Fear of Silence

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Fear is on my mind.

The composer Jonathan Siemasko said this on twitter the other day:

Siemasko says this fear may be a reason he’s tended to employ segues between pieces on his albums. Alan Licht, in his book Sound Art, Beyond Music, Between Categories hypothesizes that fear of silence is partially related to the fact that the human voice can’t hold a note for long before running out of breath, he then goes on to suggest that the popularity of long delays and long reverbs in contemporary music is a manifestation of a fear of running out of breath, of dying. Perhaps the current vogue for digitally stretching durations is another, to wallow in an illusion of eternity.

A day or two after the tweet by Siemasko, I was getting some books together to trade in at the used book store, and I opened up a dog-eared page of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great to find this quote:

Le silence eternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie
-Blaise Pascal

That translates to ‘the eternal silences of these infinite spaces make me afraid’.

Coincidentally, that same day I found that quote in Hitchens’ book, I came across the very same quote by Pascal in the book I was reading by R. Murray Schafer The Soundscape: Our Environment and the Tuning of the World (which is a fun read, despite Schafer’s preachy, conservative stance (it might better have been titled The Way Things Ought to Sound))

Schafer describes the fear of silence, comparing silence to death. He says, “Man likes to make sounds to remind himself that he’s not alone. From this point of view, total silence is the rejection of human personality. Man fears the absence of sound as he fears the absence of life. … Since modern man fears death as none before him, he avoids silence to nourish his fantasy of perpetual life.”

There certainly seems to be a Western cultural aversion to quiet, that much is certain (quiet is often equated, but distinct from silence). Every individual and every business seems to want to fill every sound space with music. I wonder if our culture’s definition of silence is ‘the lack of music or conversation’, rather than the absolute silence that so frightens Pascal and Schafer’s modern man. That amended definition might dovetail with John Cage’s occasional definition of silence as those sounds that are not intended.

It’s also easy to argue that there is a Western cultural aversion to thinking about death. So strong is our aversion to thinking and talking about death that if we are making this connection between silence and death, it must be an almost entirely subconscious thought.

There are other complicated matters of class & identity intertwined in the disquieted reaction to quiet. The wealthy elite have always sought to separate and distinguish themselves by developing tastes in activities and possessions that are out of reach to the lower classes due to rarity and costliness. At one point in our not-distant history, recorded music was a luxury item. The poor had to find someone with an instrument to scratch out some music for them, if they couldn’t buy or make an instrument themselves. The well-to-do were able to comfort themselves with high-class recorded music delivered on-demand by expensive playback equipment, they could even listen to the music of the poor as an anthropological entertainment without having to bear the indignity of associating with them directly. Recorded music is now ubiquitous, but I wonder if music doesn’t still bear the vestiges of its use as a symbol of wealth. Fear of quiet may still be a fear of lack. Side thought: the fear of distortion mentioned at the outset of this essay, (specifically the fear of low-fidelity) fits here too, the elite can afford to separate themselves with ever finer playback equipment, ever higher-fidelity recorded media, users of music can signal their class(iness) by grousing about unwanted noise or low bit-rates. </tangent>

I’ve mentioned in other writings that music is used as social marker, a way of distinguishing and separating one person from all others, a way for a person to say “I am like this, I like this set of things, I am unique” – a way, in short, to reinforce the self – an increasingly urgent necessity in a culture where individuality is valued over and above everything, and on a planet where the booming population growth is rendering this sense of uniqueness harder and harder to achieve. Music is used like clothing. It is a reminder of who one is, and also as a marker of what social groups one belongs to. Music constantly reminds its user of her place in society and in the world, and, also broadcasts these distinctions to others. Music is used as a marker of sexual territory: consider people with expensive sound systems in their cars. Someone booming bass out of their car is filling the area with an expression of “I am here, this is who I am” as surely as a dog does the same by pissing on a hydrant.

Could this impulse be boiled down to death-fear: the need to feel separate and unique? The needs to broadcast one’s taste in hopes to become associated with desirable social groups, to attract sex partners and to intimidate sex rivals… are these expressions of fear too? Is it as simple as trying to assert self-ness in fear of not-self-ness?

