Posts Tagged ‘silence’

On silence and noise

March 10, 2019

I like silence. And the older I grow, the more I seem to like it.

When I was much younger, I loved to be surrounded by music; I drove my parents to distraction as a teenager, listening to pirate radio all day long. As a student I built up a decent collection of rock music, hardly any of which I still possess; I spent long hours into the nights with friends talking, setting the world to rights while chain-listening to albums. Gradually my interest in jazz, and even more in classical music, elbowed rock aside. A lot of it, I realise, is quieter music. And I have built up another enormous collection.

However, my default position is now to sit in silence and read, occasionally chatting with my other half, whenever anything interesting comes up. Sometimes, not very often, we listen to music; it’s often a surprise, a very pleasant one, to rediscover an old favourite. And despite my huge collection, built up as I explored the world of music, what I listen to has narrowed. Anything by J S Bach, of course; Beethoven string quartets; Chopin; Gregorian Chant; anything by the unbelievably gorgeous voices of The Sixteen; trad jazz. Chamber music and instrumental – I can’t remember when I last listened to a symphony.

I used to love listening to the radio as I cook; Jazz Record Requests on Saturday afternoons was a particular favourite and a serious part of my musical education. But then the presenter was moved to a midnight slot and his replacement was not as congenial – how many times has that happened in my years of listening? – and so I gave up. The only programme that has remained un-destroyed on the radio is Composer of the Week, and its work giving me my background classical music education ended years ago. Radio has become blather with gobbets of music…

The world is so noisy: traffic, wallpaper music in shops (which like as not drives me our before I’ve even contemplated a purchase), vehicles which talk at you… it’s enough to make me want to be a Trappist sometimes. So much pointless wittering. And I have a hearing problem, reduced hearing in one ear, which necessitates a hearing aid. Perversely this means the world is often even louder.

One of the things I love and appreciate most about my regular walking holidays in the Ardennes is being alone and in silence. I can walk, and the only noises are my feet on the path and the birds about their business in the forests: I can be at peace, with myself and the world around me; I can hear myself think; I can review my life and plot the next stage…

I need to re-read The Misanthrope, and see if I recognise myself in Molière’s eponymous hero. Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Silence and Sara Maitland’s account of retreating from the world both call to me strongly. Yet I don’t feel anti-social, just resentful of the unnecessary noise, which I think has made me more liable to sit in silence as we read rather than enjoy the wonders of music. I’m sitting typing this listening to the Busch Quartet performing late Beethoven String Quartets, recordings from eighty years ago, utterly intriguing and beautiful to this person who understands nothing of the theory of music…

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My A-Z of Reading: Q is for Quiet

December 8, 2016

This post is a more general reflection on silence. That word used to feature on large notices all around the town library when I was a child: you were quiet in a library, you did not speak or have conversations but read, or looked for a book to read. At some point in the last twenty years or so, libraries became something else, in which books and reading took not quite a back seat, but were no longer the reason for the library’s existence, and the silence vanished.

I often read in silence. Some times I have music in the background, when I remember, or when it feels useful.

What I have come to realise as I’ve aged is how much our world finds silence awkward, or even threatening, and seeks to banish it. Not everyone feels comfortable sitting in a room not talking; people often feel they have to ‘fill the silence’ by speaking, about anything, just so that there isn’t no speaking happening. In shops one is normally assailed by music: this often has the effect of driving me out before I’ve had the chance to contemplate a purchase. But I’m not a typical customer, and so this is often as much my loss as the shop’s. Vehicles now have to make extra noise or speak in mechanical voices, particularly when manoeuvring. Wherever I go, I feel I am pursued by noise…

Silence – quiet – allows one to think. Sometimes there are things that need to be thought about; sometimes, thoughts just come, like dreams, a kind of mental sorting. And I find myself unable to conceive what is must feel like, not to like or welcome this state, or to find it threatening, or panic-inducing.

I find being quiet is peaceful, calming, restful. Reading sits well with silence: I can think, reflect on what I’m reading, take things in, react to what I’m reading. And it costs nothing. I think there’s a message there…

MacCulloch: Silence: A Christian History

May 5, 2013

9781846144264This is a difficult book, and a challenging one, but good, and I shall be re-reading it shortly, now that I’m clearer what his approach is.

I read it because I like silence, and feel oppressed by the gratuitous noise that pervades so much of the modern world. I want to flee bookshops like Waterstone’s as soon as I pass through the door, because of the awful music that they play – presumably to encourage people to buy books? I read it because I enjoyed Sara Maitland‘s book on silence, and will be returning to it, and I read it because I’m a Quaker and we worship in silence.

Diarmaid MacCulloch explores the place of silence in a wide range of different Christian churches and their rituals over time, and its gradual disappearance in favour of ritualised worship and liturgy. He shows why religious leaders were suspicious of silence and where it might take worshippers, and he recognises the deep spiritual potential of silence. His approach is a thoughtful, enquiring and sympathetic one, although he pulls no punches in the later parts of the book where he explores issues and topics that the established churches have deliberately remained silent when they ought not to have done. He recognises that his background and expertise mean that he is focused on Christianity and its traditions, and that there is much that might be said about silence in other faiths.

I have found his earlier books, on the Reformation, and on the history of Christianity, very interesting and thought-provoking, and this was no exception, although harder to get into initially because of the elusiveness of the concept. But it repaid perseverance.

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