I think that I have never experienced true silence. I know I’ve enjoyed versions of quiet that I’ve understood and interpreted as silence even though sound was entering my ears, but I’ve never experienced true silence. I’ve never experienced an absolute lack of sound, like floating around in space where there is no atmosphere to carry the sound. I’m not sure I would like true silence.
The only silences I’ve known have been filled with soft or regular or peaceful sounds…the kind of sounds that blend into my consciousness without notice, and so they seem like silence. A background of unobtrusive sound, like ambient music that presents a kind of smoothed background but no foreground. Brian Eno, I’m told, invented the concept of ambient music long ago and debuted the concept with Ambient 1: Music for Airports in 1978. I play that music a hundred times a year because it never intrudes on my thoughts and it prevents other sounds from doing just that…intruding. I’ve played it at the office and in my car and on Sunday mornings just to create a “silent” background of sound. My mind seems to focus well on top of Eno’s calming, harmonic sounds of silence.
When I was in college in New Brunswick, NJ, I lived in an apartment that was just blocks from the main Amtrak corridor. Trains of every size and length and speed used to roar and rumble past all day and night. Local commuter trains passed most frequently; the bigger, faster Amtrak trains shot through regularly; and freight trains, sometimes of astonishing length, rolled through slowly and their weight added a bass rumble to the sound of their wheels squealing on the rails. My sister once visited and asked me in the morning, “How do you stand those trains all night long?” I realized that I had grown accustomed to them so that I simply didn’t hear the trains…they had become an element in the city’s nighttime sounds of silence.
Many summers I lived in an apartment in the quietest end of Wildwood Crest, NJ, where I enjoyed the privacy of a second-floor deck that overlooked a compact backyard with a view to the bay. At the end of many days, I’d treat myself to a glass of tawny port and a snack and ease into the evening in the quiet of the deck. During the noisy activity of the day, cars and buses and tourists created a staccato, unpredictable din across the neighborhood. But at night, the cars settled and the buses stopped their runs and tourists migrated to the boardwalk and amusement rides miles north, leaving me to my wine, the growing darkness, and an ocean hum from the distant beach. As I began to hear the periodic whisper of waves in the distance…rhythmic, breathy, humming…I recognized it as the evening sounds of silence.
On a recent television show, a person who had been born deaf had a device implanted to give her hearing. The show was broadcast live and unscripted…a bit of a gamble. When the device was turned on, the woman was appropriately startled and amazed and wide-eyed at first perceiving sound. She spoke to hear her own voice and then listened to hear her daughter’s voice. Everything happened as I had expected…until the woman tried to describe her experience. “Words have shape,” she said. She didn’t have an understanding of, or a way to describe, sharp sounds or deep sounds or smooth or harmonious or cacophonous sounds. To her, who had lived in a truly silent world, words had “shape.” I wonder what I would think, how I would understand it, how I would describe it…if I were to experience it—without hums or whispers or harmony—if I were to experience true silence.