Silence Is Golden

Silence Is Golden


Earlier this week a hugely interesting article entitled 10 Things You Didn’t Know About Sound was being passed around the internet. It is a TED talk by Julian Treasure, which discusses how sound affects our lives and our health. It addresses both the ideas that sound can hurt and sound can heal. Unfortunately we can’t always control all of the sounds in our lives, but we can take steps to minimize potential damage. I definitely believe that the sounds that we encounter on a daily basis are just as important to our physical and mental well-being as the food we eat and the air that we breathe.

Particularly interesting in Treasure’s talk is the concept of “Schizophonia”, a state in which what one hears and what one sees are unrelated. A good example of this is the act of walking down the street listening to music through earphones. Treasure also brings up the idea that compressed music makes you tired. As much as I love my iTunes and being able to have my favorite music close at hand, I do hope that more research will be made into this phenomenon. I have come to think that it is absolutely possible to have “tired ears.” During my past life as an audio engineer for public radio, I spent hours upon hours recording and mixing sound—often having to actively listen to multiple streams of audio at once. Although a lot of that was really fun, when I was finished for the day I could not bear to listen to music, watch television, or talk on the phone. I came to recognize the sensation that my ears were getting tired as a funny sort of tightness in my ears—sort of like eardrums “cringing” to get away from the onslaught of noise. If I kept going and plowed through that feeling I would end up physically tired and mightily cranky. One of my colleagues used to walk around all the time wearing earbuds, and when I asked him how he could manage it with all the sonic overload from the studios, he said, “Oh! I’m actually not listening to anything—I just wear them like earplugs, to minimize the noise, and so no one will talk to me!” So now when that tightness happens, I turn off the music or whatever I’m listening to and give myself the gift of silence.

Since that article linked above on sound and health was sent to me via Pauline Oliveros, who is, as far as I’m concerned, The Guardian Angel of All Things Sound-Related, I will wrap up this post with my favorite musical question of all time, asked by Pauline at one of her Deep Listening retreats years ago:

“If you could be the silence between any two sounds, what sounds would you be between?”

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9 thoughts on “Silence Is Golden

  1. Chris Becker

    I would tell (or maybe remind) Pauline that there is no such thing as silence. Even a silent musician has a heart beating, breath going in and coming out their nose, and blood moving in the veins.

    But what happens in music – especially improvised music (but also composed music) – when a musician is “silent” is always quite musical.

  2. davidwolfson

    I suppose it’s just a matter of definition, Chris, but I disagree with the idea that there’s no such thing as silence; it’s just that silence isn’t empty. Just as the vacuum turned out to be a seething stew of virtual particles, so silence turns out to be the noises you hear when the music stops playing.

    Next year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of John Cage’s book Silence, by the way. Are we celebrating?

    David Wolfson

  3. Frank J. Oteri

    I’m actually not listening to anything—I just wear them like earplugs, to minimize the noise, and so no one will talk to me!

    This, in a nutshell, crystallizes why I am unable to be a fan of a device like the iPod (and, back in the day, the Walkman).

  4. Chris Becker

    @David – You know, the thing that has bugged me about Pauline’s music and “deep listening” in general is that it’s its own genre of quiet. Everyone is “listening” deeply or whatever (as opposed to what exactly – Charlie Parker? Did he listen deeply?) but no one screams, varies the dynamics, or solos.

    I’m generalizing as I’ve seen some pretty “out” pieces by Pauline and heard other works that are more dynamic than I expected. But I guess my issue is that silence isn’t about us all being quiet and not rocking the boat. It can be incredibly intense if used musically.

  5. mclaren

    …You might want to take a listen to Pauline’s CD Deep Listening. Lotsa dynamic variations there. Huge dramatic crescendoes in that vast echoing underground Warden Cistern, then enormous reverberant tailoffs into velvety silence. Amazing piece of work. Gloriously eloquent silence on that CD. Really, check it off. You might change your opinion of Pauline’s music.

  6. Alexandra Gardner

    @Chris – Deep Listening is a philosophy and practice developed by Pauline, which she uses in her own work and teaches to willing others. It addresses silence, screams, and all of the volume levels in between and beyond. It has nothing whatsoever to do with rocking or not rocking boats.

    @mclaren – that is a great recording, thanks for mentioning it!

    @Joelle – thank you!!! :)

  7. Chris Becker

    @Mclaren – The recording you cite is the first recording of many that I’ve listened to by Pauline. I’ve also seen her in concert many times in NYC – including an event where she took over all of Low Library at Columbia University. I’m also friends with members of her ensemble and people involved in Nameless Sound down here in Houston.

    I’m just wondering what exactly did Pauline come up with that hadn’t been in place before? And when the results of “deep listening” start to sound more like a genre than any level of “awareness” or God forbid personality and character (maybe that’s a goal – I’m not sure…) I do get bored.

    I do like the recording she made awhile ago with a student ensemble of accordion players. I love the interview she did with Robert Ashley for his video series where while answering his questions she’s stripped and then dressed, gets her nails painted, and make up applied by a strange costumed woman who ignores the formality of the Q&A.

    And Nameless Sound is a wonderful organization that deserves all of the props it can get.

    Maybe we have the freedom to jump off the deep listening boat taking what we found was valuable and leaving behind what feels restrictive?

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