There is the melancholy of unwelcome silence, but then there is the consolation and even joy of sought-after, curative quietude. In a short essay for the Guardian, the songwriter Tom Robinson describes the Quaker meetings of his youth: ‘Silence would descend over the room. Right there in that silence you have the unique quality of a Friends' meeting. If God is trying to tell us something, the thinking goes, how can we hear him amid the hymns, psalms, sermons, and recited prayers of a conventional church service... For me the focused, expectant silence of the meeting was like nothing I'd ever experienced. Birdsong or traffic noises would mingle with the occasional cough, or creak of a seat, within the room. And after perhaps 10 minutes there would be a sense of the silence deepening—like a coastal shelf falling away beneath our feet.’ The silence is sometimes punctuated by ‘a prompting of the spirit,’ when a worshipper is moved to pray out loud. Then the room returns to rich, contemplative quiet, a collective meditation of individual thoughts mingling invisibly in a plain white room. For Susan Sontag, silence was the artist’s trump card, a power move of ultimate stillness. ‘Silence,’ she writes in Styles of Radical Will, ‘is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the new and/or the “esoteric.” Silence is the artist's ultimate otherworldly gesture: by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, consumer antagonist, arbiter and distorter of his work.’ In a world that only gets noisier, from the thunder and shriek of construction equipment to the thunder and shriek of Tweets, it is an act of enormous self-compassion to switch it all off for an hour or two. In this edition of The Ledger, you’ll discover a range of approaches to silence—from Jane Brox’s scholarly investigation of its practice in vastly different settings to Yves Klein’s underheard symphony to a heartfelt poetry column from The Paris Review—that are the antidote to agitation.
Say you are meeting, for the first time in years, an old friend who lives far away. You’ve booked an indulgent dinner at a glowingly reviewed new restaurant, but as you enter, your eardrums recoil and your heart sinks at the cacophony of clattering dishes and honking laughter. You gamely decide to give it a try, but the intimacy is lost. It’s impossible to truly connect when you have to shout to be heard. It’s this all-too-common scenario that SoundPrint, an app that measures decibels in popular restaurants, cafes and bars across America (and perhaps, soon, the world), aims to help you avoid next time. You can search a database, and chances are, multiple SoundPrint users have uploaded soundscapes of your selected venue at different times of day, allowing you to make a reservation for a quieter time, or find another (quieter) place entirely. SoundPrint’s creator, Greg Scott, is hard of hearing. Living in New York City, he’d made a list of restaurants that allowed him to hear what his companions were saying. Visiting his mother in California, he realised he had no such list for other cities, and the idea for the app was born. ‘With SoundPrint, I basically took a decibel meter and made it crowdsourceable’, he told an interviewer. ‘I want to help us all find the quieter spots. And let’s hope by using the app, by taking measurements, people will vote with their measurements, signalling to the restaurants that they should consider sound acoustics more… I want to give [restaurants, bars, and cafes] incentives to mitigate the noise.’
Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (The Four Times, 2010) is an alertly philosophical film that sketches four iterations of existence—animal, vegetable, mineral, intellectual—laid out by Pythagoras 2500 years ago. Delivered via long shots and relying solely on diegetic sound, which makes for a decidedly ruminative mood, Frammartino’s feature is set in a remote Calabrian village (fittingly, given that Pythagoras lived in Calabria in the sixth century BCE). Goats roam up a hillside, trailed by an elderly shepherd, who later descends to the village and watches an old woman sweeping a church floor. The shepherd sprinkles the floor-dust into his water, a folk remedy for an unnamed ailment. Animals get up to some mischief: a dog somehow causes a truck to roll down a slope, and it comes to rest having broken open a goat pen; the escaped goats mince their way into the village. Events unfold languorously, with nothing accelerated to accommodate our withering attention spans. A tree is felled and brought into town, a trash heap smoulders, a goat is born, a funeral is attended. The mother goat tenderly licks her newborn kid. These scenes accrue into a film of assured, unfussy artistry, anchored in a calmness that encourages lingering reflection.
