Noise and Silence: The Soundscape and Spirituality
We live, most would say, in a noisy world, and a world noisier than ever. For some, that noise is encouraging: it betokens liveliness, excitement, industry, celebration; it is a sign of bustling markets, vigorous debate, the generously spendthrift chittering of tourists, society a-buzz. For others, that noise is a serious form of pollution, annoying, fatiguing, deafening, debilitating; it betokens selfishness and disruption, the absence of concord and harmony.
Asked to look into their hearts, would the majority of Westerners put themselves on the side of the hushed or of the hallooing? I’m not sure, for to confessed urbanites, silence can be awfully eerie. Outwardly, however, Western Europeans and North Americans over the last two centuries have repeatedly passed ordinances against sidewalk hawkers and street musicians, campaigned strenuously against the roar of ground and air traffic, and composed endless advertisements promoting quiet cars, quiet planes, quiet toilets, quiet dishwashers, quiet floors, quiet ceilings, quiet dentures, quiet lawnmowers. Apart from firecrackers, boom boxes, mechanical toys, party favors, and burglar alarms, noise is a less saleable commodity than silence.
Silence is now a commodity of the same sort as darkness; we buy polarized sunglasses, heavy curtains, and blindfolds to tone down the light as we buy noise cancellation or white noise devices, soundproofing panels, and ear plugs to keep ourselves, or others, safe from excess noise.
But it is far more demonstrable that our world is brighter than that it is noisier. Our streetlights, neon signs, houselights, spotlights, headlights, searchlights, buoys, landing lights, and flashlights have changed the nature of the night for those at home, whether in a suburban ranch house or in a flat seventeen stories up, and for those abroad on short runs to convenience stores or on nonstop cross-country trips. Our networks of lighting make feasible round-the-clock shifts, round-the-clock shopping, and round-the-clock surveillance. Our lights enable us to travel more swiftly, more continuously below ground as above. So brilliant and ubiquitous are our lights above ground that astronomers now complain of them bitterly, for our billions of tiny artificial suns outshine the multitude of stars in the nighttime sky.
Nothing quite so dramatic has happened with regard to noise. Two millennia ago Julius Caesar forfended chariots from thundering across Rome’s cobbled pavements late at night. If there were no sirens in his time or, yea, in the time of Queen Elizabeth or Napoleon, there were shrill horns, gongs, whistles, and trumpets. If there were no sixteen-wheeler semis, there were rumbling carts loaded unevenly with bricks and thumping timber. If there were no sonic booms, there were claps of thunder, which can be louder and sharper than a boom. If there were no jackhammers, there were thousands of blacksmiths at their anvils. If there were no boiler foundries, there were mills with creaking wheels grinding the grain and, later, massive hammers pounding rags for paper. If there were no chainsaws, there were other public tortures, men screaming on racks, women screaming on wheels, horses being flayed. If there were no locomotives pulling long chains of freight cars, there were muletrains with braying animals and cursing drovers.
Maybe there is more noise after dark; if so, assign that extra noise to the spread of artificial light, which encourages us to be more active and vociferous after sundown. Nonetheless, of this contrast too we must be suspicious, for if there were no car alarms, beepers, or cordless telephones in the premodern world, there were tower-bell alarms rung for the many devastating fires and, as ever, raucous neighbors shouting and children bawling through the thinnest of walls and windows (cloth or, later, paper or glass). If there were no radios or televisions, there were pot-banging charivaris, boisterous civic festivals and religious processions almost every week culminating in rowdy ritual at one or another inn, street organists hurdygurdying at twilight and street vendors crying their wares at the crack of dawn. And if there were no helicopters circling overhead, the soundscape was filled with (often ill-tuned) church bells–from every direction, day and night.
The astonishing success of the 19th- and early 20th-century campaign to limit the ringing of church bells is most relevant here, for church bells had grown neither louder nor more numerous since, say, the 16th century. A brief listen to the campaign against church bells must lead beyond assumptions of a changing soundscape to changes in attitude toward certain kinds of customary sound, and beyond that, to changing notions about the nature of noise.
