An Assortment of Silences

There’s a short story by Heinrich Böll that I like, titled “Murke’s Collected Silences.” Set in postwar Germany, it follows a radio editor named Dr. Murke, whose job is to sift through hours of audio tracks and trim them before broadcast. It’s a subtly satirical read: the radio station’s director has a religious awakening at one point, and Murke is tasked with editing out each mention of the word “God” and replacing it with “that higher Being Whom we revere.” What strikes me most about the piece, though, is a scene near the end. Murke reveals he has collected snippets of silence out of the radio broadcasts—“places where the speakers sometimes pause for a moment, or sigh, or take a breath, or there is absolute silence”—and has spliced them together into a three-minute cassette. He plays the noiseless tape at home after long days of work.

I started my own repository of silences the other day, a Spotify playlist made up of songs with gaps in the middle. Some only contain barely perceptible beats of silence, like at 1:28 of Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times.” Others have longer pauses—4:44 into “A Day in the Life,” a gulf of sound after the famously jarring chord and before the random Beatles chatter at the end. And then there is Alphonse Allais’s “Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man,” a twenty-four measure piece consisting entirely of rests. I haven’t gone as far as to extract the assorted pauses and sew them into a tapestry of deafened noise, as Murke would, but I admittedly derive a hint of esoteric pleasure from combing through obscure albums in search of particularly noteworthy silences. 

In some ways, it’s been an awfully silent year. There were days in April when you could walk along Commercial Drive, or Granville Street—normally hectic roads, for the reference of non-Vancouverites—and hear nothing except the innocuous dribble of water through storm gutters. By now, the urban racket has resumed, but silence has cropped up in other places: quiet mornings in Whole Foods as everyone maneuvers their shopping carts at awkward angles to avoid brushing past one another in aisles of gluten-free rice cakes. Household conversations that conclude after a few empty refrains of my day was exactly the same as yesterday, how was yours? Being an introvert, I didn’t expect to miss the inane chatter of ordinary life—of children babbling on the SkyTrain, or elderly folks at the library arguing about Trudeau’s foreign policy. The quietness, a sort of negative space composed of missing noises, feels surprisingly melancholy. 

Still, if you listen closely enough, a patchwork of sounds emerges from the silence. In San Francisco and Singapore, birdsong is becoming audible in the streets after years of urban noise. At home, I can faintly hear my neighbour’s voice as she teaches piano lessons over Zoom. And for months, Vancouver broke into nightly applause in honour of our healthcare workers, an endearing harmony of pots, pans, and spatulas. It turns out the soundscape hasn’t disappeared, only evolved—that if we were to splice the sounds of 2020 into a cassette tape, it might be muffled and blurred, but with discernible tones of life beneath the haze. So perhaps the dulled quietness is only a consequence of what we choose to listen to.

Among my Heinrich Böll-inspired assortment of silences, the one I enjoy the most occurs at about ten and a half minutes into the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. It’s an elusive yet richly textured pause, with an almost euphonious quality to it. And though it only lasts a few seconds, the silence is what captures the symphony’s wistfulness—the despondency, the reminiscence, and the quiet sense of longing—before the violins trail in with mellow chords. The audience doesn’t even realize they’re holding their breaths until afterwards. And really, the momentary beats of stillness are woven into the fabric of the piece, just as indelibly as each gliding arpeggio or rueful pizzicato. Quiet moments, both in Dvorak and in pandemics, are what give us appreciation for the noise. In any case, I’m looking forward to a crescendo.

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