I’m thinking now of some kinds of music… certain kinds of heavy metal, harsh noise… these kinds of music that sometimes use overt symbols of death itself as a social bonding, identity-reinforcing solvent of the subculture. I sometimes think about this in terms of what Immanuel Kant says about the sublime, how if we can perceive the terrifying forces of nature, and not be harmed by them, we feel powerful. The average fan of these kinds of music confronts and becomes accustomed to death imagery, knowing it still invokes fear among the uninitiated. They themselves have, up to a certain level, overcome this fear, and therefore they can feel separated from the horde, and privy to rare tastes. They can be of a higher class than those over whom the imagery still holds its fear-power. It is a very interesting subversion (I wonder if Amelia Ishmael might identify this as “inversion”) of the paradigm. And yet this music pushes away the quiet even more vehemently than pop music does, is it truly unafraid?

As people constantly feel the need to re-mind themselves of who they are with their own personal soundtracks, capitalism fills the spaces it controls in a cynical (at least I see it that way) exploitation of these identity functions of music. Highly tailored corporate soundtracks to retail experiences are a ubiquitous phenomenon, these soundtracks seem to say to the consumer: You belong here, there is nothing to fear. You are a part of something. You will spend more money if you feel a part of something bigger than you, and if you can relate to the corporation as having a personality that resonates with yours, if you have… chemistry. Muzak Corporation’s pioneering advances in the use of tepid, un-challenging music as ‘air freshener’ has been much refined through marketing research… people used to complain about elevator music, I don’t hear many people complaining about the current abuse of music in public space. Is it because it drives the fear away?

My life doesn’t need a soundtrack.
– Jeph Jerman

If you remove the soundtrack to your life, if you sit with the quiet, sit with unintended sounds, do you stop being who you are? Do you stop existing as this temporal material process that you keep insisting to define as you?

There is nothing to fear: everything has a sound. John Cage brought to our attention that the term ‘silence’ cannot mean the total absence of sound, everything is vibrating. Everything has a sound. One thing I like to do is go around touching things to feel for sound that I cannot hear, listening through flesh and bone conduction. In some louder environments, I can feel the sound ebbing up through my feet. When I saw Sunn O))) in concert I felt like the liquid in my body was making cymatic patterns in sympathy to the sound of the amplified guitars. Sound isn’t just in the air, not only in the ears.

Touch something. Do you feel sound? Even if you can’t feel any vibration, it doesn’t follow that there is no sound, so many sounds are out of our limited range of perception. Many sounds too quiet to perceive. Cage talked about atomic music, and hoped that someday we would be able to amplify the vibrations of atoms and subject that sound to our aesthetic appreciation. Other sounds are so loud they become painful or deadly, the windows in Chelyabinsk were blown out by a sound. (The pain threshold of sound in humans is subjective and depends on frequency, but usually falls between 120 & 140 decibels, over 194 decibels sound is registered as a shock wave.)

Many sounds lie outside of the spectrum of wave frequency we know as sound: some seismic infrasounds, for example, can be recorded, viewed as a waveform in a computer sound-editor, but would have to be pitched up many hundreds of times to fall within the frequency range that we can hear. Sound is energy within a certain wave spectrum.

Everything in the universe is . . . is . . . is made of one element, which is a note, a single note. Atoms are really vibrations, you know, which are extensions of THE BIG NOTE, everything’s one note. Everything, even the ponies. The note, however, is the ultimate power, but see, the pigs don’t know that, the ponies don’t know that.
– Spider Barbour

Pascal’s fear of silent infinity came to him upon considering the incomprehensible vastness of outer-space first suggested by Galileo’s discoveries with the telescope. Outer space is full of energy waves resonating in all directions, bouncing off masses of matter. These are electro-magnetic waves, not air-pressure waves (as sound is), but they act, physically, in very similar ways. Light, for example, can be effected by the Doppler shift.

What about inner-space? The Buddhists talk about how, through an awareness practice, one can glimpse what is described as a great void, a vast hollowness at the center of experience.

The word “sunyata” is one that refers to this void, there are other words. I’m not a Buddhist scholar, but I do find this concept quite intriguing, I need to do some more study in this direction. The first paragraph of Wikipedia’s entry for Sunyata is a pretty good thumbnail sketch: ” Sunyata is a Buddhist term that is translated into English as emptiness, openness, thusness, etc. Śūnyatā refers to the absence of inherent existence in all phenomena, and it is complementary to the Buddhist concepts of not-self”

ETA: above is a quote from Rebecca Solnit

If there are no frames, no center, is there sound?

How could I react to great emptiness? Do I fear it? Perhaps I am in awe, perhaps I am confused and don’t understand, so I put it out of my mind. When I was young, I was told that sinners have a great hollowness that could only be filled with Jesus. Jesus didn’t make a sound.

If I listen to sound, I fear no sound. If I listen to no sound, there is no I to fear.

