Lunar Refractions: “Our Biggest Competitor is Silence”

I really wish I had the name of the Muzak marketer who provided this quote as it appeared in the 10 April issue of the New Yorker magazine. Silence is one of my dearest, rarest, companions, and this marketer unexpectedly emphasized its power by crediting it as the corporation’s chief competitor—no small role for such a subtle thing.

My initial, instinctual, and naturally negative reply was that, though this claim might be comforting to some, it’s also dead wrong. In most places, silence lost the battle long ago. A common strain that now unites what were once very disparate places and cultures seems to be the increasing endangerment—and in some cases extinction—of silence. I think about this a lot, especially living in a place where for much of the day loud trucks idle at length below my apartment, providing an aggravating background hum that I’ve never quite managed to relegate to the background. I lost fifteen minutes the other day fuming about the cacophonous chorus of car alarm, cement truck, and blaring car radio that overpowered any defense my thin windows might lamely try to muffle it with, not to mention the work I was trying to concentrate on. I’d buy earplugs, but noise of this caliber is also a physical, pounding presence. I admit that this sensitivity is my own to deal with, but something makes me doubt I’m alone in New York; in certain neighborhoods, and often outside of a hospital, there are several signs posted along the street, “Unnecessary Noise Prohibited.” I wonder who defines the term unnecessary, and how. Other signs warn drivers that honking the car horn in certain areas can be punished with hefty fines. A couple of years ago the same magazine cited above ran a piece—I believe it was in the Talk of the Town section—covering a local activist working to ban loud car alarms. Since silent alarms are now readily available, and have proven more effective, there really is no need for these shrill alarms. My absolute favorite ones are those set off by the noise of a passing truck, just as one apartment-dweller might crank up the volume on the stereo to drown out a neighbor’s noise. Aural inflation runs rampant.

But the comment of the Muzak marketer wasn’t enough to get me to set fingers to keyboard; what finally did it was a day-hike I took in the hills of the upper Hudson valley on Easter Sunday. I almost thought twice about escaping the city on this holiday, since—no matter how agnostic, multicultural, or 24/7 this city might be—such days always bring a rare calm. For just a few precious hours we’re spared the sound of garbage trucks carrying our trash away from us while replacing it with a different sort of pollution, and spared many other noisy byproducts of our so-called progress. As I was walking through the woods, a wind kicked up, rustling the leaves packed down by winter snow, and I was reminded of just how loud the sound of wind through bare tree branches overhead can be. Most people would probably say that wind in trees is quieter, and less disturbing, than more urban sounds, but I was reminded yesterday that that isn’t always the case.

Manetsilence_1So I set out to briefly investigate silence—why some people can’t seem to find any, why so many do everything in their power rid themselves of it, and why many just don’t seem to give it any thought, unobtrusive as it is. It has played a major role in many religions, from the tower of silence of Persian Zoroastrianism to the Trappist monks’ vows of silence; one could speculate, in a cursory way, that the rise of secular culture was accompanied by a rise in volume. I came across a curious coincidence while checking out the etchings of Manet recently that would support such a conclusion. While the painter of Olympia has often been called the least religious of painters, an etching of his done around 1860 (in the print collection of the New York Public Library) portrays a monk, tablet or book in hand and finger held to lips, with the word Silentium scrawled below. Given the connotative relationship between silence and omission, obilivion, and death, Manet’s etching has interesting implications for both silence and religion as they were seen in nineteenth-century Paris. If not secularization, perhaps industrialization ratcheted everything up a few decibels.

Silence—of both good and bad sorts—runs through everything, leaving traces throughout many languages. There are silent films, which exist only thanks to a former lack of technology, and were usually accompanied by live music. Some people’s ideal mate is a classic man of the strong, silent type—adjectives never jointly applied to a woman. A silentiary is (well, was, since I doubt many people go into such a line of work nowadays) a confidant, counselor, or official who maintains silence and order. Cones of silence appear in politics, radar technology, nineteen-fifties and sixties television shows, and science fiction novels. After twenty years of creating marvelous music out of what could be derogatively deemed noise, the band Einstürzende Neubauten came out with both a song and album titled “Silence is Sexy.” Early on the band’s drummer, Andrew Chudy, adopted the name N. U. Unruh—a wild play on words that can be connected to a German expressionist poet and playwright, a piece of timekeeping equipment, and, aptly, a riff on the theme of disquiet or unrest.

