Presentation for In-Between two Sounds, Fri 2nd– Sun 11th September 2011

Musician and author of Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener David Toop, Salomé Voegelin author of Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art and Stuart Sim author of Manifesto for Silence: Confronting the Politics and Culture of Noise will be discussing the value of

quietude in an increasingly noisy world and its effect on artistic practice.

Silence and Quietude

I want to make a distinction between Silence and Quietude, that might become part of our discussions, and which I think is

interesting when considering the role of either in art.

I start then with silence,

Silence is possibly the most lucid moment of myself in the soundscape. It makes me hear even the almost inaudible, that which

possibly does not sound at all and thus might not be there, but is generated nevertheless in my auditory imagination from the

smallest speck of sound. When there is little to hear you start hearing things, and the relationship between the heard to what

sounds becomes tenuous, invented, fantastical and the only evidence of having heard it at all is my bodily memory of it. 

The tiny sounds of a silent environment are not over-there, but are acutely in my ears. What I hear as distant is the distance heard,

not the over-there seen. It is a silent distance that has flattened onto my body and sounds with its sounds. In the plentiful

nothingness of silence the rumbling of my stomach morphs with the gurgling of the water pipes and my breathing shares in the

quiet humming of the house. The outside soundscape morphs with my inner soundings. In silence the visual perspective vanishes

into a sensorial simultaneity: I am in the midst of all that sounds, and all that sounds sounds with me. In silence I am simultaneous

with the abundant nothingness of sound; inventing sound and self.

My sonic self is produced in this simultaneity. My spatiotemporal position is worked out continually from almost inaudible, passing

and tenuous connections. The sonic ‘I’ is fragile and tender and full of doubt about hearing and the heard. Its position is not stable,

mapped out, but in process, transient and a matter of its own engagement with its surroundings. In silence I am intertwined with the

world of my own perception, equivalent and yet I am in charge through my listening; bound to it by the generative nature of my perception

that also generates myself. What silence reflects back to me is myself as my agency in the world.

This makes silence demanding, and at times quite uncomfortable, painful even. I am painfully aware of my own fragile responsibility in

the midst of this taut net of tiny sounds that hold me in the place of my listening. I lose my perspective, my form too, become uncertain,

formless and flexible; and need to find a form contingently and continually in my relationship with sound, which becomes a metaphor

for my relationship with my environment, material and social.

In silence I do not a hear myself alone, but hear myself in the social context of the soundscape. In other words listening to

silence I hear myself as a social subject, defined and generated through my interactions with the acoustic environment understood

as the listened to world -an observation which makes silence socio-political and makes its use in art aesthetico-political.

The silence played as a composition heard in the shared context of a lecture, is not the silence of your own formlessness. This is not

you sitting in a quiet house or in the woods or in the snow, surrounded by the abundant void of sound mirroring you. Rather, when

deliberately listening to silence you know you are expected to hear it and so aesthetic expectations and readings slip between the

sounds and your raw experience and push them away into the quasi perspective of theoretical interpretation that makes the

fantastical disappear.

Listening to it in a shared context, foregrounds the desire not to make a noise oneself, which stops us intertwining with that silence

and thus to hear the simultaneity of ourselves in sound. 

Silence, composed or in the acoustic environment, which we encounter alone without the framework of theoretical discussion by

contrast, carries with it the anxiety of my own formlessness and possible disappearance. It takes away the anchors of signification

and collapses the space between me and the tiny noises that keep me awake at night imagining all sorts of burglars and other

worldly monsters creeping around my bed.

There is another silence I want to talk about as quietude

Quietude allows me to reflect, to be, to meditate and contemplate without the anxiety of formlessness and disappearance that

silence provokes. It avoids the tension of silence by retaining form. It provides an aesthetic silence, a structured space of

nothingness with clearer borders, rather than exposing us to unexpected, boundarieless nothingness of everyday silence, alone.

This quietude of silence in art leads us into a different listening, a careful listening to sounds and music with the intensity and

simultaneity of silence but without its anxiety. It allows the listener to hear silence and fend of the bustle of a populated and busy

soundscape without becoming implicated in the tension of its solitude. Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel for example does it, it

breaks the silence and forms it into a meditative space to live. It lifts the burden of nothingness by giving it form and time however

vague and durational. It reminds me of my simultaneity but does not make me suffer it. It is an aesthetic-simultaneity and thus

aesthetico-political in that it makes me contemplate my relationship with music as the environment of my listening engagement,

and triggers an aesthetic sensibility that can translate into the social.

I can sit in this quietude to think about things, other things than myself. It frees me from the physical bond of silence and gives me

a space to think.

Silence is the formless surprise of hearing nothing and inventing it all.

Quietude is an attitude, a shape we take while we listening.

And does not necessarily have to be quiet.

The distinction can be compositional or a matter of context.