Saturday Sounds: The Sound of Silence

Charlie Chaplin's " The Immigrant" on the Rooftop at Scruffy City Hall, Knoxville Film and Music Festival, April 2016
Charlie Chaplin’s ” The Immigrant” on the Rooftop at Scruffy City Hall, Knoxville Film and Music Festival, April 2016

It may seem an odd topic for a column devoted to sound, but it’s been on my mind a recently. It started with Big Ears. I spent a lot of the weekend considering sound. I heard sounds I’d never heard before and I responded positively to some and not as much to others. Which led me to think about how some sounds are pleasant, some not so much, some sounds we call “music” and others we call “noise,” and you and I may disagree on which category under which a particular sound should listed.

By the end of the weekend, when Urban Woman and I attended Inuksuit at Ijams, I felt the reflection on sound and the various pieces I’d listened to, and sometimes struggled with through the weekend, had brought me to a place in which I could appreciate what might have seemed before to be random drumming in a forest.

Ben Maney Improvising a Soundtrack for Charlie Chaplin's " The Immigrant" on the Rooftop at Scruffy City Hall, Knoxville Film and Music Festival, April 2016
Ben Maney Improvising a Soundtrack for Charlie Chaplin’s ” The Immigrant” on the Rooftop at Scruffy City Hall, Knoxville Film and Music Festival, April 2016

More recently, the Scruffy City Film and Music Festival helped me continue the internal dialog. The first event I attended during that festival was the screening of Charlie Chaplin movies on the roof of Scruffy City Hall with Ben Maney playing a great score. In his silence, Chaplin often communicated what others might expend hundreds of words to make clear. The cool breeze and brilliant playing in the night added to the effect – not as much because it added sound, but rather because it encouraged silence among the participants. It was as pleasant an experience as I could desire in the city.

As the festival, which focuses on music in film, continued, a couple of films resonated with what I’d been thinking.  The first was a short film, “Frontman” directed by Matthew Gentile, in which a lead singer from a rock band begins to lose his hearing and faces pressures to continue performing with the consequence of becoming permanently deaf and losing not only his hearing, but his career, identity and any hopes of hearing his own daughter as she begins to write songs and perform. At eighteen minutes, the provocative movie didn’t offer a resolution.

The movie which really hit me on the topic, however, was “In Pursuit of Silence,” which explored the many facets of silence and its absence. What is silence? Is it the absence of sound? If so, we are doomed to never hear it, because there is always sound, no matter where you search. Discussing the negative impact of noise on our psychological and physiological health, the movie explores a larger meaning of silence.

It’s a topic writers and philosophers have considered and discussed in depth. Chaim Potok said, “I’ve begun to realize that you can listen to silence and learn from it. It has a quality and a dimension all its own.” Henry Miller said, “I need the sunshine and the paving stones of the streets without companions, without conversation, face to face with myself, with only the music of my heart for company.” Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner, said, “Quiet is peace. Tranquility. Quiet is turning down the volume knob on life. Silence is pushing the off button.” And Charlotte Bronte noted the complexity of the topic: “Silence is of different kinds, and breathes different meanings.”

The film explores monks – as well as a young man who walked across the country – who have taken vows of silence. John Cage’s 4’33” is played and discussed. Decibel readings are shown and discussed in some depth, from airplanes crossing over homes to trains outside New York City schools all the way to the sounds deep in forests and other secluded spots. Noise inside restaurants – which can approach damaging levels for work staff – is discussed. A bar in New York City which encourages whispering (Burp Castle?) is shown.

The conclusion seems to be that silence is more an internal choice which may be aided by a reduction in ambient noise, though that alone doesn’t make silence happen. It turned my thoughts to what helps me be quiet or silent and where do I find that in the city? What are the spaces where quiet or silence are encouraged or likely to be found?

We spend so much of our time on sensory overload, almost seeming to fear silence. Electronics have made it possible to always have music playing. Televisions are mounted in restaurants where, even if the volume is off, the very motion on the screen helps keep our silence at bay. We now have a television on Market Square with sound spilling out to pedestrians twenty-four hours a day. Maybe soon other retail spaces will join until they each have to raise their volume to be heard over the others. Is this healthy for humans?

Rooftop at Scruffy City Hall, Knoxville, April 2016
Rooftop at Scruffy City Hall, Knoxville, April 2016

I’ve found myself measuring sound around town with a decibel app and seeking quieter spots. On the whole, I find the sounds of a city exciting – sometimes even construction noise because of its implications of growth and progress, but there is a place for silence, for quiet contemplation or perhaps simple conversation uninterrupted by electronics or other diversions. It’s hard to find.

Where is your quiet spot in the city? While it’s important for everyone to seek silence, finding it in the city can be more challenging. Have you enjoyed enough silence this week for your mental and physical well-being? If not, perhaps you’ll consider doing so.