In Pursuit of Silence

In response to viewing a trailer for the film, In Pursuit of Silence

There are reasons to be concerned even before this film reaches release.

Silence is appropriated as a quasi religious, political, ecological and environmental value – something that is possible only on account of silence being something that is impossible for a human to experience. Contemplating the impossible and dragging out associative meanings and questionable ethical gravitas is a declaration of faith and belief. Faith tends to come with an attendant manifesto for change, and here, the manifesto seems to be concerned with a dystopian view of urban life rather than anything specifically to do with the qualities of sound, music and silence.

Technology, in general, is blithely associated with noise, and much is made of the extreme situation of living, working and learning in the direct flightpath of an international airport.

Before the advent of recording, sound had no transportable means of replicating itself for transmission out of its own time. Prior to recording there is only the written word to offer any indication of our relationship to music, sound and noise. A century of recording still offers only a contained and curtailed representation of sound. Captured in increasingly high detail but with playback restricted to variations of loudspeaker; from ear but to stadium PA the model remains relatively fixed. And, for example, you could playback a recording of a road drill through some such system, but is it ever going to be as physically tangible, as visceral as the real thing. 

We simply have little way of knowing how loud the past was in comparison to our own times, but it can be reasonably clearly asserted that noise is not a new problem for urban centres. Julius Caesar banned horse drawn carts during the hours of daylight to curb the excessive noise, and in the late nineteenth century the newly invented mass production automobile was welcomed as a solution to the increasingly acute problem of noise associated with horses. We can, with imagination, grope at the sound of thousands of gridlocked horse and cart combos, each with iron shoes and iron trimmed wheels scraping and hammering on cobbled streets. There is plenty documentation that shows this harsh metallic hammering was held responsible for nervous disorders among 19th century urbanites. This is in addition to the problems of manure, of which there was a lot, and the daily problem of fallen horses being shot where they lay, or abandoned to die, clogging up filthy thoroughfares whilst specially equipped carts could fight their way through to take the dead or stricken animals away.

To live in the flight path of an airport must, for the majority of those affected, be stressful, tiring and psychologically wearing. Yet, the distant sound of a plane, unseen in a blue sky, or drawing a thin, white line of vapour from one horizon to the other, is a languorous sound, a sound mark of summer, and a pleasure to hear. Similarly, the sounds of  a city – at night, in particular, can be lyrical. Thats not to deny that breaking glass, fire alarms, screaming underground brakes. sirens, car horns and fighting drunks are not abhorrent, but these sounds and events consonant with millions of people functioning in close proximity with one another. It is not merely the technology and the age that makes it so. These complex environments give us birdsong at dawn and dusk, the curious defining of space as the drone of traffic (the same the world over) comes to the ear across the far green spaces of city parks. The distant grinding of refuse collection late at night, flooding its way through reverberant lanes, those tender moments when for no good reason everything seems to stop transmitting noise and one finds oneself standing in the middle of a crowded street marvelling at the sudden stillness – the freak break in the constant traffic, the sound of your own footsteps on a late walk home, wondering about the dreaming going on behind those black windows. That will come as little comfort, of course, to those wrapped up in the melting pots of overcrowded urban centres, gasping in the poor air and wincing under the myriad screamings of children, vehicles and industry.

The Canadian composer, writer and environmentalist R. Murray Schaffer coined the term soundscape and immediately had it align with the emerging field of acoustic ecology, and the associated noise pollution. The activity was, and remains largely opposed to the urban experience, but has become increasingly holistic in its methods, drawing much more on the subjective experience of noise and its emotional and psychological impact on individuals and the consequent spin out to broader cultural concerns, than merely taking decibel measurements.

The urban experience can be exhausting and unhealthy. So too can the rural experience, but an art form and associated politicisation has yet to appear to capture and represent that. Condemning urbanity on account of noise pollution and proposing a solution built on nostalgia, misrepresentation of technology and an idealised view of still, silent, rural respite, with attendant whispering grasses and birdsong, is a fantasy.

What if we tried to tune our environments rather than focussing on negating or crushing sound? Both Cage and Stockhausen proposed techniques for tuning and harmonising domestic appliances. If acoustic design crossed further into the physical environment, and Volkswagen took their door sound to the next logical level, we might look forward to harmonic resonance in traffic, kitchens designed to a scale of your choice, who knows what we might discover if only we tuned our listening more proactively to our environments? Deep Listening walks have been used in sound art workshops for a number of years. Lets get that activity into primary school. 

Here’s another fiction. Another possible world. In this world mobile phones accept that they are right by your chest and don’t have to make vulgar noises to command attention. They make small sounds of distant bells, our children’s laughter, bird song and water. A social network evolves for ringtones comprising fragmented elements of melody. In urban environments where multiple devices ring at the same time new unexpected tunes and harmonies arise. Users look at each other and smile as it appears their devices are in harmony. “Whats your name?”

Accepting our continued impulse to converge in centres and gather in our millions and manufacture resource on an ever growing scale effectively rules out any possibility of constraining or scaling back urbanity as being a proposal for good aural, acoustic health. The application of imagination and adventure might help some, as would adopting the guerrilla tactics of the resistance. 

Some further fictions.

Here is an underground Japanese water feature. Water drips from bamboo pipes into a bowl. You have to stand very close to hear it. It is beautiful. It exists in a vacant lot in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (Manhattan, incidentally, is a beautiful sounding city) The vacant lot has been occupied by guerrilla gardeners. Here is a man on his knees on the pavement. his ear turned to the grille leading down to subway air shafts. He is both comforted and transported by the low drone that evolves into shrieking brakes and an accompanying upwards rush of warm and fetid air. It nourishes him. Here is a man stock still before the roadworks. The pneumatic drill shakes his soul and forces tears to spring from his eyes. The sound fills him and ravages him and echoes the feeling of abandonment he feels in his core. The road drill leads him to his melancholy.