a blog about culture, sound, music, and technology.
updated occasionally by Nick Seaver.
Just before I finished this post, Marc over at Disquiet posted the most recent challenge in his excellent Junto Project. Lo and behold, it’s about silence. There must be something in the air.
Tracks are due July 30th; if you’re reading this before then, maybe you’ll be inspired to contribute something. If it’s late enough, maybe there will be something here to listen to while you read.
The famous (and often repeated) story about the origin of John Cage’s “silent” piece, 4’33”, puts Cage in one of the anechoic chambers at Harvard around 1950, seeking silence. Anechoic chambers are baffling rooms, isolated from outside vibration and covered inside with sound-absorbing wedges. In total anechoic chambers, you walk on a wire mesh floor, suspended above yet more wedges. A sound made inside the anechoic chamber travels from its source to the walls, where its energy is absorbed — it is not heard again.
In this origin myth of avant-garde silence, Cage doesn’t find any. Instead, he famously (there is little about this story that is not famous) hears two tones, which an engineer, identity lost to time, tells him are the sound of his circulatory and nervous systems at work.1 His expectations for technological achievement disappointed, Cage has a revelation:
There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear.
Thus we get the irony of Cage’s “silent” piece, which repeats his experience from the anechoic chamber in a concert setting. Just as the expectation of total silence in the lab is disappointed, so the expectation of silence in the concert hall is disappointed. In practice, the piece is not silent at all but sounds like the whirring of air conditioners, the shuffling of feet, the crinkling of programs, punctuated by coughs, laughter, and the driving by of cars outside.
THE MODERN TOWN HARDLY KNOWS SILENCE2
The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act of 2010 requires that hybrid and electric cars, too quiet at low speeds, produce sound to alert pedestrians to their presence. In a striking departure from the typical dialogue about sound and public space, we find President Obama signing a bill that mandates the addition of sound to the road.
The question of what sounds a car should make, now that it makes them on purpose is not entirely new,3 and among sound-interested folk, it tends to inspire thoughts about compositional possibilities or sonic branding. Now that another bit of the accidental sonic world seems under control, silenced, it is terrain for art and commerce. The Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act works backwards as well, calling for a study into the noise levels of conventional automobiles, insinuating that even combustion engines are not as loud as we might want them to be.
The threat posed by massive hunks of plastic and metal quietly gliding by pedestrians seems relatively obvious. Solving that problem by adding specially designed sounds is not. After all, the sounds of conventional cars are essentially accidents of internal combustion, inefficiencies that exceed the designer’s intention. Instead of re-imagining the relationship (sonic and otherwise) between pedestrians and vehicles, we replace parts of it with simulacra as they become obsolete. Imagine a future in which each component of the vehicle/pedestrian pair has been replaced with a designed substitute: commuters use a hidden, efficient, and environmentally-friendly public transit, while holographic cars drive above them at precisely 35 mph, sounding out sine wave sweeps through the audible range, past mannequin pedestrians that wait at corners and look both ways before crossing. A more radical design might hold the newly achieved silence of the automobile steady, while changing other elements of the system instead.
Of course, remembering our revelation from Cage, the electric car is not silent in any absolute sense. Isolated in the anechoic chamber, it too disappoints us with a whirring motor, blowing fans, and on the road, the sound of tires against pavement and chassis cutting through air. Only in the modern urban setting does it fall below the noise floor, running up against our expectations and wayward pedestrians. Though there may always be “something to hear,” we can’t always hear it, attempts at subtle attention be damned. Our hearing, and especially our hearing in public, is caught up in larger social demands on how we pay attention with all of our senses. As Jonathan Crary writes,
Western modernity since the nineteen century has demanded that individuals define and shape themselves in terms of a capacity for “paying attention,” that is, for a disengagement from a broader field of attraction, whether visual or auditory, for the sake of isolating of focusing on a reduced number of stimuli.
Like Cage’s experiment in the anechoic chamber, the digital hum of the electric car reminds us that hearing and sound are deeply contextual — we are always assembled with noisy others, throbbing circulatory systems, city sidewalks, combustion engines, and the moving crowd.
I CAN HEAR A COLLECTIVE RUMBLING
Yesterday, I visited the anechoic chamber at UCLA for the second time, with a group of artists and high school students. The first time is a faint memory, from a high school physics class field trip. I remember the darkness, the strange pressure in my ears from a dampened room, and some anxiety about the strength of the wire floor.
In my memory the anechoic chamber was less like Cage’s obstinately lively sound world, and more like an experience described by Helen Keller, writing about a visit to a different anechoic chamber at about the same time as Cage:
Language has no equivalent for the absolute physical silence that burst upon me in that fantastic, baffling chamber. […] I have known many kinds of silence—the silence of early morning, the silence of remote mountain summits, the silence of gently falling snow. […] Shut in by floor, ceiling, and walls of fiberglass, I throbbed with the silence of the dead and the silence that covers buried peoples and ages without a history.4
Though Keller and Cage both experience the throbbing of their own bodies, for Cage, this throbbing is registered as sound. For the deaf Keller, it is silence. The absence of environmental vibration — the isolation of the room — suggests absence on a epic scale, covering “buried people and ages without a history” beyond its damping walls.