An English lawsuit of 1851, Crump v. Lambert, resulted in a restraining order against one small church (adjoining Crump’s home) ringing its bells . . . period. Where before churches had been able to obtain permission to chain off streets from traffic lest Sabbath worship be disrupted by uproarious (and putatively immoral) passersby, bells summoning the faithful to church were gradually deemed to be more egregious than shrieking factory whistles summoning laborers to work or signaling the end of a shift. “In these days of innumerable clocks and watches,” wrote J. H. Girdner, a New York physician eager to provoke an anti-noise campaign in 1898, “the ringing of church bells in large cities is simply barbarous.”1
Barbarous! The word itself came from the Romans, who, impatient with the tongues of tribes on the periphery of their Empire, believed them to be dull-witted mumblers and stutterers, bar-bar-bar-bar-bar. Were the peals of church bells equally foreign and meaningless to modern men and women? One English critic of the 1880s had been almost as extreme as Girdner in his dismissal of church bells. Upset that “In our cities and commercial towns the ear is never at rest,” he had listed among the “more positively annoying and distracting elements” of city life “German bands, organ-grinders, church-bells, railway-whistles, and the like.” A striking list, this, for it reduced church bells to the level of the frivolous and arbitrary. Julia Barnett Rice of New York City, founder in 1906 of the world’s first Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise, recalled with wry irony a visit to Paris in 1907 in which the French writer “Marcel Prevost came to see me and we laughed together over the pleasing habit that Paris shares with most European cities of waking you up by means of church bells every quarter of an hour during the night so that you will know what time it is.”
By 1908 some citizens of Zurich, timekeepers par excellence, were protesting against the city’s seventeen belfries ringing out peals every half hour from four to seven a.m.; other Zurichers defended the peals as a tradition less of piety or promptness than, it would seem, of Swiss perseverance in a defiantly alert independence–and, mayhap, of an early morning system of preparedness. Londoners by this time, prone to sleep in at the snug center of a global empire, already prohibited church bells from ringing between nine at night and nine in the morning. The people of Bilbao, Spain, forward-looking and, many of them, caught up in anarchist, and republican movements, were dead set against the ringing of any church bells at any time, since such were “out of place in a modern city” in 1908, where clocks and watches kept time and phonographs and pianolas kept the music. By 1930, the Reverend I. G. Murray of Johnson City, Tennessee, would mourn the well-nigh universal passing of the church bell, which had rung “for worship on Sabbath morning and evening, for weddings and funerals, and tolled their sad requiem for the dead.” Now he had to toll their requiem, these tireless bells which had emphasized “the fact of God” and had been “an effective and economical medium of religious and church advertisement.”2
Why then, after a full millennium of solemn or joyful peals and effective, economic appeals, could church bells be so effectively silenced, except for brief spasms at a reasonable hour of a Sabbath morn? How could a soundmaking tradition so August and ostensibly so benign be recast so swiftly, in the space of fifty years, as an obnoxious habit of noise making?
One could argue from a purely environmental, architectural angle that church-bells were suddenly felt to be louder and more insistent. Courtesy of indoor plumbing, elevators, new methods of illumination and ventilation, and the steeply rising value of urban real estate, metropolitan areas during the late 1800s were becoming more densely packed with apartment and office buildings –taller buildings whose denizens might live or work higher up, nearer the church steeples, than at any previous era. Down below, church bells would echo furiously in the caverns and corridors of glass and brick created by formidable rows of resounding structures; pedestrians and penthouse dwellers alike would feel the vibration of the bells, the tintinnabulation of the bells, the bells.
One could also argue that cities had become religiously more polyvocal. More denominations of more diverse groups competed to be heard through roving choirs, organ concerts, outdoor revivals, streetcorner preaching. Church bells ringing out different meeting hours with different tonalities to a more variously pious citizenry could seem a “nuisance” akin to the fishmongers and fruitsellers crying their wares in the open street or street musicians trumpeting and wailing for pennies–often from those blackmusicked into wishing them good riddance with hard currency.
