While Impermanence is Peter Silberman's first solo album, it could easily be thought of as a continuation of the emotional-spiritual odyssey begun through his work in The Antlers over the past decade. It travels some of the thornier terrain of the trio's previous albums Hospice, Burst Apart, and Familiars, while carrying the conversation further down the path.
But much of what distinguishes Impermanence from its forebears can be attributed to an unexpected injury, which imposed upon the musician considerable time and space to ponder the finite.
A few years back, Silberman developed a hearing impairment in his left ear that resulted in a temporarily total hearing loss, extraordinarily loud tinnitus, and an excruciating sensitivity to everyday noises. The condition required extensive rest and quiet, and in order to get that, he left his Brooklyn apartment for a more secluded setting in upstate New York.
Though the first manifestation of his condition wasn’t deep silence, but a constant static. “Years of playing loud shows had me familiar with the high-pitched whine of tinnitus, but this was more like a Niagara Falls in my head,” explains Silberman. “When the brain isn’t correctly receiving and interpreting signals, it seems to produce its own placeholder sound. It’s as if the careful organisation of sonic elements becomes jumbled and disordered.”
“Once silence ceased to be available to me, I came to think of it as the luxury of well-calibrated perception. We mistakenly perceive it as nothing, but it’s a precious, profound entity. It became obvious to me why many prayers are silent, performed in immaculately quiet spaces.”
“For those several weeks, I was so sensitive to my own voice that I couldn’t talk or sing. I had to consider my life without music, to accept the loss of what was central to my being,” says Silberman. “It became painfully clear that I needed to turn the volume down, and I began to consider how I might continue to perform without doing further damage to my hearing.”
“As the sensitivity began to subside, I gradually re-introduced sound into my world, gently playing nylon-string acoustic guitar and whisper-singing. This once-solid element had become so fragile and tenuous, and I began to suspect that nothing was quite as stable as I’d believed it to be.”
“I’d come across the notion of impermanence through a number of authors – Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chödrön, and Chögyam Trungpa – but it wasn’t until this experience that the idea resonated strongly, and felt so widely applicable,” he explains.
“Writing Impermanence became my effort to meditate on what had happened, and grasp what it had taught me: about my mortality, compassion, and change.”
Over the course of a few months, songs emerged from the deep quiet – “Karuna”, “New York”, “Gone Beyond”, “Maya”, “Ahimsa”, and “Impermanence” – each sparse, and minimal, like scraps of Tibetan prayer flags. The musician was scrupulous about only saying what needed to be said.
“I wanted to avoid crowding the central message with high-density lyrics. Instead, the songs are anchored by simple mantras, leaving room for contemplation,” explains Silberman. The six songs have an economy of expression, the spaces between the words as important as the words themselves. Like the infamous Miles Davis quote: “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”
As the writing neared completion, Silberman linked up with his long-time friend and collaborator, Nicholas Principe of Port St. Willow. Over the course of a few winter months, Principe engineered the album in his upstate People Teeth studio, contributing production throughout. Together, they carved out a sacred sonic space, elongating the distance between notes, between chords, utilising minimal arrangements to allow breathing room.
But the album goes beyond experiments in ambience. It actually traces the stages of healing, as Silberman experienced them.
“The sequence charts a circular course between distress and peace,” he explains. “The final track returns you to the mood of the first by a wormhole through a single breath, split in half across the last and first seconds of the album. It mimics the cyclical nature of facing unexpected obstacles.”
“I hope Impermanence can provide comfort to people grappling with transition, while remaining honest about it. There’s no remedy for the unpredictable, and I want this record to reflect that, to offer an alternative way to think about changing circumstances.”