In Brilliant (2004), the writer Jane Brox investigated light and particularly light pollution, how the manipulation and distortion of the natural delineation of night and day have changed and in many ways harmed human beings, animals and the planet we all inhabit. In her new book, Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives, Brox turns her attention to two institutions that have historically isolated the experience of silence: the prison and the monastery. She begins with Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in 1829 on the outskirts of Philadelphia and is now a historic site and tourist destination. It sought to effect moral transformation via solitude and silence:inmates passed their sentences in single cells, with barrel-vaulted ceilings admitting a small circle of light, attached to solitary exercise yards; meal carts had squeakless leather-covered wheels; guards wore socks over their shoes. The involuntary suspension of casual human contact, however, sounds suspiciously like the solitary confinement that is universally condemned by today’s prison reformers. Brox’s lavishly researched and lyrically written study also explores the history of Cistercian monks—a medieval order who saw silence as the path to redemption—and the life and writings of the famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton. His work, the writer discovers, has been crucial to the well-being of one prisoner serving a life sentence in Massachusetts Correctional Institute-Shirley, who read Seeds of Contemplation and was moved enough to form the forty-first chapter of the International Thomas Merton Society. In contemplating Merton, Brox returns briefly to her previous theme, light and lightlessness. For Merton, ‘the monastic night promised integrity…. The limited light intensified smells, sounds, memories; the silence and dark seemed to amplify his ability to register the world.’
In 2018, the Paris ReviewDaily launched Poetry Rx, a column in which three resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar and Claire Schwartz—respond to readers in search of verse to match their emotions, no matter how slender, fragile or complicated those emotions may be. It’s not a self-help column exactly; rather, it’s a column dispensing compassion, an I-see-you column, if you will. ‘I don’t think that poetry will save us,’ Kay says in the inaugural instalment. Nonetheless, the poet-editors explain, maybe they can ‘Find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming.’ Snowy in Vancouver writes of ‘standing in the woods as snow fell through the limbs of the large Douglas firs. I stood there transfixed as the snow absorbed all the regular echoes of the forest, leaving only the sound of the creaking trees and my breath.’ Feeling dwarfed by the immensity of nature and its obliviousness to one’s personhood, writes Snowy, is a good feeling; is there a poem that describes it? Kay replies by invoking the Japanese phrase ‘mono no aware’, which means ‘an empathy toward all things’. Mono (‘thing’) meets aware (‘an ancient expression of surprise, like “ah” or “oh”’) to convey awareness of the impermanence of all forms and a ‘gentle sadness, as opposed to a violent sadness’ at their passing. Explore the entire series online—its everyday beauty and uncommon sensitivity are at once settling and uplifting.
The late V. S. Gaitonde, one of India’s most celebrated artists, asserted that ‘everything starts from silence. The silence of the brush. The silence of the canvas. The silence of the painting knife’. Until 3 November, those in Mumbai can consider the ways in which this conviction is exemplified in his work, thanks to the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation, which is showcasing 32 pieces in the exhibition ‘V. S. Gaitonde, The Silent Observer’. The count may seem modest for a major retrospective, but the exhibition spans more than half a century and offers a rare opportunity to view works from private collections. Besides, Gaitonde’s slow, meditative, painstaking approach produced only a few paintings each year, so it is reliably proportioned. Gaitonde was born in Nagpur, in almost the precise geographic heart of India, and attended the Sir JJ School of Art in Mumbai in the late 1940s, absorbing influences that ranged from South Asian murals and miniatures to Paul Klee’s piquant hieroglyphics, which captured his imagination deeply; he had broad interests, too, in Indian and Western classical music, as well as literature, cinema and the performing arts. Later, Zen Buddhism became an integral part of his life and aesthetic. In the 1950s, he favoured linear and geometric forms, and began to embrace abstraction (although he adamantly preferred the descriptor ‘non-objective’ to ‘abstract’); by the 1960s, his paintings had become meticulously considered studies in texture, composition, colour and light. Injuries sustained in a serious car accident in 1984 constrained him in terms of technique and scale for the rest of his career, but Gaitonde persisted with smaller, highly calligraphic works on paper. Meera Menezes’s superb biography of the artist, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde: Sonata of Solitude, is readily available (and to be followed by two more volumes). Gaitonde died in 2001, bequeathing us an increasingly appreciated oeuvre.
