How to Find Silence in a Noisy World

“Take a walk at night,” wrote avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros in her 1974 “Sonic Meditations,” a set of instructions for what she called deep listening. “Walk so silently that the bottom of your feet become ears.” Listening to silence opens up rich new worlds of sound. It can be a life-changing experience.

“It’s hard to imagine that a sound can transform someone’s life, but it happened to me,” says acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton in the short 360-degree documentary above, “How to Find Silence in a Noisy World.” Hempton learned to walk silently while carrying a microphone, documenting his listening journey through remote places like the Hoh Rainforest in Washington state, considered one of the quietest places in North America.

“By holding a microphone, I became a better listener. I learned that the microphone doesn’t listen for what’s important, it doesn’t judge, it doesn’t interfere.” The microphone, that is, has no ego. Recorded and amplified, the silence of the Hoh becomes cacophony, or a symphony, depending on how we describe it. Maybe any description gets in the way of listening. “Just listen,” says Hempton. “Silence is the poetics of space. What it means to be in a place… Silence isn’t the absence of something, but the presence of everything

If silence is full of sound, why might we crave it when we’re stressed? Because we are bombarded by noise pollution, “sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system.” These sounds have been encroaching on places like the Hoh Rainforest for many decades, and Hempton has documented their incursion over the past 30 years, building a collection of over 100 recordings “equipped with a 3-D microphone system that replicates human hearing,” notes Brain Pickings.

“Emanating from his collection… is the idea that ‘there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat’—a tonal quality that shapes the sense of place and quality of presence.” Hempton’s work complements the nature recordings of Bernie Krause, former musician turned renowned expert on natural sound, whose theory of biophony describes how natural sounds work together to fill in the spectrum, each one establishing its own specific bandwidth so as not to drown out the others.

Natural sounds create a kind of self-regulating harmony. In order to fully inhabit the space we’re in, we must be able to hear them. But as the recordings made by Hempton and Krause show us, humans have a unique ability to feel ourselves deeply immersed in other places, too, by listening to recordings of their silences. Hempton implies that recordings may soon be all we have left.

“Silence,” he says, “is on the verge of extinction. There is not one place left on planet Earth that is set aside and off limits to noise pollution.” It interferes with the cycles of mating animals, disrupts call and response patterns ecosystems use to coordinate themselves. Silence is part of a global biofeedback system, telling us to quiet down, slow down, and become part of all that’s happening around us. We ignore it to our great detriment.

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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