Silence and darkness

· mumblings ·

A couple of days ago, I came across this review of Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports’. It’s an album I like very much, and have found very calming at various points in my life. One particular description struck me as being perceptive:

This is music, not just sound. There's structure there, melody. But it's also something of a hologram. There's a three dimensionality about this piece. Listen, and you can walk around in the music. Listen, and you can imagine and see space, the architecture around you. Listen, and become completely centered and aware of yourself.

He also mentions in the review that the original vinyl album (which I also have) has 30 seconds of silence at the end of each piece. This is an important part of the work, and one that you should listen carefully to.

I’ve been thinking a lot about silence recently. Most of us live in a noisy world. In cities, silence is an exceedingly rare and treasured quality, because there is always some background (or foreground) noise: traffic, music, alarms, aeroplanes, sirens, ringing mobiles, and raised voices. I also seem to be getting what I think is probably mild tinnitus, so it’s hard for me to find silence even in a quiet environment. But true, enjoyable silence isn’t the complete absence of sound, but deep quietness in which you can feel the space around you.

One of my favourite activities on trips to Brazil was to go out on the river in the dark. On recent trips, we have got up well before dawn to go out in the boat, looking for jaguars. We never actually saw one, but for me, that was only a small part of the experience anyway. The quality of silence on these trips was beautiful. As we set off into the darkness, the roar of the outboard motor and the slap of the water on the hull overwhelmed everything. Eventually we reached a particularly good spot (or so the guide said) for spotting jaguars, and he would cut the engine for us to listen for their calls.

The river at this point was extremely wide, with low trees and shrubs on the bank. There is little light pollution at night in the Pantanal, so the stars are overwhelming, and the great bow of the Milky Way was above and below us, reflected in the still water of the river. It was disorienting: I began to think that I was looking at the sky, until a gentle breeze caused the stars to shiver. Sitting in the dark in a boat in the middle of the river felt like floating on a plane between two gigantic dark mirrored bowls.

The silence on the water was incredibly rich. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like it before. There was no noise of human activity at all, so the background silence was a deep, velvety black. However, we could hear sounds of other life. On the banks, herons and egrets were beginning to rouse in their roosts, grumbling and squabbling in their harsh, croaking voices. Around the boat we could hear the watery popping of fish surfacing or caiman submerging to the depths. Bats returning to their roosts after a night of hunting gently flicked the air, soft as a moth’s wing. All of these sounds served to intensify the silence, giving it space and texture, in the same way that shining a torch beam into the night thickens the darkness around the light. It wasn’t oppressive. On the contrary, it was an extraordinary, contradictory experience. I felt excited but serene, aware of the space around me but also taken out of myself.

We made a few of those trips over the years, and I always cherished the experience, and felt rather bereft when the guide started the engine again to take us back. I would love a bit of that silence and darkness right now.