A 2004 collaboration between the German cellist Anja Lechner and the Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos, Gurdjieff, Tsabropoulos: Chants, Hymns and Dances has complex arrangements, minor-key richness and haunting, yearning energy. It melds the sounds of East and West, mixes composition and improvisation, and presents as both startlingly contemporary and invitingly homespun. Tsabropoulos’s compositions were inspired by ancient Byzantine hymns. The album also features music by the Armenian-born philosopher-composer George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1877–1949), whose melodies and rhythms allude to sacred as well as secular songs of the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. ‘Chant from a Holy Book’ has the intensity and momentum of a raga, while ‘Prayer’ is sparer. ‘Duduki’ showcases the delicacy of Tsabropoulos’s pianism; ‘Trois morceaux après des hymnes byzantins’ shows off his composing chops. Toward the end, Tsabrapoulos and Lechner tenderly interpret Gurdjieff’s ‘Assyrian Women Mourners’ and its companion piece, ‘Woman’s Prayer’. As described by one reviewer, the whole effects ‘an evocative concordance… for a world that has lost its way.’
In the late 1940s, the artist Yves Klein, known today for his monochromes, dreamed up a symphony to complement them. On March 9, 1960, the ‘Monotone-Silence Symphony’ poured forth long minutes of pure D major in the grand salon of Maurice d'Arquian's Galerie Internationale d'Art Contemporain, followed by an equal period of silence. Klein came up with the idea around the same time John Cage was creating his more famous ‘4'33"’, in which a pianist sits in stillness, engaged in a silent and figurative sprint to an invisible finish line. (That the two were thinking simultaneously about composing silence appears to be an interesting coincidence; there is no evidence that Cage and Klein knew of each other’s work then, or had an influence on each other later.) In 1962, Klein died of a heart attack at the age of 34. He never got to hear his symphony—which he once described as an expression of ‘what I wished my life to be’—performed as the score dictates, by a three-section orchestra of strings (ten violins, ten cellos, three double basses), brass (three horns) and woodwind (eight flutes and eight oboes) accompanied by twenty singers. The performance in Paris, which was conducted by Klein, in white tie no less, featured just ten musicians. But one can imagine he would have been delighted by a 2013 concert in Manhattan, at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, performed by 70 musicians and singers, in which 20 minutes of silence arrived as perhaps welcome respite from 20 minutes of D major chord at full throttle, described by the New York Times’ music critic as ‘a sonorous foghorn with a stuck switch.’
SAYA is an Israeli architectural practice with a vision of progressive, inclusive designs for public spaces, as well as green development initiatives and efforts towards conflict resolution. Most of the firm’s projects have naturally attended to Israeli-Palestinian land disputes, but their ‘resolution planning’ strategy has been adopted to address territorial challenges across the globe. Cofounders Karen Lee Bar-Sinai and Yehuda Greenfield-Gilat have sought to detangle national borders in the former Yugoslavia and to balance Greek and Turkish interests in the Cypriot city of Nicosia. ‘Policymakers tend to frame their questions in terms of numbers. Sometimes they don’t consider that conflicts will be resolved in space’, Bar-Sinai told The New Yorker in 2013. SAYA doesn’t want ‘generals and security officials to determine what our future with the Palestinians [will] look like.’ Instead of cinder block and crabbed security fencing, they ‘imagine structures that can build hope instead of fear and resentment.’ Natural, unforbidding delineations such as parallel highways and light-rail train tracks feature in their designs. SAYA’s work has been presented to policymakers in Israel and abroad and to the African Union Peace and Security Council, the Negotiation Support Unit and the IDF. The firm has proposed innovative strategies for Palestinian reuse of evacuated Israeli settlements and made other notable architectural and design proposals, including a ‘Jerusalem Annex’ to the Geneva Accord that considers how design can create both a ‘sensitive separation’ and a ‘viable connection’ in the divided city.
Illustrations by Audrey Helen Weber
‘Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together…’