“Silence is not other than sound, not separate from sound; it is not the opposite of noise.
Silence is (a kind of) sound” [Anon]
That first Covid lockdown, in March 2020, will be remembered by many as the darkest of times. Suddenly so much that was familiar about day-to-day existence fell away. The freedom to travel, to visit friends and family, to shop, to socialise – all vanished.
Many people living in cities faced the nightmare of being confined indoors for the majority of the day, their only communication with life outside four walls through their televisions and computers. The outside world fell silent – one of the starkest contrasts with pre-lockdown life. Traffic was virtually non-existent; streets were empty of people; no sociable crowds gathered outside pubs; no music blared from open shop doorways.
Dramatic as the change to normal life was in town, it was less immediately noticeable in the countryside. I remember on the third day of lockdown climbing to the top of a steep field close to my house and being suddenly struck by something out of kilter – something different. I couldn’t at first identify what it was, and then I realised. The silence. Even living a mile or so from a main road, the hum of traffic and an occasional siren always formed the background to my day. The drone of planes coming into Gatwick wove into the general tapestry of sound. But now there was nothing. Just silence.
Except, of course, that the world around me was not silent. It reverberated with sound, with the soporific cooing of pigeons in a nearby barn, with leaves rustling in the wind, with grasshoppers singing at my feet. Somehow, I had never really been aware of these small and subtle sounds before – it needed me to stop and listen – listen with total attention – to hear them.
The space between sounds – Thost
Pat Collins, director of the 2013 award-winning film Silence, makes exactly this point in talking about his film. He describes how sound allows you to deeply connect with a landscape: “Pay attention to what’s there through sound and you’re really looking.” Rather as the Inuit have a number of words in their language to describe snow, so the Irish language has two words for silence – ciúnas and thost. Thost describes a lull, a space of quietness between two sounds, its significance relying on the contrast between sound and silence, as though the world for an instant is holding its breath.
The protagonist in the film is himself a sound recordist and he returns to his homeland, Ireland, in a quest to capture and record silence and to reconnect with his own past. Just as I found, silence eludes him – standing alone on a high moor, he can still hear the sound of the wind whistling through reeds close by, and his own footsteps crunching through the heather when he moved.
Silence in the Sahara
So is there such a thing as real silence, as a total absence of sound? The closest I have ever come to experiencing it was on a trip deep into the Sahara Desert. As darkness fell, so did the silence, like a heavy curtain, so absolute that it hurt your ears as you strained to pick up the slightest sound. Even so, we had no warning of the sudden – and terrifying – appearance of three robed figures directly in front of us. For the Bedouin, masters of the desert, silence was their ally, the element through which they moved at night, and they had come to check us out. Having done so, they disappeared as quietly as they had come, swallowed up by the dark.
Too much sound?
On our heavily-populated island silence is a rare commodity, and to many an undesirable one. For a largely urban population, the accompaniment to our lives is the constant drone of traffic, the snatches of shop muzak, of pavement chatter – evidence of the people who surround us, of on-going life, and the lack of sound can be deeply disturbing.
One of the most difficult adjustments to rural life in Sussex that many ‘DFLs’ (Down from Londoners) cite is the night-time silence, even more terrifying when it’s broken by alien noises like the screech of a vixen or the hoot of an owl.
Silence can be freeing
In craving – as many do – the distraction of sound, what do we risk losing? Many religions place enormous value on meditation and Christian religious orders have always been aware the power of silence. The famous line from Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God” – has been quoted over the centuries to encourage Christian congregations to rest, to cease striving, to ‘let God in’. The necessary stillness that comes with silence frees us from external distractions, gives us space for deeper reflection on what is really important to us, and sometimes enables us to rebalance our lives. ‘Silence is golden’.
But is it? The idea of silence carries within itself a profound contradiction. Because it implies absence it can be deeply negative, as well as rewarding. Rachel Carson’s pioneering book The Silent Spring paints a picture of a nightmare world in which nature has fallen silent. The sounds of birdsong, of animal life, that we long to hear have been destroyed by man’s activities. Sensory deprivation is a well-known device of torturers. Locked in a sound-proofed cell, what else does the victim have to listen to except themselves? And perhaps that’s the most disturbing sound of all.