2nd April 2020
‘He that hath ears to hear, let him hear’ Matthew, 11: 15
The lockdown and consequent grounding of aircraft, lessening of traffic, and closure of factories has made people much more conscious of the daily noises they do hear. Many of these are commonplace – cattle, trees, rain, movements in water, house timbers creaking in the wind, branches scratching at night-windows, clocks ticking, pipes gurgling, children playing, and people talking quietly – but all too often these immemorial sounds are lost in a sea of other sounds. Now they are re-emerging, and new ones are being added, as shown by this aural ‘atlas’. People standing on balconies or at doors applaud healthcare workers, and passing police. Birds trill in Pnomh Penh. In Tibet, prayers are refilled with sonorous significance. Even underwater, the diminution in human traffic may be having beneficial effects.
For many people, the relative silence is upsetting, even slightly frightening. All our lives, we have been surrounded by the thrumming cacophony of ‘growth’. Silence to us is often associated with stiffness and deadness – cathedrals, cemeteries, decay, empty houses. This is why so many of us bring noise with us wherever we go – playing, talking and watching on devices, piping pop into gyms, lifts and pubs, clustering in crowds, or using power tools when hand tools would do. Sounds exchange emotions and information, and exert power – whether echoes and bells used in religions, sirens warning of perils, or Congreve’s ‘Musick…to soothe a savage breast’. As David Hendy notes in Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening:
…the desire to understand and control sound – to enforce silence, to encourage listening, to sing, to shout – is not just hundreds but tens of thousands of years old.
Sounds also act as shields against inner and outer emptiness – an emptiness maybe greater now than in many other ages, because few now (in the West) have the consolations of religion, or desire to hear Elijah’s ‘still, small voice’ in the wilderness. Silence for many is not golden, but slightly sinister.
I am not personally drawn to religious contemplation, but nevertheless see silence as a sound in itself – inside which we can hear other sounds, if we listen closely (or imaginatively) enough. John Cage’s 4’33” is not really silent, but secretly full of the rustlings of its audience, our breathing, heartbeats, nervous systems and thoughts, and behind everything else, maybe even Pythagoras’s fancied ‘harmony of the spheres’.
It is possible to be too snobbish about crowd and media noises as being ‘out of place’, or even idiotic – what information theorists might call a ‘random transmission error’. But still it seems a shame not to give more time to listen to ourselves, and to ourselves as part of the wider, wilder world.
We live in a sparsely-populated rural district, but in normal times our unclassified cul-de-sac and the neighbouring farm can be surprisingly noisy with engines. Villagers enjoy tinkering with cars, listening to loud music (noticeably, never good music) and sports, or mowing their grass as if homesick for Southend-on-Sea. There are also overflying airliners, including military jets using the nearby bombing range, the Red Arrows display team, or restored World War Two Spitfires, Hurricanes and a Lancaster from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight at RAF Coningsby. Sometimes the Air Force exercise at night, and there are explosions and gunfire on the beach.
But even in normal times we also often experience silence for blissful hours, broken only by natural noises. We get blackbirds, finches, robins, rooks, sparrows, starlings, thrushes and tits, like many gardens. We also get ones that fill the soul with excitement – the geese who overfly in autumn, honking like Viking war-trumpets – gulls screaming into each other’s faces – curlews rippling as they rise – buzzards screaming as they ride updraughts – the urgent pipes of zigzagging snipe – and the great-spotted woodpecker hammering for admittance into the ash. One May day, cuckoos chatted moronically in our trees for an entire afternoon, and more wonderfully, turtle doves chose our rooftop to romance (vague thoughts of The Song of Solomon: ‘the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land’). At night, tawny owls converse across the field outside, and sometimes badgers, muntjac or coupling foxes set the snoozing dog off startlingly.
These sounds are small things certainly, but they have become increasingly rare, drowned out like whale singing by the propellers of ‘progress’. They are not just worth hearing, but listening to. They are passages in a universal ‘music’, connecting us with the instinctive part of ourselves, and ourselves with great underlying rhythms. ‘The act of listening’, John Cage reflected, ’is in fact an act of composing’.
Small sounds put our preoccupations into proportion, soothe and uplift us – as did the nightingale which ‘accompanied’ cellist Beatrice Harrison on that famous 1924 broadcast from Oxted – but only if we allow them to, if we have ears to hear. They are the sounds that have always been, and will always be, long after our devices have been muted, and we ourselves have become grass. If lockdown helps even a few more of us to listen, or listen better, at least for a little while, we just may gain insight from our incarceration.
This is the second installment in a series. Here is Part I