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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Record­ings: World & Clas­si­cal Music, Inter­views, Nature Sounds & More

Free: Down­load the Sub­lime Sights & Sounds of Yel­low­stone Nation­al Park

10 Hours of Ambi­ent Arc­tic Sounds Will Help You Relax, Med­i­tate, Study & Sleep

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

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.