One could argue as well that, with the onset of gas and then electric lighting, and with a Second Industrial Revolution in the marketing of consumer goods, round-the-clock production had become so essential that church bells began to be interruptions rather than confirmations of a quotidian round. The laboring poor who slept days and worked nights and weekends had then as much reason to be upset by the insistent regularity of church bells as lie-abed gentlefolk, middle-class invalids, and insomniac neurasthenics.
One could argue, too, that, given a somewhat shorter workday, compulsory education, better public sanitation measures, the abandonment of ear-blocking wigs, the introduction of systematic hearing tests, and the appearance of the first battery-amplified hearing aids, normal people (not just the neurasthenic) were hearing more acutely and were therefore more sensitive to sound, all kinds of sound. As cholera and malaria abated in the West, adults dosed themselves less frequently with quinine, an ototoxic drug that could make one permanently hard of hearing; as diseases such as scarlet fever and German measles became less endemic, fewer people had their acoustic nerves damaged or destroyed by serious childhood illness. The habits of washing (with clean water) encouraged by primary schoolteachers and public health nurses probably reduced the frequency of severe ear infections during childhood while district-wide tests of hearing acuity (in Germany, England, France, and the United States) made parents and teachers more aware of the possibility and prevalence of hearing loss–and more likely to rise up to defend children against noises which not only slowed education but threatened the ear itself. Certain categories of workers, especially foundrymen and boilermakers, were at last recognized by physicians and courts as liable to occupational hearing loss; meanwhile, as working stiffs got a bit more sleep, they would likely have less ringing in their ears on awaking–unless those damn church bells started up.
Finally, one might argue, as did anti-noise Progressives, that church bells were obsolete. Regular peals from steeples no longer served any time-marking purpose in societies endowed with accurate spring-driven pocket watches and electric alarm clocks. Indeed, church bells needlessly confused the urban population, for similar-sounding bells were still being used for general alarm atop firetrucks, at fire and police stations, in schools and theaters, and for civil defense, hurricane, and tornado warnings. Furthermore, the number of experts adept at retuning church bells had dwindled with the dwindling need for church bells, and the cost of employing their services had become prohibitive, so that many bells–cityside or countryside–were left to toll the hours abrasively. Those with a nostalgia for the warm tones of old church bells should hear them now.
These arguments, though engaging, are not entirely persuasive. Many late medieval and early modern towns were densely channeled and layered, and their considerable numbers of church bells would have been quite as insistent in tone, echo, and vibration as any congeries of bells in a 19th-century city. As for interrupting the quotidian round, monastery bells, close upon towns or villages, often rang later in the night and earlier in the morning than even peasants and apprentices had to work. As for obsolescence, crowing clocks in the towers of town squares had begun, back in the 14th century, to compete with church bells for the rights to the telling of time, and by the late 17th century, church bells were usually inadequate to the telling of commercial time, which ran by quarter-hour chimes if not by the demanding sweep of a minute hand.
And as for the proposition that there was a generally heightened sensitivity to sound in the 19th century, well, maybe. But the Roman philosopher Seneca, who lived above a public bathhouse in the first century A.D., described in detail the grunting, hissing; and strident gasps of men exercising, the brawling of ruffians and thieves, and the itinerant hair remover “giving vent to his shrill and penetrating cry in order to advertise his presence, never silent unless it be while he is plucking someone’s armpits and making the client yell for him!” Seneca claimed that he was able to think and write despite the ruckus, unlike many others in Rome and unlike those in the old tale “of a people on the Nile who moved their capital solely because they could not stand the thundering of a cataract!” Roman aristocrats and early Christian monastics went out into the country, up into the hills, or across the deserts to escape the din of the city.3
What I mean to argue instead is that, from all sides, the last 150 years have been witness to a thoroughgoing redefinition of the nature of sound and the ambit of noise, such that sounds which had been with people for ages were reconceived and newly calibrated. Church bells were effectively silenced not simply because they were felt to be louder; nor because they sustained an obsolete cultural punctuation of the day and week; nor because they offended the proprieties of a secular, decorous society; nor because people heard them more distinctly and found them out of tune with modern life. Rather, church bells were silenced because they belonged to a constellation of sounds whose significance was in the process of being reconfigured. Yes, the soundscape was changing, new sounds were coming to the fore (the siren, the hum of electrical wires and transformers, the crackle of phonograph records and radio transmissions) as older sounds faded away (the scratch of the quill pen, the crystalline ring of a handbell to call one’s servants). But beneath the changing soundscape the cultural resonances of sound itself were undergoing far more determinative changes.
