Silence… (series: Beauty in Noise, part 2)

…noise life needs it.

by Dave Skipper

You would probably never guess from this blog, but most of the time I prefer silence and solitude to noise music. I spend more of my waking hours in the pursuit of quiet and calm than I do in basking in voluminous textures of grit and distortion. Indeed my writing is birthed in the quiet place of contemplation and thought.

I call silence the secret twin of noise. They belong together and share many similar characteristics. More than that, they need each other. Opposites attract, right?

In both tender silence and engulfing noise:

  • I can focus my thoughts undistracted, or I can let my mind wander and drift anyplace;
  • I can be acutely aware of my senses and my surroundings, or I can escape and rest from the rigours of daily life;
  • I can feel the intensity of existence, or I can float into dreamy space;
  • I can have a heightened sense of the inescapable and penetrating presence of God that precedes and pursued me no matter where I go or what I do

I’ve read about those acoustically-treated chambers that cancel out virtually all sound. Apparently you can hear your own bloodstream and nervous system operating, so absolute silence is unobtainable for the living who can hear. It’s supposed to be a very unnerving and nausea-inducing experience. I’d love to try it out one day (minus the nausea).

Well, there’s always the cosmic vacuum – no-one can hear you scream in space and all that. But the same problem exists there: in order to be alive in a vacuum you need a spacesuit, and it doesn’t get us out our non-silent living bodies.

Thinking about silence naturally leads to thinking about deafness, and I wonder how the experience and interpretation of noise must be so different. Those are some conversations I want to have… Loud noise, not least in the experience of a live noise music gig, is a multi-sensory affair, as the vibrations that permeate the air strike all our nerves and organs without discrimination.

We’re truly wired for sound, even inaudible sound.

One level up from the slippery nothingness of silence would probably be the quiet sounds of nature. You know the drill: a light breeze in the trees, the gentle lapping of waves on the beach, a babbling brook in the forest, the crackle of the fire in the hearth and the contented purr of a cat in the lap.

But nature often and easily, even suddenly, veers into cacophony. Tempests, tremors, and tsunamis. Infernos, tornadoes, and volcanoes. And just think of the hullabaloo of the deepest rainforest, the aural menagerie being the corollary of the bewilderingly diverse inhabitants. The roar of the ocean depths, the roar of thunder on high, and the unheard-by-human-ear roar of distant supernova explosions.

So silence is clearly not be confused/identified with nature and a concomitant escape from urbanisation and industrialisation. Indeed, seeking solace and silence within the confines of the city itself is not only feasible but decidedly necessary for those of us who live there.

On the one hand we can block out the din by finding relatively quiet spaces – parks, small side roads off the main thoroughfares, even retreating into the bathroom at home! Or we drown out the unwanted noise with sounds we select instead, often via headphones and private listening devices. Conquering unwanted noise with wanted noise is certainly one of the functions of noise music in an urban context.

But on the other hand it is also possible to find a different kind of space and silence within the very noise and hubbub of modern city life: that of a quiet mind an inner silence that defies, ignores, or otherwise overcomes the burdensome effects of consistent exposure to noise.

And yet another way, perhaps related to the latter, is to find pleasure and meaning within the very noise that we desire to escape. Finding beauty right within what we might more readily perceive as ugliness. For this we need new ears.

As for me, I love thinking about noise in the spaces inbetween the noise. Then when it’s time to dive back into the noise music (creating with my own equipment, or listening to an album, or going to a noise gig) – BAM! Then the extreme harsh noise punctuates and provides an intense focus and pleasure that isn’t otherwise there.

Thus, noise itself is enhanced by the silence that surrounds it. This silence (or relative quiet) can be before and after the noise (pre- and post-performance or pre- and post-gig) or within the performance/composition itself (as in the style of cut-up harsh noise with its extreme stop/start dynamics).

This contrast even increases the power of the noise. To live in that noise constantly would be fatiguing, dulled, numbing, stressful. As it is, entering back into the noise zone has the effect of awakening from slumber, from numbness, from apathy, from the lull.

It’s like having a good meal. Meals punctuate the day. We cannot eat unceasingly! We need the absence of eating to create the need for and pleasure of eating. No-one would suggest that the value of food is proportional to the time spent eating in comparison to the time spent not eating!

I’ll round off for now with some food for thought from a friend:

Silence does not have to be the absence of noise, but a place where we can hear. In some ways noise music actually allows you to hear – not in the physical but in the spiritual as it creates an absence of any other external noise. You can’t chat or be distracted by others when you are listening to it as it is all-encompassing. But what that allows you to do is to enter your mind. When your mind is quietened then actually noise can be a place where you are quiet enough to be able to hear God.”

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