My second visit to the chamber was different. Before we arrived, it had been full of boxes of radioactive isotopes. Having somewhat fallen out of favor in academic science, the room is most often used as an elaborate, asbestos-lined storage closet. Still inside were a bunch of oscillators and a pair of speakers, plugged into a power strip with a glowing orange switch and set on a piece of plywood. Walking across the wire mesh floor would shake the board, and you could hear the cables move. Standing still, you could hear the motion of other people around the room and feel the floor bounce under their steps.
Part of the conventional tour of the anechoic chamber involves handing out scotch tape and turning out the lights. In the dark, you can see the light of static electricity when you pull tape off the roll. It is almost as if a silent room is not interesting enough on its own; it has to be dark as well. But even darkness was hard to achieve. The power strip continued to glow in the corner, and the light that creeped in around the edges of the door only seemed to grow brighter. I rubbed my eyes at some point — after that, I didn’t stop seeing fluid patterns of color until the lights had turned back on. Sitting on the ground, trying to save your keys from falling out of your pocket through the floor, you could hear the constant rustling of other people and feel their motions bounce through the wire mesh, again disappointing the expectation of pure silence.
The anechoic chamber is perhaps better described not as a silent room, but as a machine for listening. Rather than turning your attention meditatively inward, it seems to turn your attention out, moving the most minute noise from background to foreground. Murray Schafer, describing a phenomenon that has much to do with Crary’s thinking about attention, writes, “Noises are the sounds we have learned to ignore.” Rooms like the anechoic chamber and the concert hall are made for listening in ways both cultural and technical, supporting an economy of attention quite different from the the road outside.
To think about silence, we need to think about intersecting systems of attention and expectation, configurations of listeners and objects. The regular disappointments of technology, its perceived failures to fit the isolated, pure, and gleaming figure we sometimes cast for it, call for another way of understanding silence. As Cage reflected on his experience in the anechoic chamber 40 years later:
Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.
There is some debate over who this engineer could have been: his explanation to Cage is generally considered incorrect. You can’t hear the frequencies of your nervous system, although arguably a high-pitched ringing in the ear could be considered a function of the nervous system in a broad sense. At the time of Cage’s visit, there were three anechoic chambers at Harvard, associated with different departments, so which kind of academic authority the engineer spoke from is unclear. ↩
The title of this section I took most recently from a piece by The Books, in which it was sampled from a recording of Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages, which has also taken a new life as a reading comprehension test for the SAT. ↩
From a letter, quoted in Mara Mills’ fantastic essay, “On Disability and Cybernetics: Helen Keller, Norbert Wiener, and the Hearing Glove.” ↩
In the late forties I found out by experiment (I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University) that silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around. I devoted my music to it. My work became an exploration of non-intention. To carry it out faithfully I have developed a complicated composing means using I Ching chance operations, making my responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices.
(image via Dan Holdsworth)
Dick Whyte’s reconstruction of 4’33”, stitching together YouTube performances of the piece.
Untitled (for William Tager) (2006) - Dave Dyment
A radio for every available frequency in a given space, all tuned to their lowest possible volume.
Beautiful concept, though the Tager reference is a little morbid.
Denoising Field Recordings documents an early attempt at using denoising-techniques in a creative and compositional manner. Instead of utilising noise-reduction-algorithms for their intended purpose (the restoration of damaged audio signals), these processes are applied to various field recordings of trains, streets, swimminghalls and public transport. Due to the fact that these recordings consist entirely of noises this operation transforms the originals into an uncanny hybrid of newly introduced processing artefacts, occasional silence and sporadically audible traces of the original field recordings. What kind of sound-aesthetics can emerge while denoising field recordings? Which audible parameters are able to resist this »audio-erasement-process«? How are these traces comparable to the visual remanences of Robert Rauschenberg’s erasure of a de Kooning drawing?
Shimmering, gorgeous results of applying noise reduction algorithms to “noise.” Click through to hear samples.
(via Everyday Listening)
“Literally fighting sound with sound.”
Scores are silent music!
The Fiery Furnaces’ next album will consist of instruction, conventional music notation, graphic music notation, reports and illustrations of previous hypothetical performances, reports and illustrations of hypothetical performances previous to the formation of their hypotheses, guidelines for the fabrication of semi-automatic machine rock, memoranda to the nonexistent Central Committee of the Fiery-Furnaces-in-Exile concerning the non-creation of situations, Relevant to Progressive Rock Division, conceptual constellations on a so-to-speak black cloth firmament, and other items that have nothing to do with the price of eggs, or milk, or whatever the proverbial expression ceased to be.
In other words, a Silent Record.Since bands can no longer sell audio, FF decline to provide it.
John Cage - In love with another sound
“I wired the gallery with 13 microphones, each set in a resonating tube tuned to a note of the diatonic scale. The viewer would put on headphones and play a tune on an antique keyboard, in which each note was made of filtered sound from elsewhere in the gallery.”