Four notes on Silence

Published on 05 Aug 2020.
Reading time: 4 min.

Parts of this article appear in my book, VANISH.

1.

The blurb to Silence by Erling Kagge describes the book like so: “Norwegian explorer Kagge once spent fifty days walking solo across Antarctica [with] his radio broken.”

However, this blurb fails to mention that Kagge was only carrying a radio because the company who owned the plane that dropped him off had forced him to carry one. Kagge himself broke the radio; he left the batteries in the plane before disembarking.

Kagge was the first explorer to reach all three of the North Pole, the South Pole and the summit of Mount Everest. His book of reflections explores the primal human search for silence.

Kagge describes silence as more than just the absence of sound. He writes that

silence is more of an idea. A notion. The silence around us may contain a lot, but the most interesting kind of silence is the one that lies within. […] It’s possible for everyone to discover this silence within themselves. It is there all the time, even when we are surrounded by constant noise.

2.

John Cage’s silent piece, referred to as 4’33’’, is comprised of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. When performed, the musician, usually a pianist, closes the piano lid and just sits.

Academics, artists and musicians are divided over whether it is a masterpiece or not.

Supposedly, the piece was inspired both by Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting, and also by Cage’s visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard. An anechoic chamber is a totally sound-proofed room which absorbs all sounds inside of it. Cage expected to experience silence, but on visiting he could still hear his own blood pumping and his own nervous system functioning.

In trying to find silence, he discovered the impossibility of silence.

A segment about the piece aired on NPR in January 2000, which csaid that

Cage gave musicians aesthetic permission, spiritual encouragement even, to go beyond the tonalities of standard instrumentation and engage with the infinite possibilities of sound. While he composed prolifically until his death in 1992 at the age of 79, Cage remained more well-known for his ideas than his music, and the enigmatic 4’33” is the ultimate expression of those ideas.

But [putting] a weightiness on 4’33” [is] at odds with its playful sense of simply being allied to the world. As Cage writes at the end of his Silence, “I’ve spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece, transcriptions — that is, for an audience of myself.” By inviting us to do the same, Cage transformed the art of music, and the art of listening, irrevocably.

I really love the idea of a musical composition made up of silence. It’s a great way to challenge our expectations. Although many people these days passively listen to music while doing other things, concert-goers prepare to actively listen to music.

So, to then have a duration of silence in that environment, where everyone is intently focussed on what they can hear, is brilliant.

Kyle Gann’s book called No Such Thing As Silence describes this as “an act of framing, of enclosing environmental and unintended sounds in a moment of attention.”

The first performance of 4’33’’ was played by the pianist David Tudor at a venue called the Maverick Concert Hall, a few hours north of New York City. It rained that day. During the silent performance, the audience would have heard nothing from Tudor or the piano, but probably would have heard the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof of the hall, the sound of the breeze rustling through the trees, the hushed breathing of the other audience members, the creaking of the pine benches that they sat on as their bodies shifted weight.

The silence opens up their ears to a substratum of underlying sounds, always there but rarely noticed. This absence helps reveal what’s always been there.

3.

The article Why Everything Is Getting Louder by Bianca Bosker examines the global increase of ambient noise due to the pervasiveness of technology.

Bosker writes:

Noise is a clever enemy. It leaves no trace and vanishes when chased. It’s hard to measure or describe. [And] the nature of noise is shifting. Sonic gripes from the 18th and 19th centuries — church bells, carriage wheels, the hollering of street criers — sound downright charming to today’s ears. Since then, our soundscape has been overpowered by the steady roar of machines: a chorus of cars, planes, trains, pumps, drills, stereos and turbines…

The article is centred around a company called CyrusOne and their ever-increasing site of servers.

These servers power so, so many things: the algorithm picking your next Spotify song, the website where you order clothes from, the traffic lights that control a city.

Our everyday way of living relies on data servers. In turn, our everyday way of living doesn’t allow for silence.

4.

Bhagavān Śri Rāmānā Mahāṛṣi notes (during a talk given on the 7th November, 1938) that:

Silence is the true [spiritual teaching]… It is suited only for the most advanced seeker. The others are unable to draw full inspiration from it. Therefore, they require words to explain the truth. But truth is beyond words; it does not warrant explanation. All that is possible is to indicate it.

In a talk earlier that year, on the 25th January 1938, when asked about controlling the breath (i.e. meditative practice), Rāmānā Mahāṛṣi says that

Breath-control is only an aid for diving deep. One may as well dive down by control of mind. On the mind being controlled, the breath becomes controlled automatically. […] Breath-control is recommended for the man who cannot control his mind straightaway.

The implication here is that controlling one’s breathing helps to quiet the mind such that silence is all that remains. Silence is all that is required for the advanced seeker to realise the ultimate Truth, namely

that I am not and that all is He.