Sounds of Silence

The earth-jarring noise of the ongoing roadwork in front of the Main Library is not the only thing that inspired this blog post. A publishing micro-storm has been swirling around the unlikely subject of noise and the quest for silence. The books below were all published in the past two years. I’ve given stars to what I think are the best of the bunch.

*A Book of Silence
by Sara Maitland
In this fascinating personal journey and thorough exploration of silence, Maitland covers everything from solo sailors and adventurers to Christian hermits, Zen philosophy and the Romantic poets. She undergoes a 40-day period of silence, pursues her subject to the Sinai desert and the Isle of Skye, and eventually moves alone to a cottage in a remote valley in Galloway. Maitland identifies eight major characteristics pertaining to silence, including some unsettling ones. Ultimately, she sees silence not as a negative or constraining condition, but as a positive presence that heightens experience and offers an ineffable sense of connection to the natural world.

*In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise
by George Prochnik
Prochnik seeks to understand a world that grows more deafening by the day.  His extensive investigation eloquently takes on such things as: car-stereo competitions; traffic noise; retail soundtracks and mall design; the neuroscience of pleasing and annoying frequencies; soundproofing and noise abatement; the acoustic architecture of places of worship; the deaf community at Gallaudet University; and the silent world of Trappist monks. Prochnik’s solution is not so much to fight noise as to create more quiet spaces.

One Square Inch of Silence
by Gordon Hempton
Hempton is an acoustic ecologist who has recorded many natural environments and he claims to have found the quietest place in America – a spot in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park. He has created an organization called One Square Inch with a goal of establishing a law that would “prohibit all aircraft from flying over our most pristine national parks.” To promote his cause, Hempton sets out on a cross-country road trip to Washington, D.C.

Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence
by George Foy
Suddenly driven to despair by the noise of the Manhattan subway, Foy begins to track the decibel levels in his daily environment and becomes consumed with the quest for absolute silence. He tries to drown urban sounds in his bathtub, experiments with noise-canceling headphones, visits sensory-deprivation tanks, and seeks silence a mile underground in a nickel mine. He also explores the scientific, historical, and physiological aspects of silence and sound.

Listening Below the Noise: a Meditation on the Practice of Silence
by Anne D. Leclaire
Leclaire recounts her practice of being silent two days each month. Her focus is on gaining a better understanding of herself and reconnecting with nature. She also describes the sometimes negative responses of others to this practice and provides recommendations for those who are also tempted to institute silent days.

The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: a Book About Noise
by Garret Keizer
Keizer’s book looks at the human history of noise and takes a particular interest in noise as power, both personal and political. He calls on individuals to be more conscientious regarding the noise they contribute. In addition to a bibliography, index, and extensive notes, Keizer also includes a timeline of noise history, decibel ranges for everyday situations, noise-related organizations, and suggestions for resolving noise disputes.

And lastly, straying just a bit from our theme:

*No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33”
by Kyle Gann
One of the most controversial pieces of twentieth-century music, both praised and ridiculed, is John Cage’s 4’33” – the length of time it takes to play a composition in which no note is sounded. One of Cage’s goals was to make listeners more aware of everyday environmental sounds. Gann provides an engaging overview of Cage’s life, influences, and creative output. He highlights his work for prepared piano, his interest in minimalism, and the use of chance as a compositional technique. He compares the title piece to paintings by Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg and looks at Cage’s artistic friendships with 12-tone serialist Arnold Schoenberg, dancer/partner Merce Cunningham, and Zen teacher D. T. Suzuki among others. Whatever your stance on 4’33”, Gann’s book is insightful and ear-opening.