Among the most profound of these changes, between 1860 and 1930, was a change in the vary notion of noise. Where before noise had been defined vaguely as the failure of certain tones to cohabit peacefully, and where before noise had been felt as something intermittent, soon it would be defined psychologically as unwanted sound and it would be felt as something constant. Modernity, it seemed, and seems, disturbs the peace. Large factories, steam locomotives, industrial whistles and bells, then the sewing machine and the phonograph, the machine shop and the telephone, the ringing cash register and the elevated train, the automobile and the subway, the truck and the machine gun, these were hardly epiphenomenal to modernity: they were of its essence. Whatever smoke and noise was raised, it was raised in the cause and career of an amazing progress.
This meant that, as commentators were at pains to point out, insofar as noise was the inevitable byproduct of the march of civilization, it must be with us always, in the thrum of commerce, the squeal of traffic, the clacking of typewriters and adding machines, the pounding of dynamos. Even Julia Barnett Rice, angered as she was by incessant tugboat whistles, by elevated trains screeching within yards of classrooms, by children unthinkingly clattering sticks along iron fences near hospitals, and by July 4th fools shooting off pistols and exploding firecrackers, even this articulate medical graduate felt constrained to name her organization the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise. Everyone, even those like her who lived in Manhattan mansions, had to abide some noise–or go mad, as the publisher Joseph Pulitzer almost did, despite a specially soundproofed, detached study that proved, sadly, to concentrate at his desk all the shuddering of a certain set of domestic pipes.
Noise was now acknowledged as a constant of industry, of commerce, of frenetic urbanity–and of physiology. With the embrace of the diagnostic methods of percussion and auscultation, and with the amplification afforded by stethoscopes, 19th-century physicians uncovered a noisy human body whose internal sounds they tried manfully to make coherent; the louder or more liquid or more crackled these sounds of lungs, heart, thorax, abdomen, the more likely the patient had this or that illness and this or that prognosis. Yet there remained always a residue of quite ambiguous or unintelligible sounds–noises–whose meaning could not be resolved. (To this day, experienced doctors ausculating a patient will rarely agree on what they hear within.) The body, no matter how healthy, and aside from the borborygmus of the dyspeptic, gave rise to a concerto to which the active mind was generally oblivious unless one held one’s fingers to one’s ears (and became terrified by the loudness of one’s beating heart).
The same physicians who used their stethoscopes to make sense of this perpetual concerto came forward after the turn of the century in concerted support of anti-noise campaigns. They offered evidence that, even asleep, our ears are active, and the noise of nighttime car horns, of doormen’s whistles and drunken sailors, of locomotives thundering in train yards penetrated the inner ear and compelled the nervous system to make adjustments. Unconscious as people awake were of their internal operating sounds, asleep they could be completely unconscious of the damage done to them–the reserves of personal energy exhausted, the nerves frayed, the biological rhythms interrupted–by loud, startling noises taken in willy-nilly as they snored. Alert or inert, there was no escaping noise.
Which was, it would turn out, a consequence as much of how the universe functioned as of how modern civilizations flourished. If some of the noises inside the body were unresolvable, so too was the “noise” from the radio waves and electrical circuits that physicists and engineers were rapidly learning to manipulate. By 1920, there was such a thing as “background noise” in electrical engineering; complex equations based upon simple but ingenious experiments proved that such noise was a natural and unavoidable phenomenon, given the unpredictable motion of single electrons.
