Sunday, May 4, 2008

Apple #314: Silence

Last night, I went to see a ballet. I wish the choreography had been a little more demanding, but on the whole, it was a very stirring performance.

Ballets are like an operas in the sense that the story can be quite dramatic, with people falling deeply in love, and sometimes there are sword fights or other violent moments, and there's often a good dose of fantasy. But in ballets, the whole story is told without words. No speaking, no singing. There's the music and the dancing, and that's it. The movements and gestures and facial expressions of the dancers do most of the work in conveying not just the plot but the emotion. The ballet I went to see happened to be Romeo and Juliet, so you can bet there was a lot of emotion. Two pas de deux (dance for two people) in particular were absolutely beautiful.

I left with that stunned sense you get when an experience has tapped some emotional well. And because none of the dancers had spoken during the entire performance, I had no desire to break that spell by speaking. I have spoken since then -- talked on the phone briefly to my mother, asked for an Italian soda at the coffee shop -- but not very much. And I've felt the same desire to continue in this pool of quiet. Just to be still.

So I'm thinking about silence.

  • Some people take vows of silence in protest for political purposes.
      • Each year on April 18, high school and college students across the United States take a vow of silence to protest the bullying that happens in their schools against other students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. It is also supposed to let the school administrators know that the students don't like this behavior, and they want their principals and deans to take steps to stop the bullying.
      • Each October 24, students across high schools and colleges take a similar, collective vow of silence to protest abortion.
      • Just recently, students at San Jose State University took a vow of silence, covering their mouths with handkerchiefs, to protest the university's decision to stop funding the Educational Opportunity Program, which assists low-income and disadvantaged students. After the school board agreed to re-instate the program, one of the protesters pushed down the handkerchief and said, "Thank you."

Dr. John Francis, Planetwalker and silence-keeper
(Photo sourced from Verde, a blog about sustainability)

      • One environmental activist, John Francis, decided to stop using all forms of motorized transport after two oil tankers collided in 1971, spilling crude oil all across San Francisco Bay. People were giving him grief about walking everywhere, so then he decided to stop talking. At first, he was only going to stop talking for one day, but he kept extending his vow of silence again and again, and it lasted 17 years. Remarkably, during that 17 years, he walked across the country, earned college and graduate degrees in science and environmental studies, taught classes, and even dated, all without speaking. On Earth Day (April 22) 1990, he decided to speak again. "After 17 years of not speaking, to hear my voice, I didn't recognize it." Now he is a traveling lecturer, speaking to people about what he learned on his walking tour, and he has published a book called Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.

Planetwalker sells on Amazon for about $17.

      • Various sports figures have taken vows of silence to protest the way the media has portrayed the reasons behind their actions, or inactions.
  • Vows of silence taken to protest something don't seem to me to be very silent, in the end. The purpose is to communicate something, get your message heard, and to propel someone else to take action.
  • Perhaps what I'm more familiar with are vows of silence taken for religious reasons.
      • Trappist monks and nuns, whom most people believe take a vow of silence, actually do speak. They just limit their spoken communication to occasions when they have to explain something to do their work, to have a spiritual exchange with their superiors, or to have spontaneous conversation on special occasions. Frequently refraining from speaking helps the monks and nuns to discover that "speaking is not always the best form of communication. In fact it is frequently used as a coverup."

Thomas Merton, perhaps the most famous Trappist monk, certainly did not refrain from speaking. Among other achievements, he met and conversed with leaders of several religions, including the Dalai Lama of Tibet, as seen here.
(Photo from Spiritual Stars of the Millennium - Thomas Merton)

      • Most monasteries and convents do allow their members to speak, but they also encourage silence as a path to reflection and prayer.
      • Monks at one Cistercian monastery in Spain recently agreed to break their order's 905 years of silence specifically to begin selling the wine the monks have been making for years, in order to raise funds necessary for them to continue. Though they talk to people who may purchase their wine, the brothers on the whole keep silent, and they do not speak when they are in the wine cellars.
  • Perhaps surprisingly, there are some movies that eschew speaking, or are about silence.
      • Into Great Silence is about the monks who live in the Grand Chartreuse Carthusian monastery in France. The monks take a vow of silence upon entering, and though they may speak to each other on walks they take each week, they are otherwise silent. The movie documents that silence, giving a glimpse of what it is like to live without speech.
      • A trilogy of films, Koyaanisqatsi (the Hopi word for Life out of Balance), Powaqqatsi (Hopi for Life's Sorcerer), and Naqoyqatsi (Hopi for War as a Way of Life), are about the influence of technology on various aspects of our lives. There is music, composed by Philip Glass, but there is no speaking, no narration. The films use only images and music to convey a wide-reaching narrative. The images are vivid, rich with color, and they don't just flicker across the screen but the camera lingers on them: people crossing an intersection, baboons bathing in an alpine spring, baby chicks moving on an assembly line. You are given time to absorb what you are seeing, time to think about it in context of the other images you have seen and the music you are hearing. The result is a meditative and yet compelling experience. I'm going to do the movie trailer thing and give you adjectives that people used to describe it: spellbinding, mesmerizing, an audiovisual rush, hauntingly evocative, one of the greatest films of all time.

