The sound of silence

A church in East Sussex (England) has released a CD of the building’s ambient noise to raise its profile and generate funds. Members of St Peter’s Church, East Blatchington, have sold their first copies at an open day and taken orders for more.

The experiment at St Peter’s reflects something French philosopher Michel Foucault once wrote that, “Silence itself… is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within overall strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say.”

The recording made at St Peter’s Church includes the ambient sounds of voices, footsteps and occasional background traffic noise. The church’s technician reportedly said: “Mostly people have said it’s nice and they like it, and that it’s quiet and peaceful. It does what it says on the tin. Silence is all you get.”

The church launched the Sound of Silence CD at an open day when the church was filled with the sounds of the organ, the choir, and music playing every half hour – but people who were interested in buying the CD could listen to it on headphones. The CD’s booklet describes what a rare treat silence can be in what has become a busy and noisy world.

The American composer John Cage is still best known for his 1952 composition 4′33″, which is performed in the absence of deliberate sound. Musicians who present the work do nothing aside from being present for the duration specified by the title. But the content of the composition is actually the sounds heard by the audience during its “performance”. In an interview in 1991 Cage said, “When I hear what we call music, it seems to me that someone is talking. And talking about his feelings, or about his ideas of relationships. But when I hear traffic, the sound of traffic… I don’t have the feeling that anyone is talking. I have the feeling that sound is acting. And I love the activity of sound.”

There is, in fact, a typology of silence in social interaction that distinguishes conversational silence (the silent answer to a question or the case of not participating in a conversation even when present), thematic silence (when a person speaking does not relate to a particular topic), textual silence (in which a silent person reads a particular text in silence) and situational silence (in which a group of people is silent but are not reading a text or anything at all). It focuses on language and the word as something that disrupts silence, ignoring the natural state of silence as ambient noise.

The world will never return to the silence of its primordial past. The ability to vocalise and speak that led to the miracles of language, writing, and the myriad technologies of communication, have also resulted in a technological noise that engulfs the stillness that human beings may need to discover their true selves.

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