postings including most recently as Manager of Cultural Affairs, Australian Consulate (New York).

doi: 10.18278/aia.2.2.19

There is an ephemeral moment in the final act of a Puccini’s La Boehme when neither melody, nor words sound. Instead, a sponge mallet strikes a cymbal. Most of us have never heard this softly spoken, fleeting moment or realize it exists. But with this solitary sweep against a Turkish cymbal Mimi’s death is announced. You will certainly remember this moment because you have felt the agonizing cry of Mimi’s lover that follows it. In The Body in Pain (1987), philosopher Elaine Scarry (1987) argues that physical pain resists language. “It has no voice. When it at last finds a voice, it begins to tell a story.”

In 2015, a photograph of a paramilitary officer cradling the lifeless body of a Syrian toddler reverberated across the globe and saturated news cycles. With this silent frame, the now iconic and unambiguous photograph symbolizing the humanity of the refugee crisis engaged sounds of alarm. In the immediate aftermath multiple pledges of activism from politicians rose in chorus, donations surged in charity bank accounts, and artists including Ai Weiwei augmented the resonance of the image. Twelve months later, with a voice as bracing as a siren, the toddler’s father, Abdullah Kurdi shattered deeper silences. He told The Telegraph “Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it.”

Scarry’s comment helps us to appreciate the inextricable relationship between silence and voice in understanding narratives of pain. Puccini’s scoring of a ghostly note with his cymbal stroke, and the dialogic scream that follows, alerts us to the interval between silence and voice, probing us to consider the weight, length, and amplitude of voice and silence, the dualistic qualities of silence and voice as equal detonators and equal amplifiers, and their respective capabilities to blind and to enlighten.

Voice and silence are the tools of composers across cultures and epochs. Through their craft they remind us that silence is not sound’s passive partner, and that voices bring harmony and dissonance at the discretion of its creator. The composer John Cage reminds us of sound’s corporeality through his defining work “4’33””. By considering these aesthetic values we may be able to reflect and recalibrate silence and voice in our narrations of the painful injustices and inequities that permeate our times in media cycles. Do the sounds of our narrative seek to soothe, startle, console, activate, or alarm? What happens to sound when it scales to the heights of pernicious noise? We no longer listen. The saturation point no longer affirms the message but liquidates its power, resulting in a spectacle of representation in which we cannot participate. The effectiveness of each narrative moment is dependent on our understanding that sound and silence occupy equal status on the acoustic plane, and if the sound echoes or remains in a chamber.


Scarry, Elaine. (1987) The Body in Pain. New York: Oxford University Press.