Sighs and whispers

by Brooks Riley

Something has happened in the last forty days. The planet has gone quiet, a vast, reverberating, gesticulating global chorus suddenly muted by something wee and invisible which is borne across continents, streets and rooms by friends and strangers. Mass extinction, once the whispered woe of a distant future, suddenly sounds louder and doable in the here and now. The world is compelled to gaze at its own mortality.

When the coronavirus forced us to retreat from daily life, the blanket of silence that fell was like the muffled air after a fresh snowfall—eerie, familiar, cozy even, and not entirely unwelcome. We are not the only beneficiaries of the newfound hush. Birds who have had to compete with our noise to sing to mates are suddenly alone on stage, ready for their seldom solos.

As a species, we are a noisy bunch, our decibels swelling with our need to grab attention where only the most aggressive bring home the prizes. We attach ourselves to machines that make even more noise than we do—cars, buses, trucks, trains, airplanes, bulldozers, amplifiers. And we fill the spaces in between with idle chatter, raised voices, music turned up high, leaf blowers, and hair dryers. Most are idle now, even cries behind closed doors are muffled. The soundtracks of our lives have moved into the adagio phase—softer, interim, slower.

I like the new quiet. It’s an old friend I’d nearly forgotten in the rush through life. A chunk of my childhood took place in a quiet household in the countryside, older siblings having left the nest before I was even aware of them. My parents, old enough to be grandparents, were, for whatever reason, taciturn, leaving me to my own devices—hours to spend by myself. It’s the kind of natural isolation I have returned to for extensive periods or often longed to return to when I couldn’t.

Now it’s suddenly quiet everywhere. Those who have never known such a thing as silence, should drink it in while they have a chance. It may be an acquired taste, but silence contains multitudes. Silence defies definition: You can’t pin it down, nor can you use it to bolster your flagging spirit. You have to know what to do with it. Silence is more than the absence of sound. Silence is how to hear yourself think. As Debussy said, “Music is the silence between the notes.” I’m not sure I agree with him, but silence is the mortar between notes, allowing them to co-exist, multiply and diversify—and it is the mortar between thoughts.

There are many who think that music is the answer to the malaise of isolation. People sing from their balconies or windows. Pianists like Igor Levit stream from their living rooms. My partner absorbs Bruckner or Shostakovich in the loggia. I too thrill to the uncharacteristic bitterness of Jonas Kaufmann’s live broadcast of Schumann’s Dichterliebe on the empty stage of the Bavarian State Opera.

But silence is not like music, with its easy directions to feelgood destinations. In this grave, uncertain new reality, the role of music as manipulator is suspicious. Our current plight is not something readily scored—unlike a victory or a death or even a turn on the dance floor. Our precariousness, both physical and economical, knows no chords or melody to ameliorate it, no satisfying denouement to alleviate it. We are in limbo, a state not often addressed by that art form.

If we listen to the music we’ve always loved, it might become tainted by the present context, by what we feel now. We are suffering from a loss of innocence, having taken for granted all the pleasures that came to us without ever suspecting that they could be fleeting or compromised by an overwhelming sadness.

When I posted my playlist eight weeks ago, I still believed in the power of music as a balm in troubled times. Now, of the 6 items on that list, the only one still standing  is a whispered rap in a language I don’t even understand. It promises nothing.

The whisperer, well-known Korean actor Jang Hyuk, rapped as form of auditioning 20 years ago. “I wasn’t even 1% serious about becoming a singer.” His two music videos Sun-Moon’s Love Part 1 and Part 2, low-budget morsels of martial arts with a lush soundtrack instead of hip-hop, provide the non-Korean speaker an abstract experience made up of exotic consonants, breathy vocal riffs and frenetic desert fantasy warfare—ideal brief distractions for the alien new world we occupy at the moment.

Meanwhile, this new silence around us now begs the question: How can I fill it? Taking a cue from jazz pianist Dan Tepfer, who inverted some Goldberg Variations during lockdown, I feel the urge to dismantle Schubert lieder, scuttling the singing and turning the lyrics into fierce angry rap over the piano accompaniment. Down with Gemütlichkeit! I’d then move on to other stars of the musical pantheon and upend their safe loveliness. This is what silence does. It can spook you or give you crazy ideas.

Silence is an off-grid experience, disconcerting to many. It exists to be filled–not from the sound-bite catalogue of unfettered progress, not from the tick-tock of the clock, or the drip of the faucet, but from the breath of a speaker. It invites a sigh, or a whisper. Like a selfie, one’s own whisper can fill the void. Everyone needs to whisper right now. Or ask Alexa to whisper, a non-invasive form of social ventriloquism to soothe cabin fever.

The irony of whispering to others during a pandemic is that it is anomalous to social distancing. A whisper can only be delivered at close range. This is where technology steps in to override the problem.  A whisper through earphones is how ASMR delivers its punch.

It’s not surprising that whispering has become the central trigger of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), that tingly frisson feeling on the scalp and down the spine that so many adherents swear by when listening to certain sounds. I do not experience ASMR but I do find many of the sounds pleasing and relaxing. ASMR’s popularity has to do with tuning out by tuning in to random pleasant sounds such as finger-tapping, hair-brushing, chewing. Since 2010, the internet has been deluged with ASMR videos including the oxymoronic whisper videos. Any fool with a microphone can whisper, and sadly, many do. The problem with whisper videos is not only content but having to see the whisperer, invariably a mood killer.

But South Korea, forever able to go the West one better, has expanded the uses and examples of ASMR to include role-playing videos, such as this hypnotic imaginary monologue of BTS singer Jimin reassuring a lover that everything will be okay. It’s not just the content here, but the meticulous mise-en-scene—a rainy night, the small electric fan, the rainwater running down the window, the corner of a covered bed—that goes far beyond the daily dose of spine-tingle. Is this the new post-pandemic aesthetic? With nearly half a million hits, this quiet, reassuring understated narrative has clearly made a lot of people feel good, whether or not they experience that ASMR frisson. And don’t we all want to be told that everything will be all right? Especially now?

When this is all over—and it will be—we can raise our voices and make noise again. The music I used to love will lose the pandemic tarnish and find its way back into my good graces. I look forward to singing Schubert’s Nacht und Träume the way Schubert intended, not the way my sheltered alter-ego wanted to distort it. I won’t need a Jimin sound-alike to tell me ‘all will be well’. And all those sighs and whispers will be stored in an album of audible selfies to remind me of the way I was back then.