Koyaanisqatsi - Life Out of Balance is available from Amazon for $10.99. Amazon also has a deal on the whole trilogy, but the set was out of stock when I made this page.


  • French researchers have discovered that when people are told to listen for a noise that will occur shortly, the auditory cortex of their brains is just as active as when they are actually listening to a sound. In other words, listening with expectation of a sound produces the same level of brain activity as listening to the sound itself. They also discovered that the brain activity in the expectation phase was similar to that of people with Attention Deficit Disorder. Which bears out things that ADHD people report, which is that all noises attract their attention at the same level of importance, and everything seems so noisy they can't concentrate.
  • With the development of all sorts of communication technologies, cell phones, home theaters, video games, appliances, and the typical next-door-dog-barking, some people are seeking places where they can find silence.
      • Owens Corning, the company that makes the pink insulation, has developed sealants and other insulators that you can use to insulate your home and reduce noise by 85%. They also recommend acoustic floor mats -- which I would love to give to my neighbor who enjoys stomping around on her hardwood floors in her high heels every morning and evening.
      • You can also get noise-canceling headphones, which use internal microphones to generate another set of white noise sounds that will drown out the ambient noise around you. That white noise isn't loud enough to cancel out really penetrating sounds like someone snoring in the seat next to you, or a screaming baby, or an ambulance siren. But it will block out the humming of a refrigerator, traffic passing by, wind, rain. As far as I'm concerned, these headphones block out the wrong stuff.
      • Isolation tanks, where you lay down in a dark soundproof tank with skin-temperate salt water, or isolation chambers, which are small rooms that are also dark and soundproof, have both been used as a way to help people achieve peaceful, meditative states. However, if people are left in them too long, they begin to hallucinate and then they experience anxiety, antisocial behavior, and their brains stop learning new things. Here is one person's experience -- with pictures! -- of being in a sensory deprivation tank for an hour, which was not so much time that it became a negative experience.
      • There are also rooms called anechoic chambers. These rooms are lined with cone-shaped insulation and are designed to reduce the echoes created by something moving within the chamber. The result is a "dead"-sounding room.

Artist Jacob Kirkegaard is using an anechoic chamber to help him listen to and record the sounds generated within his own ears. He calls his project Labyrinthitis.
(Photo sourced from Nordic Sound Art)

  • John Cage, the well-known avant-garde musician whose works of music often include passages of silence, says there is no such thing as silence. He says that in music, silence refers to all those sounds that are not intended.
    • One of John Cage's most notable pieces, 4'33" (4 minutes 33 seconds), was inspired by a visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University, which was promised to have the ability to block all sound. Cage was delighted to discover that what he heard was his own heartbeat, the pulse of his blood, and even the whistling of the nerves in his ears.

That's my kind of silence.

Then of course there are people who do not have a choice but to listen to silence. One blog, Hear Again, describes the "voyages of a cochlear implantee," meaning someone who was hearing impaired but with the aid of an implant, now has improved hearing. The blog appears to be dead, but there's a lot of really good information here. On this particular page, Ivan C describes what it's like to be deaf.

"Silence promotes gay awareness,"
The Enquirer, April 16, 2004
"Rajastan teacher's vow of silence angers students," India eNews, January 24, 2008
"Protest yield support for student equality,"
Spartan Daily, April 24, 2008
Random House, Inc. Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.
"Environmentalist starts talking after 17 years,"
The Sydney Morning Herald, April 6, 2007
"Students at Hundreds of Campuses to Join Day of Silence Against Abortion Oct. 24,", October 6, 2006
"Mark Johnston takes vow of silence,"
Telegraph, February 8, 2007
"Hibs players take vow of silence," BBC Sport, August 4, 2005
"13-year-old boy breaks vow of silence after 10 years,"
Daily Mail, June 14, 2007
Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (Trappists), Frequently Asked Questions
"Swapping a vow of silence for almighty fine wine,"
The Age, July 17, 2003
PTF: Sound Advice: Insulating against modern noise,
Builder News Magazine, January 2008
"Can we hear the sound of silence?" BBC News, January 9, 2006
Wikipedia, Sensory Deprivation
V. Bracha, Isolation chamber for eyeblink conditioning in the rabbit
Pass the Popcorn, Into Great Silence: And At Great Length, Too, March 30, 2007
Music, Noise, Silence, and Sound, which looks like somebody's paper for a class, but I have no idea who or for what class
Peter Gutmann, The Sounds of Silence, Classical Notes, 1999

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