Tag Archives: Silence

Seeking Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise.” Aldous Huxley included this statement in The Perennial Philosophy, a comparative study of world mysticisms, published in 1944. Huxley’s complaints centered on organized noise: “indiscriminate talk” and the radio, which he described as “nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes.” The “assault against silence” has continued unabated as the twentieth century has rolled into the twenty-first. The ubiquity of televisions, personal computers, and mobile phones has only exacerbated the problem. Such technologies present conscious and unconscious barriers to the spiritual ideal of inner calm and clear-minded contemplation.

Arguably more damaging than the intentional sound sources Huxley bemoaned are the byproduct noises of human activities. Especially intrusive are noises fitting naturalist Bernie Krause’s definition: “an acoustic event that clashes with expectation.” The tranquil lake is spoiled by buzzing jet skis and motorboats. The pristine forest is tarnished by chainsaws and overhead airplanes. According to composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” to describe the ever-present array of noises in our sonic environment, human beings make such noises, in part, to remind ourselves and others that we are not alone. The absence of overt human-generated sounds is for many a painful signal of solitude. Think of the person who keeps the radio or television on for companionship.

An extreme of this view equates excessive noise with human dominance and modern progress. According to Schafer, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior James G. Watt declared that the more noise Americans make, the more powerful the country will appear. This perception has deep roots: cannon blasts and booming fireworks have long been associated with muscular patriotism. Schafer even remarked to Krause that if the ear-pounding decibels of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels were muted, attendance at their air shows would drop by ninety percent.

Nothing could be further from the quietude desired by mystics, who not only strive to muzzle external sounds, but also to cultivate silence of mind. This is hardly the default mode of modernity. As Huxley put it: “Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire—we hold history’s record for all of them.” Instead of seeking silence, most people seek its opposite.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Simulated Silence

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Our quietest surroundings are brimming with sound. The modern world is cluttered with humming freeways, droning light bulbs, vibrating appliances, buzzing electrical wires, and countless other incessant noises. These acoustic waves are so constant that we tend to block them out. But if we listen closely in a quiet bedroom or library, there they are (around 30 decibels worth). Likewise, remote habitats free of humanity’s sonic stamp—which are few and far between—are home to a variety of natural sounds. Absolute silence is simply not a feature of our planet.

The foreignness of pure quiet is on full display at Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, a location certified by Guinness as the world’s quietest place. The lab’s anechoic (echo-free) chamber absorbs 99.9 percent of sound, with its mesh flooring, double-walls of concrete and steel, and lining of fiberglass acoustic wedges. Manufacturers use the chamber to gauge the volume of switches, triggers and other components of their products.

Founder Steven Orfield challenges visitors to sit in the chamber with the lights off for as long as they can. Most give up before twenty minutes; no one has lasted longer than forty-five. Orfield himself struggles to endure beyond the half-hour mark. The reason for this is that the brain, so used to filtering out environmental sounds, turns inward. It starts picking up the pumping heart, pulsating lungs, digestive gurgles, and creaking joints. The effect is so disorienting that participants invariably tap out. Absolute silence disturbs absolutely.

The anechoic chamber proves that there is no escaping sound. Even when auditory stimuli are sucked from our surroundings, we have the hubbub within. Thus, the ordinary quiet we long for is not dead silence, but relative silence. It is the absence of grating, high-decibel, out-of-place and otherwise unwelcomed noises. Relative silence is highly coveted in part because it is rare: not only is the atmosphere filled with subtle rumblings, it is also host to noticeable sonic intrusions.

One way to create a gratifying impression of silence is by contrasting attention-grabbing sounds with sudden stillness. This is best accomplished with music. Minimally defined, music is the art of arranging sound and silence—that is, tones and spaces between tones. Of course, the juxtaposition of structured sound and calculated quiet is more pronounced in some pieces than others, as the tempo and spirit of the music allows for longer or shorter rests.

However, in almost all cases there is room to prolong the moment immediately following the music, thereby creating the perception of silence. Such potent pauses occur whenever audiences hold their applause after a piece concludes, and in ceremonial settings when there are breaks between song and spoken word. Whether the music ceases abruptly or gradually fades into nothingness, it sets the stage for a pleasing audible quiet rarely discerned in our day-to-day lives.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Above Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aldous Huxley authored one of the most widely cited statements on music: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” The popularity of this maxim has long outlasted any general interest in the collection of essays from which it originated, Music at Night (1931). That the phrase resonates with many readers is evidenced by its frequent and usually context-less appearance on websites and books devoted to useful quotations. Some might reverse the hierarchy, placing music before silence, but the substance of Huxley’s comment remains the same: these acoustic phenomena communicate something beyond the limits of language.

It is fruitless to venture an elucidation of what Huxley meant by “inexpressible.” As the term indicates, the things expressed cannot be justly or fully described. Nevertheless, we can presume it refers to a category of experience variously called emotional, non-rational or spiritual. These ineffable sensations, while universally desirable, are not arrived at easily in our noise-saturated world.

Huxley’s thoughts on the subject are fleshed out in The Perennial Philosophy (1944), a compendium of mystical insights from sages of the world’s religions. In his chapter on silence, Huxley includes instructive excerpts from the writings of religious figures like Lao Tzu and William Law. His own remarks are hardly reserved.

The first barrier to silence he identifies is frivolous speech: “Unrestrained and indiscriminate talk is morally evil and spiritually dangerous.” Huxley claims that most words thought or spoken during the course of the day fall into three main groups: “words inspired by malice and uncharitableness towards our neighbors; words inspired by greed, sensuality and self-love; words inspired by pure imbecility and uttered without rhyme or reason, but merely for the sake of making a distracting noise.”

The other impediment to silence Huxley cites is incessant ambient noise. Writing toward the middle of the twentieth century, he diagnosed a reality that has only been exacerbated in the intervening years. As Huxley astutely notes, “the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.” Most damaging from his perspective is the still-ubiquitous radio, which “penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions—news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas.”

As is apparent from the passages above, Huxley’s praise for the non-material rewards of silence is matched by his disdain for unfiltered and unrewarding sounds—whether of our own making or mechanically produced. Quietness of mind and environment is, for him, the most effective path to emotional ease, psychological calm and spiritual awakening. Next on his list is music, which cuts through jumbled noises, diverts distractions and communicates directly with the realm of affections. Music combats noise not by eliminating it, but by organizing it. In this respect, Huxley would likely give preference to instrumental music, which is free of the potential contamination of linguistic assertions (like of the “sentimental music” he condemns).

For Huxley and the many admirers of his famous phrase, expressing the inexpressible is a lofty and virtuous aspiration. It implies reaching a level of awareness obscured by the trappings of ordinary existence. In the materialistic landscape of the modern world, meaningless words and noisy devices are among the obstacles blocking our way to a deeper experience. And for the reasons discussed, silence and music are perhaps the best antidotes.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.