I love sound but I love silence more. Actually I love the area between the two the best. By this I mean the sounds that you hear when there isn’t supposed to be any sound. For instance where I live I can list all the sounds I hear: the fridge, the tertiary highway with intermittent cars, birds, rain or snow (yep, snow makes a sound), coyotes and wolves very occasionally, when the neighbours are up you can hear chainsaws and some talking, and at night when it is really, really cold you can hear trees cracking and snapping – sometimes making a low gong noise. So, people come to my place and always say, “Wow, it is so quiet here.” But I can hear things all the time. So, no, it isn’t quiet.
We have a hydro pole on our property. After moving here I read a Harper’s article about electro magnetic fields or EMFs. In the article it told the stories of different people who could swear they heard the lives of the people several kilometres away from them through the hydro wires. Some also mentioned the phone wires which are on the same pole. There was also terrifying things in the article like people getting neurological disorders from being so close to EMFs. I chose to ignore the latter stories. For several years I was convinced I could hear other lives coursing through those wires. I would lie awake at night listening to see if I could discern words from these transmissions. Was it my imagination? Possibly. For a time things and places and people would bounce around in my brain. Through this I came to appreciate sounds and the world of sounds and this between world of sound and silence.
Most sound artists are from cities which makes sense since cities are clusters of sound and energy. I always feel like a spark getting plugged into something when I visit. My lights come on and I ‘radiate’ while there. I usually come home exhausted from the experience. I find that city people need to unplug regularly and use places like where I live to do so. I get that. But city sounds never inspire me the way non-city sounds do. There is an ambience to the forest that you can barely verbalise. In the years I have lived where I do I have seen and heard trees falling in the forest. It’s an observation no longer funny but… it still resonates because sound in places where there isn’t supposed to be any seems very subversive.
I have become extremely sensitive to sounds over the years. I go to very few first run movies as the sound systems make me feel like I am having a heart attack. I have been this way long before the reality of a heart attack was something to consider. I also love silent films because they give me even more reasons to use my imagination. During a long talk with a film maker friend a few weeks ago, I realized the problem I have always had with film is that I don’t get to do any of the work. I gravitate to things where I can insert myself, or rather participate by figuring out what I am looking at and listening to. I think that if I went to hell it would have the kind of syrupy soundtrack that roars across the screen amplifying what I am supposed to feel. In fact I have turned off Netflix and other films right away if the soundtrack even hints of augmented emotion. I find it manipulative and condescending but mostly it just hurts my ears.
The thing about sound is that it is mysterious. Years ago 7/11 stores in the US played classical music outside to dissuade loitering teenagers. It sort of worked but lots of adults hated it too. Then there was that great and now campy scene in Jaws where Robert Shaw runs his nails down a chalkboard to get everyone’s attention – a very avant garde film moment in an otherwise extremely mainstream movie. Jaws is one of the few Spielberg movies with a soundtrack I can take. More recently comdedian Aziz Ansari mentioned how the minute you hear that Arabic maqam music in a movie you know that it’s a terrorist lair. In fact he went on to say if perhaps the movies didn’t use such music or motifs perhaps we wouldn’t be in the chaos we are in today. Sound matters which is why film makers that are lazy about using it do not make the kind of films I ever want to see.
Had I to do this all over again I would have gone into the creation of ambient sound and music. I like to think that my work is infiltrated by my being influenced by sound as much as the visual world around me. At night in the woods the trees take on a spiky silhouette pointing toward the very busy Milky Way that I am lucky to see often. There is a rustle in them, and if you listen really closely something even more intense – you hear yourself. The minute one is able to align their heartbeat and breathe with the universe in that way the noise of life is pushed into the background. Snow falling, rain, birds and even the questionable transmissions of EMFs become more of a reality. The tranquil act of experiencing this ‘silence’ makes the occasional nightmare of dealing with the world worth it.
The above YouTube clips are:
Charlie Chaplin in a scene from Modern Times. Chaplin wrote, directed and scored the music. If there had been dialogue in this scene it would not be one of the most effective and brilliant moments in any movie.
An Arctic ocean ice breaker idling in the ice. This video is an exact and wonderful example of a landscape based art work that merges nature and humans, all through sound. The visuals are great too but you will also enjoy this without looking at it.