January 9, 2020
In 1959, a group of undergraduates at the University of Detroit sneaked two records into a jukebox in the snack bar at the Student Activities Building: one was silent, and the other played a short beep every fifteen seconds. A pretty solid gag—until people started purposefully cueing up the records. They were played so often, in fact, that their surfaces wore down from overuse, and they had to be replaced by fresh pressings. A Billboard reporter attributed the unexpected success of the silent records to “an especially determined group of somber radicals,” but it mostly just seemed as if people were increasingly eager to secure a moment of peace. The students started their own label, the Hush Record Label Company, to meet the demand. “Other customers are willing to pay for sound, but here was a group willing to put nickels in the chute in return for nothing at all,” Billboard marvelled.
The following year, the same students declared the first week of January to be Silent Record Week and hosted a revue to celebrate. Performances included a theatre critic presenting “Famous Pauses from Great Drama,” a d.j. playing “Great Things Left Unsaid by Philosophers,” and a group of sixty-five vocalists “non-singing” a piece called “The Anvil Chorus,” accompanied by twenty anvils being gently tapped by rubber mallets. The timing felt deliberate: there is perhaps no other week on the calendar in which Americans are more desperate for a flash of quietude, a pause in which to take stock and collectively reconsider our life styles. January is the month most intimately linked with abstention: no more overindulging. We reorient our lives around a list of optimistic resolutions—self-betterment via denial.
Silence itself is often linked with piousness and a kind of dignified reserve. The monastic vow of silence is solemn and unforgiving; we linger in a moment of silence to commemorate grim events; we punish each other for transgressions by responding to earnest entreaties with stone-faced silence. But silence is also a balm; even the briefest retreat from the gnawing din of humanity can be spiritually and physiologically curative. Researchers have referred to pervasive sound pollution as a “modern plague.” A study from 2006 in the medical journal Heart found that silence was more effective at lowering heart rate and blood pressure than playing relaxing music. (The scientists discovered that people actually chilled out more during the inadvertent break between songs.) A study from 2013 in Brain Structure and Function discovered that two hours of silence each day led to the development of new cells in the hippocampus of mice, the region of the brain most firmly associated with memory, learning, and emotion.
Though it has been more than sixty years since the students in Detroit took over that jukebox, the idea of paying for a moment of silence still feels relevant. (Right now, within a few blocks of my Brooklyn apartment, there are opportunities to shell out a hundred and nine dollars to float in a sensory-deprivation tank for an hour or nine hundred and sixty dollars for a series of transcendental-meditation courses.) Much of modern wellness is concerned with escaping one’s self, but, at the same time, the self—as brand, as business—has become increasingly monetized. Every day, we are told to both cultivate and erase ourselves.
My own relationship to silence is complicated. Since the nineteen-eighties, when portable audio became readily available, it has been possible for anyone with a little disposable income to spend an entire day immersed in a bespoke audiosphere of one’s own design: to willfully curate exactly what you hear and exactly what you don’t. That this has become not just socially acceptable but perhaps even socially preferable is astounding—where I live, at least, it’s unusual to see people out for a run, or sitting on the subway, or standing in line at Duane Reade without headphones tucked into their ears. (I wrote about the ubiquity of headphone use back in 2016.) I’ve had to learn how to mediate the impulse in myself. Going for a walk while listening to music is fun for a lot of reasons, but, in part, because it casts the listener as the precise center of the universe, and everyone else as a bit player in that melodrama—your problems and your pleasures suddenly become beautiful and important, because they’re all that you can access. My resolution for 2020 was to resist perpetual sound: to nurture silence when I can, and when I can’t, to be more mindful of the natural sound of the world around me.
Perhaps the most famous instance of institutionalized “silence” is John Cage’s “4’ 33”,” a conceptual piece that he began working on in the late nineteen-forties. “4’ 33” ” is not silent, exactly, but is instead the sound of musicians in a room not playing their instruments—and the sound of a fidgeting audience, unsure of how to metabolize the musicians’ inaction. Since it was first performed, near Woodstock, New York, in 1952, “4’33” ” has confounded and occasionally titillated listeners, inspiring many (very good) volumes of scholarly analysis and meditations on the definition of music. No performance of the work is ever the same. Cage was frustrated by the mixed response that the piece received, which included heckles from the crowd. “There’s no such thing as silence,” Cage said, following the première. “What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
Ultimately, there’s a difference between accidental silence and the deliberate playing of a silent record or a piece like “4’33”.” These projects do the simple yet profound work of formally containing a few minutes—of demarcating time and calling attention to it. I like their certainty, and the way they offer a kind of sanctioned time-out, a small but serious protest against abundance. Suddenly, all sound is music, and all life is art—a corny idea, maybe, but also a powerful way of humanizing the world.