Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Sound of Silence?

Has it ever occurred to you that we very rarely experience silence? I don't just mean quiet or a gap in conversation ("we get on so well together, we can even sit in silence and not feel uncomfortable") I mean real silence.

The lack of silence has been brought home very clearly in the last few days here in Edinburgh. I have seen several shows in which characters remark on the silence whilst a minor cacophony of small sounds create a not so quiet symphony to underscore or, in some cases, overshadow the moment. In our own show, 2020Vision, a character remarks on the silence once the technology in their workplace crashes. Thankfully, the audience are willing to suspend their disbelief and ignore the whirr of fans keeping the lighting desk and amps cool, the thumping bass from the show in the venue above ours, and the strategically timed emptying of a bottle bin in the alley outside, and join us in the celebration of 'real silence'.

I know that it is naive to expect silence in an environment as hectic and chaotic as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 2400+ shows taking place over the course of the month create a lot of noise. But it has made me think about how much noise there is in our modern lives. Marshall MacLuan described the 20th Century as living at 'electric speed' and we do more than that now; we live at digital speed - claculating our existence in mega-, giga or terrabytes, comparing download speeds - and along with that comes all the digital chatter. Bleeps, pings, ringtones punctuate our hours and minutes. The quiet hum of computers and wi-fi hubs provide a soundbed to our thoughts (if we have time to think).

The American composer John Cage famously 'composed' his piece 4'33'' to highlight the notion of ambient sound - the sounds that we tune out of our everyday lives. Consisting solely of tacit bars, the score can be played on any instrument, and whilst the musician is 'playing' the piece the audience begin to experience the sounds of the venue; the breathing of other audience members, the creaking of the seats as people shift uncomfortably, traffic noise from outside the venue, and any other sounds that might drift into the space. Eventually, they might even begin to hear some internal noises; their heartbeat, digesting dinner or, just possibly, their own thoughts.

Cage's idea was to create a piece of supposed silence in which it became clear that such a thing rarely exists. Deafening silence is an oxymoron but it has a ring of truth to it. Sometimes silence can be very uncomfortable. Coupled with darkness it taps into our very primal fears. Noises in the dark can be scary but at least they prove that something else exists.

So, when the character of Bill in our play says, "This is real silence but it's like there is something else, something living in it." he is expressing the thought that, perhaps, there is a communion with something deeper, more meaningful, something else that can only be achieved if we occasionally experience real silence.

Any noisy objections or quiet words are welcome on this subject.

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