09/06/2006 4 min #1197

The stimulus of silence

The stimulus of silence

In an endless symphony with no pauses, our noise-filled days obliterate the

real shape of life

Philippa Ibbotson

Monday May 1, 2006

The Guardian


In our crowded world, silence often seems hard to come by. Suspicious of any

reflective space that threatens to penetrate those stiff upper lips, we

prefer to rush headlong through our days with multiple distractions. Instant

fixes are seized upon for emotional malaise - sticking-plaster remedies and

diagnoses that allow us to dose the offending parts without pause or

self-involvement. We leap to fill gaps in conversation like societal

plumbers whose primary function is to plug inter-communicational holes.

Silence, however, is indispensable - interdependent with sound. It is the

stopping and starting, the push and pull that holds our ear in music, the

pulse and flux that keep us listening. A silence is interesting, if nothing

else, for what comes afterwards. It can resonate with suspense, throb with

grief, hum with tranquillity. Whatever ends and preludes a silence assumes a

form, and without form we have no perspective. And just as allowing notes to

stray through the rests can smudge and confuse phrasing, our noise-filled

days can obliterate the meaning and the shape of life.

There is, of course, no such thing as absolute silence, but sound levels

below 20 decibels - deemed quiet or silent - are nowadays becoming a rarity.

Suddenly, within the space of one small century, the volume knob on the

world has been turned up full blast. Traffic, machines, phones - there

exists an endless variety of ways in which we can, and do, make noise.

Despite such dramatic increase, noise level is one of the least remarked

upon environmental changes. Is it for this that we so volubly complain - despite the toughness of our antecedents' lives - of our modern scourge of

stress, with life's belting pace and constant noise? So that the words of WH

Davies seem horribly prescient: "What is this life if, full of care, We have

no time to stand and stare?"

Rather, we have developed greater powers to create sound as armoury,

shielding us both from ourselves and from the effort of listening to others.

Living an endless symphony with neither pauses nor rests, our developmental

relationship with time must surely suffer. Perhaps too, without the power of

silence as a stimulus, more and more of us will be tempted to turn instead

to chemicals for our inspiration.

As the noise increases in pursuit of unattainable goals of "progress", do we

not run the risk of drowning out warning signs, like negligent ear-plugged

parents? A government that recently refused to enforce a 70mph speed limit,

despite the knowledge that it would substantially reduce carbon emissions

is, coincidentally, one whose own inner peace seems rather challenged.

Our reluctance to experience silence leaves us vulnerable. What allowance,

otherwise, is made for our own dark matter - those voids of uncertainty that

constitute much of the universe? And what time is given to our innermost

thoughts and feelings, the stuff by which creativity and fulfilment is borne

and emotional equilibrium restored?

It would of course be ridiculous to denigrate all noise as bad. Music and

sound are as essential to our lives as colour and vision. To outlaw music,

as do certain religious extremists, is to outlaw self-expression - some

would say with disastrous consequences.

The answer, as always, must lie in finding more of a balance. Most of us

want sound rather than noise, choice and quality in our listening rather

than assault - sufficient environmental peace, above all, for each of us,

not just the moneyed minority becoming enlightened in cotton-wool cloisters.

So perhaps we should begin to pay silence the respect it is long overdue. If

nothing else, it could give us some much needed space in this ever-shrinking

world. And the music might well sound better for it. ·Philippa Ibbotson is a

freelance violinist