The Sounds of Silence

I’ve been thinking about different kinds of silence lately. A few weeks ago I was on the phone, telling somebody something I found difficult to say. Even though there was a lot of noise around me, suddenly I was acutely aware only of the silence on the other end of the line, and me throwing words into that abyss.

Silence seems like such a simple concept on the face of it. Just an absence of noise. But what kind of noise? Sometimes by silence we refer to an absence of voices, or an absence of traffic noise, or just an absence of a noise that may have been particularly trying to us for a long or short period of time. For example if you’re listening to a song you particularly dislike, and when it stops you feel a sudden surge of relief at that silence, the absence of that particular sound.

When it comes to conversations with people, there are so many types of silence. It might be awkward, or loving, or so full of tension it seems deafening. Of course, on the phone, there’s also the silence that means you’ve been cut off and you really have been throwing noise into nowhere for the last few minutes. But most of the time we can feel something in a silence. We try to gauge people’s feelings through the lengths of their silences, the quality of that silence. Sometimes we are wrong, but silences are surprisingly easy to interpret. We wait or we break the silence, depending on how sure we are of what it means, and how much nerve we have to sit and listen to it. Silences are so important.

This got me thinking about other silences, including very brief, even momentary silences in poems or songs. In poetry, a break, or caesura to give it its fancy name, changes the flow and feel of a poem or gives the reader and the listener a moment to reflect on the words that have just come before. Sometimes it can be where we would naturally take a breath when reading aloud, but often it serves to isolate a particular thought, and give it extra emphasis. In songs, breaks in the music can mark the end of a phrase, but, particularly when you’re dancing to music, breaks and pauses and silences can be full of feeling. There’s a great satisfaction to anticipating a break and stopping dead for it, but also in continuing to move in a certain way into that silence. When the silence ends the music may have changed. The silences mean as much as the sounds.

I’m sure you’ll all remember John Cage’s 4’33”, a piece of music that consisted only of silence. It is a strange concept, and many people thought it was just ludicrous. How can we say it is a composition or a performance when it’s just nothing for four and a half minutes? We are so uncomfortable with concentrated silence in modern Western culture – perhaps in Eastern culture too, I’m not really sure – maybe less so. It is so rare to sit and consciously not do anything, especially now when we all have smartphones and tablets readily to hand, not to mention books and music players. I can imagine the silence in those concert halls being full of tension, confusion, antagonism, but perhaps for a few, a deep and peaceful quiet.

When we’re with others we expect there to be sound. Everybody pities the couple sitting in a restaurant who aren’t speaking to each other. But who knows what kind of silence they’re sharing? It could be bored, distrustful, resentful, panicky, tired, restless, or apathetic – take a moment to think about how each of those silences would feel. But it might also be comfortable, content, smouldering, happy, teasing, sleepy, or peaceful. One of my favourite quotes of all time is from Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction: “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody really special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute, and comfortably share a silence.” But it’s so rare. People are usually more comfortable with noise when they are around others, feeling that they should be interacting and saying something.

The exception to this is when we are surrounded by strangers. Then only silence, a particular type of silence, will do. This is a silence characterised by noise spilling out of earphones, and keypad tones, and muttered expletives when people get in our way. People on tubes and trains keep their silence, even if in this case silence just means no speech, unless it’s between people who already knew each other. But, thinking about it, even with this broad definition of silence, the individual people are rarely sitting in total quiet and peace. In their heads, there is noise from the music they are listening to, or the videos they are watching. Or if they are reading, their minds are full of the voices they are giving each character, and the pictures and places that are being conjured up by those silent pages. I used to experience a total silence toward the outer world when reading – I would be completely deaf if I was really involved in a book. I didn’t hear people calling my name or telling me dinner was ready or that it was my turn to read aloud to the teacher. It was a gorgeous self-imposed deafness. I am, sadly, less good at creating that silence outside my own head now. It is something I am working to reclaim, and not just when I’m reading. I’m working on sitting in a crowded place, or an empty place, and doing nothing. Just sitting and being, and ignoring any noises around me that I don’t find interesting.

In the wider world, there are many other different qualities and types of silence. I’ve been living in London for almost ten years, and a lot of the time it’s very loud. Constant traffic, chatter, sirens, and building work. But I’ve noticed that every now and again, and not that infrequently, the noise stops. I’ll be walking along a street in central London and just for a few seconds the noise dies away. There’s a brief but full and peaceful silence, like somebody pressed pause. Then a car engine will rev and the silence is over.

I love those small and gentle silences. But the quality of them is so different to silences in the country. There silence is the norm, just trees and the wind and sometimes the odd bit of traffic. It’s absolutely lovely in many ways, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I find it harder to sleep there now because of this almost total silence. I have become used to the buses moving past my window at regular intervals through the night, and to falling asleep to the sound of traffic. If I wake up when it’s dark I can guess the time by the sounds of the cars. Sometimes at times when you think that silence would be preferable to noise, silences are, again, less comfortable. For people who suffer from insomnia, silence can be much more difficult to rest against than some kind of noise. I personally think there is no silence more lonely or that inspires more desperation than the silence of those around you sleeping. Even if, technically, it is not silence because you can hear their breathing, I would call that a silence and it can be a very difficult silence. There is so much to be felt in that silence – all the rest and quiet we are missing, because we cannot fall asleep.

Moving from these silences, I thought about the invisible and private silences inside ourselves. Silences can be easy to stay inside, if speaking will cause discomfort or irritation or danger to ourselves. Then many people will stay silent. Other times silences are difficult to keep, but are kept because they serve a better purpose than speaking. The example of this that has affected me most recently is from the book To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron, about his journey to the sacred mountain, Mount Kailas. In the book Thubron also tells stories about his family. His father shot several wild animals when he was in India, and he kept the hides and taxidermied remains in their family home. His mother never liked them, but was deeply conscious of the complex emotions her husband had towards them. He was proud of them, but at the time that he shot the animals he was also afraid, and uncomfortable, and overcoming those emotions to bring the animals home had enormous importance in the view he had of himself. Despite the discomfort they gave her, his mother never said anything about the animals. She knew that voicing her displeasure would cause great disquiet to her husband, so out of her love for him she kept her silence. I think there’s an important lesson here, in an age when we feel we always must have the right to be comfortable and to have our voice and opinion heard, either in the wider social cause, or in this concept of “keeping things in” being unhealthy to ourselves. Of course most of the time speaking out is very important, and staying silent about things that are unjust or wrong is not something we should maintain. But, in smaller ways, we should sometimes consider the impact that speaking or acting will have on everyone else. On some occasions, keeping your silence might serve better than making noise for the sake of making noise.

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