I’m not really sure how to neatly tie up this essay, it’s obviously a huge subject with threads going in every direction. It is above my level of discipline to address it as an academic might, nevertheless these are the directions my curiosity is leading me. I will say this: It’s natural and healthy to fear death, less so to deny it, to pretend it away. It’s not necessary to fear the quiet. We have the chance to listen for the universe, let’s do it while we can.


  1. @lilianechlela @vuzhmusic you just gave me something to ponder upon for the next hour, great indeed 🙂

    TrackBack by Nysso | March 3, 2013 5:13 pm
  2. Vuzh Music Blog » Blog Archive » Fear of Silence http://t.co/GbJOU60wG5

    Reading this in quiet (not silence; waiting for some rain to pass)

    TrackBack by jshell | March 3, 2013 6:11 pm
  3. Another thread: I think we may have a natural tendency to conflate silence and solitude (alone-ness). And solitude can be a source of fear.

    Posted by Dave Seidel | March 3, 2013 6:38 pm
  4. Genesis 1:2 (KJV):

    “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters”

    But did the earth-without-form have a sound?

    Here I mean silence-as-the-absence-of-sound, and not silence in the sense of interaction of the Longfellow poem:

    “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence”.

    Nor even do I mean the practice of keeping silent, as in the writing of the Quaker writer William Penn:
    “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment”

    I mean silence in terms of the observable phenomena of an absence of detected vibration of sound. We know that the observation is illusory. The sound is present and not noticed in some cases, or present and not detected in other cases. We confront not only the Cage aspect of un-noticed or unprocessed sound, but also the dependency of sound upon the “equipment” of the observer.

    Discussions of silence involve both a technical and a cultural component. “Fear”, freighted with its own cultural ambiguities, also expresses a series of cultural biases.

    True silence, the presence of vacuum preventing the transmission of sound, is neither frigtening not encouraging. It is just a phenomenon. But “fear of silence’, like the commodification of silence, is embedded with cultural constructs that requires a lot of definitions to analyze.

    I read a lot of discussion some years ago how the ambient artist Oophoi released long-form pieces which included long passages of silence or nearly-silent drone. Some found this fascinating, others found it off-putting. The reactions, though, were all aesthetic,
    and none based in fear. I do not fear silence in music. I embrace the rest. We know that the rest is not really silence, though–it is a reference, in the Cage sense, to permitting the room to provide the sound. It’s a real performance conceit–treating a cessation of playing of an instrument as silence.

    All that said, my own cultural bias is that silence is a useful device, neither to be worshipped or feared. I believe that silence is a luxury and a virtue and a thing that can be freely shared.
    Not many other “consumer experiences” can deliver on those claims.

    Posted by gurdonark | March 4, 2013 1:02 pm
  5. Nice little meditation on silence. Interesting that it nearly comes full circle, with total loud noise coming close to the same associations as silence. The concept of the sublime would certainly seem to apply in both cases.
    Interesting little note also on ‘music = clothing’ as symbols of identity. In that vein, I always loved the Fugazi T-shirt design with the caption ‘You are not what you own’.

    Posted by Guy | March 4, 2013 1:11 pm
  6. Guy, Thanks for the comment – I’m glad you pointed out the links between noise & silence, these similarities keep popping into my view, this topic is probably worth a full exploration in itself. I mentioned some other linkage between noise and silence in another piece of writing “On Listening Through Barriers”: http://soundthroughbarriers.com/statement.html

    Posted by C. Reider | March 5, 2013 7:42 am
  7. @vuzhmusic I read it – thanks for putting your thoughts out there.

    TrackBack by tobiasreber | March 4, 2013 2:09 pm
  8. Robert Fripp ALWAYS say it better than me:

    “Music is the cup that holds the wine of silence. Sound is that cup, but empty. Noise is that cup, but broken.”

    Music/sound as difference. Silence as perfect harmony.

    Great post!

    Posted by Jorge Gonzalez | March 4, 2013 4:57 pm
  9. @vuzhmusic thanks for the mention, the quote was by Rebecca Solnit

    TrackBack by ValhallArts | March 5, 2013 3:16 pm
  10. Excellent article.
    I consider Part of my creative work an approach to silence and uncertainty as a
    way to kill my personality.
    It’s extremely difficult to get rid of the ego aside to bring silence and uncertainty.
    Just lately I’m getting, and I recognize that it is due to consider music as
    something to share and no benefit, economically or for the person.

    Posted by miquel | March 6, 2013 6:27 am
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