How many readers of this column remember the sound of someone whistling as they worked? I remembered this lost sound recently when I heard my neighbour whistling away one Saturday morning. Some days later, coincidently, an acquaintance made the observation that the sound of whistling, once so prevalent, is no longer heard.
Our current lifestyle is not one of stillness or given to the space of silence. It is as if we are afraid of silence so we fill it up with noise as we plug in our earphones, eat and drink where often there is not one but two sources of enforced noise, radio and television, both mixed with advertising when the volume is increased, bombarding us with the latest drama whether it be sport, some atrocity or the excitement of yet another product. We must raise our voices to compete, adding to the noise levels.
One wonders what purpose all this noise serves. Are we blocking out our thoughts, our imaginations, ourselves from ourselves? Was the cheerful whistle a forerunner of this cacophony? Or a cheerful accompaniment to action? Was the whistle about a person feeling free in their space to attend to the matter at hand, rather like a bird chirruping as it builds its nest?
In that space between one activity and another, I chanced to hear Philip Glass’s symphony, Low, inspired by David Bowie’s album of the same title. Philip Glass’s compositions, be they opera or instrumental, play with silence and repetition of notes or refrains, a bit like a sophisticated whistle or hum. I decided, holding in mind the whistle or hum, to pause and not move to the next activity, and to stay with Glass. Activity is much like sound: we can be busy for busyness sake in order not to be with ourselves, our thoughts, feelings and imagination. I closed my eyes and willed myself to be still. The temptation to get moving and do something was strong. Then gradually as I really listened, I heard the notes flow, almost giving birth to one another and I could hear through them the clouds sweeping across the sky and the wind eddying through the atmosphere. The notes developed and changed, built up tempo, paused, each movement evoking different visions, emotions, reflections before returning to the clouds and the stilling of the wind. What Glass (or Bowie) had in mind is immaterial. Like the whistler or the person humming, I was caught for about 30 minutes, totally absorbed by the music. It reminded me of the absorption that a child has when allowed to play and explore something without adult interference.
We are drawing further and further away from silence and the space within which we can actually hear what is around us. We don’t need the music of Philip Glass or Nick Cage, the other composer to play with these concepts, to remind us of the beauty of the space of silence; we need to give ourselves permission to sit, unplugged, and to listen to the music of silence and feel the comfort, the joy and the reinvigoration it gives us. In order to do this, we need to be firm with ourselves and not be led into the temptation of the noise around us.