In popular terms, this “background noise” would become familiar as the “static” behind and between radio programs. We have, in the years since, managed to reduce this noise to near inaudibility, but it is still there. It must be there; our radio astronomers tell us that it was built into the universe by the Big Bang.
Advancing societies, mature bodies, the ageing universe, all became soundscapes in which noise (unwanted, indeterminate, or confused sounds, random vibrations, ionic discharges) was at once constant and necessary. Under such cultural circumstance, Nature itself could scarcely be kept clear of noise. Indeed, the legendary peace and quiet of Nature had now to be cordoned off in newly designated national parks, “preserves,” and “wilderness” areas, or carefully dispensed in “rest cure” sanatoriums, spas, and health resorts. Otherwise, Nature, like modern civilization, was continuously alive with sound and with a variety of big noises–thunder, volcanoes, landslides, brontidi (quakes sounding in the air). The new science of seismology discovered that the earth itself was continually making noises, and that one could “hear” on a seismograph in Kansas or Tokyo the pounding of the surf off the coast of California. If birdlovers began recording birdsongs from the calmest of marshes and plains, others less loving campaigned against the “dirty,” “parasitic” English sparrow, whose romantic or industrious chatter was now considered noise. Once the reserve of sublimity and silent grandeur, Nature by 1900 was beriddled with sounds large and small, gentle and harsh, and as likely to be noisy as noiseless.
Where, then, could one, indeed, should one, find silence?
In the world of the spirit.
It would be folly to claim that silence was new to religion. I mean rather to claim that, between 1860 and 1930, silence came to seem newly central not to institutional religion or practical theology per se but to spirituality. Beset by the noisiness of the world at large, people began looking and listening for respite to the World Beyond. For the electrified, amplified, widely photographed modern woman or man, astir with the Brownian motion of electrons, secondary consciousnesses, telephone calls, the shouts of newsboys, and disturbing dreams, the world of the spirit just had to be a quiet place.
This would appear to be a difficult claim to maintain in the face of the Pentecostal glossolalia and Holy Rolling that started up at century’s end, and in the face of the eventual bombast of radio evangelists and the lively tours of gospel quartets. Yet even these comparatively loud expressions of (modern Christian) spirituality were conceived to be rooted in a personal sense of inner quiet through which the Word was heard and understood. If Marx had mistrusted religion as the opiate of the masses, many now welcomed the calmness of the Holy Spirit in order to regain a voice.
But I verge on confusing spirituality with religion. The distinction between the two, reaffirmed in the West by Quietists of the 17th century and Pietists of the 18th, became more common and vital after the First and Second Great Awakenings and doubly so after the rise of Spiritualism in the mid-19th century. By 1900, being “spiritual” had been fully divorced from the traditional religious qualities of being observant, faithful, repentant, well-versed in theology, or learned in ritual forms.
To be “spiritual” around 1900 was, in the most nondenominational of senses, to be receptive, contemplative, inwardly quiet. It was, in the most nonscientific of senses, to be attentive to “vibrations” emanating from other hearts, other beings, other times. These “vibrations” harked back to 18th-century mesmerism and early-19th-century animal magnetism, but they partook also of a newer (Helmholtzian) acoustics in which sound was explained mechanically and electrically as vibration, and of a somewhat mystical fin de siecle physics in which the Fourth Dimension (and other dimensions beyond) could be intuited from vibrations reaching our humdrum three. To be “spiritual,” then, was to be, in the broadest of senses, acoustically adept.
Such a spirituality need not be intensely private; it could be expeditiously public. While anti-modernist craftspersons, artists, and architects proclaimed their admiration for medieval monasticism and the silent devotions of the cloister and walled garden, self-avowed Nature-lovers and conservationist tour guides identified groves of virgin forest as “cathedrals” and tourists stood, or were supposed to stand, in worshipful silence at vistas of canyon, sequoia, chasm, or waterfall. Quiet, more than anything, was what one got from, what one pantomimed for, and what one expected of, truly “spiritual” experiences, throughout life and at death.
