Intergalactic guide for silence listeners

Intergalactic guide for silence listeners

From the metropolises to the small country towns, due to the lockdown our daily soundtrack has changed: the roar of air traffic, the low drone of the road junctions, the heterogeneous swarm of everyday life and even the sounds of the courtyards some schools have given way to all those frequencies that, until a month ago, could not be perceived because they were topped by louder voices.

During these times many claim to perceive a strange silence and, accustomed to the vibrant “abstract music” of contemporary life, struggle to live with the new soundscape. But what is silence really? And how can we use it in our musical projects? Here is a small intergalactic guide for listeners of silence that I hope will enrich your creative experiments.


Listen to the voices of space

When we think about the word “silence“, images of isolated places come to mind: mountain peaks, deserts, boundless meadows and other quiet settings that exclude the presence of man and urbanization. If we want to refer specifically to silence, our thoughts must turn to space, between stars, galaxies and planets.

The sounds we hear every day are oscillations of particles caused by vibratory movements that mechanically propagate in a physical medium (air); in celestial distances there is no means that could serve as a support for sound waves and therefore no propagation of vibrations is possible. The sounds of the explosions of the planets or the spaceships of science fiction films are fabricated, space is a silent place.

Thanks to research and technology and through particular devices, we are able to capture the data of some radiation in the cosmos – such as radio waves, which are not sounds! – and to convert and translate them into man-made audible material; in this way it is possible to give a “voice” to many astrophysical phenomena.

For some time, NASA has made available some of the fascinating translations made during space explorations, offering them free of charge to those who want to try to immerse in new musical experiments. For more information visit the NASA dedicated page or listen to the sounds on NASA’s official Soundcloud account.


Plan an anechoic chamber experience

Scientists and physicists from all over the world have worked hard to create an environment as close as possible to the concept of “absolute silence“: built to test electronic equipment or to conduct acoustic and psychoacoustic studies, anechoic chambers are places designed to absorb and break down most sonic reflections. The composer John Cage had the opportunity to visit one in the early 1950s, at Harvard University; in that silent and lonely situation, Cage heard two sounds, one high and one low. Intrigued by listening, he asked the laboratory technician for clarification which explained to him that the high sound was that of his nervous system in operation, while the low sound belonged to his blood in circulation.

If this sounds cool to you, I recommend looking into those research centres that can offer you a special visit in those chambers. It’s worth it!

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Rediscover history to draw inspiration from it

In 1952, Cage wrote a silent work which reported in the title its overall duration expressed in minutes and seconds: 4’33 ‘‘. On his debut, the composition was performed on the piano by David Tudor; the pianist had the sole task of not playing and signalling to the public the beginning and end of the three movements of the song by opening and closing the keyboard cover. So it was that “silence” was included in the program of a concert: for four minutes and thirty-three seconds the audience in the auditorium was forced to listen to the noises of the environment in which it was immersed, from the creaking of the chairs to the coughing, from the sound traffic beyond the windows to the breath of the armchair neighbour. With this powerful and controversial piece, Cage revealed a paradox: silence is nothing if not the precious sound of the environment that surrounds us, all that was audible suddenly became an artistic object. 4’33 ” is not an act of denial of music but, on the contrary, the affirmation of its omnipresence. Here is a 4’33 ” cover proposed by the metal band Dead Territory:

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Practice universal music and discover the soundscape

After the 4’33 ” experience, numerous compositions began to flourish, placing the viewer, and the intention of listening at the center, proposing the sounds of the environment as universal music. If hearing is the physical medium that enables perception, listening means paying attention to what has been perceived, acoustically and psychologically. With her verbal instructions written on cardboard, in 1963 Yoko Ono asked the public to listen to the sound of a heart beat (Beat Piece); with the series of Listen concerts (1969), Max Neuhaus led people to experience urban places from unusual yet charming perspectives: in the areas below busy traffic overpasses, near public fountains or between subway stops, the public was asked to immerse its ears in the sound that surrounded them.

A few years later, in 1971, the concept of soundscape was born, defined as a set of all sounds, wherever we are. In this short and intense video, Raymond Murray Schafer guides us to discover the soundscape:


To raise awareness

Giving value to silence means increasing our awareness of sound and strengthening our ability to concentrate in the listening phases. How many times will it have happened, during your jam, to “lose” the sound of your instrument, engulfed by the frequencies of others?

The American composer Pauline Oliveros found that the construction of particular exercises called Sonic Meditations could help musicians in improvisation practices. Styled in the form of performance instructions, the first Meditations were developed in the seventies during some improvisation sessions with the aim of offering participants indications for the active involvement of listening; Oliveros’ exercises aimed to give strategies for the musical response and were able to manifest a high level of unison between oneself, others and the environment. If you are curious, the Sonic Meditations have been collected in the book of the same name published by Smith Publications and you can find them on the web.


Listen to iconic songs with a different point of view

The creative potential of everyday sound led many bands and producers to create collages, intrusions and sound environments with a sure effect. Amused by the results made possible through the editing of the magnetic tape, the Beatles manipulated the recording of McCartney’s laughter to such an extent as to make it similar to the cry of a seagull, an iconic enrichment in Tomorrow Never Knows (1966); the following year, McCartney himself presented the mysterious – and unfortunately long-lost – Carnival of Light, a composition for magnetic tapes created during a break from Sgt. Pepper’s recordings at the Million Volt Light festival.

In the first track of their first studio album of the same name, Black Sabbath emphasised the setting of the album with the sound of a death knell recorded during a storm. As Ozzy Osbourne once affirmed, the idea came from the producer, Roger Bain, who added the recordings from some tapes he had with him: true or not, the naturalistic addition completed the image and mood evoked by Black Sabbath.

Among the many examples that we could still cite, we also remember the intro of Time (1974) by Pink Floyd who took advantage of Alan Parsons‘ creative paw to insert the sounds of various alarm clocks recorded in an antique dealer shop.

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Building tomorrow’s world with today’s sounds

An interesting global experiment called “Cities & Memories” collects the environmental recordings of many places scattered around the world before the advent of the epidemic and combines them with as many new tracks: these songs can document the real sound change of a place or can be used to predict the future’s sounds. The map now contains over 3000 sounds, recorded in 90 different countries and territories; the recordings document a huge variety of landscapes, from the noises of the port of San Francisco to the songs of the fishermen of Turkana, passing through Venice, Taipei and Birmingham. Anyone can take part in the initiative: everyone can participate by sending any form of new sound imagery, as long as it is tied to a place.

Article originally written by Johan Merrich in Italian

What relationship do you have in this period with your soundscape? Did it give you any stimulus for the production of musical works? Tell us with a comment!

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Simon's passion for music generated a long time ago, and led him to become a guitarist and self-produce his music with the band Onyria.

One comment

    I think people usually don’t pay attention to silent moments, even when they were are listen to music.
    Cage was very important because he ‘force’ us to ‘listen’ the silence.
    … And very well dressed…

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