The stimulus of silence
In an endless symphony with no pauses, our noise-filled days obliterate the
real shape of life
Monday May 1, 2006
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