Speaking of death, funerals themselves had become highly sedated affairs, and church bells rarely called a community to mourn: they were too loud, raucous. That rapping, banging, and tapping by the dead, so characteristic of early Spiritualist seances, was giving way to quieter visions of etherealized bodies Of men and women who had passed over to the Other Side; in the flesh, spirit mediums themselves spoke less, mimed more, transcribed much. The experience of something “spiritual” was implicitly a speechless experience; to be “spiritual” was explicitly to seek, and to be, quiet.
It was at this time that “Eastern” religions, and “Eastern” religious figures, became unusually attractive in the West. The rage for various paraphrases of Indian Buddhism and Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Hinduism, Zendavestanism or Mazdaism, and Taoism was to some degree the response to earlier transcendental ideas which had found a popular place in lyric poetry and then in fin de siecle melancholy and Orientalism, which made of the indefinable East a place of silent mysteries and mysterious silences. To a greater degree, the appeal of these particular Eastern religions lay in their (apparent) emphasis upon “spirituality” rather than upon industrious piety, and upon personal efforts at meditation rather than upon formal ceremony–although many middle- and upper-class Westerners were intrigued with the silent routines of the Japanese tea ceremony and the quiet self-possession of those spiritual masters who were imported, or who arrived on their own, from the exotic-East. Unable to speak or read the languages from Which these masters drew their wisdom and their devotions, Westerners instead studied and imitated their demeanor, their yogic postures, their trances, and their stunning ability to communicate beyond words. They who came from holy places which had so far escaped the constant background noise of modernity must carry with them the ancient silences, and ultimate truths, of the cosmos.4
So the peals of church bells in Western cities–and, surprisingly, in the countryside–were cut short because the world of the spirit had to be the last resort of silence and silence the essence of spirituality. Churches, so far as they represented or invited spirituality, had consequently to be sanctuaries of quiet. (Using silence as punishment, in prison and the insane asylum, would begin to be frowned upon.) Other possible sanctuaries–the school, the hospital, the library–had one after the other fallen to the onslaughts of noise. Julia Rice Barnett won small victories around 1910 by convincing cities to institute “Quiet Zones” for hospitals and schools, but these were no match for the internal noises of patients in pain and students in prankdom. The redoubtable Mrs. Barnett herself never even tried to protect libraries, whose bespectacled overseers were for generations stereotyped as mean-tempered shushers.
Libraries deserve a bit more attention here, for although pretty much everyone disliked the tyranny of silence imposed by frustrated librarians, pretty much everyone agreed that the more one was exercising one’s higher functions–thought, reading, writing, calculating–the more one required quiet and the more unhinged one could be by noise. People who did mental work, said all the physicians, had greater need of a quiet environment than did those who worked with their hands, for their nervous systems were already more stressed and therefore more likely to be deranged by noise. The very highest of human functions was (of course) the spiritual; meditation and prayer, ergo, demanded the closest approximation to perfect silence.
In order to complete the cultural and neurological circuits between silence and spirituality, one had only to have the barest recourse to modern philosophy at century’s turn. To the modern philosophy of language, which Ludwig Wittgenstein was taking in the direction of the ineffability of elemental experiences– especially, for him, of “mystical” experience. To the philosophy of art, which was leaning increasingly toward acoustic metaphors. To the philosophy of religion, which in 1917 Rudolf Otto took in the direction of the mysterium tremendum, holiness itself being a feeling of inexpressible awefulness, incapable of circumscription by speech.
To this day, Westerners and, I suspect, most who consider themselves “modern,” live by the assumption that noise is a constant secular presence, silence an avenue toward, and index to, the spiritual. Everywhere, from Milan to Tokyo, from Memphis to Warsaw, anti-noise campaigns have been subtly complemented by an ethos which elevates silence to an otherworldly height. We still build steeples, but we look to them, as to pyramids, for an unearthly silence and immortality. Ding, dong.