I have been fascinated by silence for years. Having lately met several classical musicians and composers, it is interesting to discover just what a touchstone John Cage’s 4’33” is. What I glean from these discussions is that John Cage was trying to get people to listen to the other sounds of the music hall, or wherever the piece was presented, as well as delightfully subverting people’s expectations. I learn that the piece’s performance has of late has a flavour of audience participation with, I am told, people comedically triggering off a mobile phone rings during the performance.
The excellent A book of silence, by Sara Maitland is a lovely description of the author’s quest for the meaning of silence. The book was a welcome discovery especially as I have as yet been unable to coherently express my thoughts on the subject. Maitland’s suggestion that there are all kinds of silences is one I fully support. She also suggests certain artistic expressions are somehow express silence too — a conclusion that I also agree with.
I put here a few notes on the subject from about 11 years ago first published in my now defunct AnotherSun ezine… It kicks off with a quote from Keats, whose poetry seems to me to be drenched in silence.
For me silence in art, maybe a bit like umami – something we altogether recognise but at one time had no word for.
The sound of one hand clapping
“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on”
John Keats Ode on a Grecian urn.
I can remember the first time I was forced to think about silence.
My friend Michael and I walked out from the edge of Warwickshire village, where he rented an old house, into some muddy fields. The afternoon was windless and nippy. The road through the village was far behind us, and for once there were no cars, nor aircraft overhead. All about us subdued sheep stared into space.
“Quiet isn’t it?” I said.
“Yes,” said Michael, “this is what Heidegger calls the pre-linguistic state.”
“Ah.” I said, nodding sagely.
Of course, he could tell I was bluffing.
Later, hunched over his open fire in the approved student way, we had a lengthy discussion about silence. And the things he made me think about that evening have been with me ever since. What is silence? An absence of noise? What would being in total silence do to you? And above all… What would it be like to live without language?
Many philosophers suggest that proper thinking is impossible without having words to give your ideas shape and form. And if humanity had no language, then we would be no better than the poor old sheep snuffling about in the darkness behind the house. The German philosopher Heidegger, Michael told me, described mankind as the “language-animal”. Clearly one implication being that what sets us apart from other animals was language.
That’s how I became an amateur silence spotter. If being able to communicate in language was what made us human, then what did silence contain? Things that weren’t human? Something basic and sheep-like? Or something divine?
Even your novice silence spotter can listen to music and hear the silence between the notes. I discovered Kind of Blue by Miles Davis was especially good for this (especially, funnily enough, when accompanied by a jazz cigarette). I began to see music as an arrangement of silences with the quality of each silence being altered by the notes that surround it.
Things got a bit extreme when I started to think about words in the same way as musical notes. You can take a poem, for example, and view this as a collection of silences. The quality of the silences being altered by the words that come before or after them.
All this silence spotting didn’t really get me anywhere, apart from giving me a nagging sense that what cannot be put into words is probably the really interesting stuff. It left me with the firm conviction that words, if used skilfully enough, could signpost the undiscovered country of silence. Which is why poetry has always been important to me. I get the feeling that the best poetry is like Captain Kirk in the Starship Enterprise, boldly going where no man has gone before.
The second stage of my career as a silence spotter came through meditation. For a several years I went to a regular Thursday night meditation group. I always left feeling refreshed, relaxed and generally sorted.
Often the people trying to meditate spoke of struggling with voices chattering in their heads. I knew what they meant. Our brains are tuned to some kind of “Radio Self” and when you try to be really silent, your brain can’t stop chattering. It behaves like a child you are trying to ignore. With practice, however, you can at least turn down the volume.
And that’s how I think I got somewhere special in my silence spotting career — through meditation. There was one especially memorable time where I suddenly felt physically empty. And had a clear (and of course faintly ridiculous) vision of myself as a bell with no clapper. The chattering radio of the voices in my head had been switched off and I felt serene. Oddly I also felt as physically close to the people passing in the street outside, as to the person sat next to me in the darkened room.
This sensation, which I guess must only have lasted for a few minutes, was accompanied by a feeling of intense elation and meaningfulness. While the business of feeling like a bell was extremely specific, and I was strongly reminded of it when I walked into bell-shaped Buddhist temples in Sri Lanka.
At last my silence spotting had got me somewhere. For one thing to a direct and startling alteration of my mood. It left me with a deep — if temporary — sense of spiritual well-being.
Below a door in St Martin’s Guernsey. One of my own snaps which seems to me to have a quality of silence about it.