LeopardiGetting back to my stroll in the woods, when considering the peace and quiet of a holiday I inevitably turn to poet Giacomo Leopardi’s songs in verse. His thirteenth canto (“La sera del dì di festa,” “The Evening of the Holiday”), laments the sad, weighty quietness left after a highly anticipated holiday. The falling into silence of a street song at the end is a death knell for the past festivities. In keeping with this, his twenty-fifth canto (“Il sabato del villaggio,” “Saturday Night in the Village”) praises Saturday’s energetic sounds of labor in preparation for the Sunday holiday, saving only melancholy words for the day of rest itself and its accompanying quiet. I don’t wish to summarize his rich and very specific work, so encourage you to have a look at it for yourself. The fact that these were written across an ocean and over a century ago attests to the fact that silence is not golden for everyone. Were he to live today, Leopardi might well be one of the iPod-equipped masses.

When I found that Leopardi’s opinion differed from my own, I looked to another trustworthy poet for a little support in favor of my own exasperation. Rainer Maria Rilke, in his famous fifth letter to the less famous young poet, written in the autumn of 1903, is evidently dependant on silence:

“… I don’t like to write letters while I am traveling, because for letter writing I need more than the most necessary tools: some silence and solitude and a not too familiar hour…. I am still living in the city… but in a few weeks I will move into a quiet, simple room, an old summerhouse, which lies lost deep in a large park, hidden from the city, from its noises and incidents. There I will live all winter and enjoy the great silence, from which I expect the gift of happy, work-filled hours….”

SenecapergamonmuseumTo break the tie set by Leopardi and Rilke, I turned to another old friend for comfort, and was surprised to find none. Seneca, in his fifty-sixth letter to Lucilius, asserts that it is the placation of one’s passions, not external silence, that gives true quiet:

“May I die if silence is as necessary as it would seem for concentration and study. Look, I am surrounded on every side by a beastly ruckus…. ‘You’re a man of steel, or you’re deaf,’ you will tell me, ‘if you don’t go crazy among so many different, dissonant noises…’. Everything outside of me might just as well be in an uproar, as long as there is no tumult within, and as long as desire and fear, greed and luxury don’t fight amongst themselves. The idea that the entire neighborhood be silent is useless if passions quake within us.”

In this letter he lists the noises that accompany him on a daily basis: the din of passing horse-drawn carriages, port sounds, industrial sounds (albeit those of the first century), neighborhood ball players, singing barbers, numerous shouting street vendors, and even people “who like to hear their own voices as they bathe.” It sounds as though he’s writing from the average non-luxury apartment of today’s cities. His point that what’s important is interior calm, not exterior quiet, exposed my foolishness.

À propos of Seneca and serenity, a friend of mine recently bought an iPod. A year ago we had a wonderful conversation where she offered up her usual, very insightful criticisms of North American culture: “What is wrong with this country? Everyone has a f****** iPod, but so few people have health insurance! Why doesn’t anyone rebel, or even seem to care?” As I walked up to meet her a couple of weeks ago I spotted from afar the trademark white wires running to each ear. “I love this thing. I mean, sure, I don’t think at all anymore, but it’s great!” To say that this brilliant woman doesn’t think anymore is crossing the line, but it’s the perfect hyperbole that nears the truth; if you can fill your ears with constant diversion, emptying the brain is indeed easier. The question, then, is what companies like Muzak and their clients can then proceed to fill our minds with if we’re subject to their sounds.

This relates to the ancient sense of otium as well—Seneca’s idea that creativity and thought need space, room, or an empty place and time in which to truly develop. Simply defining it as leisure time or idleness neglects its constructive nature. The idea that, when left at rest, the mind finds or creates inspiration for itself, and from that develops critical thought, is key to why I take issue with all this constructed, mass-marketed sound and “audio architecture.” While it might seem that an atmosphere filled with different stimuli and sounds would spark greater movement, both mental and physical, I think we’ve reached the point where that seeming activity is just that—an appearance, and one that sometimes hides a great void.

AlicecooperIn closing, for those interested, we may finally be able to give credit to the Muzak marketer who inspired me. On Tuesday, 18 April, John Schaefer will discuss Muzak on WNYC’s Soundcheck. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a gem from the September 1969 issue of Poppin magazine. In music critic Mike Quigley’s interview with Alice Cooper, the latter discussed what he’s looking for between himself and the audience: “If it’s total freedom, I guess the ultimate thing you can go into is total silence between the audience and performer, with the performer projecting something he doesn’t even have to play. A total silence trip is the ultimate.” Even Muzak can’t counter that.