essay

57239 a silent room

If I sit quietly in a room and just listen, I hear a series of small events, each playing out of its own accord, and with them, like the voice-over narration from a strange and subdued documentary film, file the unburnished imaginings of my aimless thinking, walking out, one at a time, onto the proscenium of an internal world, out of space, perhaps even out of time.

The faucet drips, a floor board creaks, the house slowly settles into the earth with quiet snaps and cracks. The refrigerator purrs for a while, and then gently quakes to stop. An electric clock emits a faint motor hum and makes soft alternating clicks, as if it were walking through time. I hear outside sounds, a bird sitting in a nearby tree, singing behind the glass of my window; children bouncing an inflated ball and chattering happily. Furniture scrapes across the floor in the upstairs apartment, the electric cricket of a mobile phone rings, and a muffled voice seeps through the plaster, only one side of a conversation, a bit like the sound of one hand clapping. An imperceptible current of air sets a spider’s web to shivering, a gossamer curtain, both tense and lax. The walls themselves seem to breathe, their cracks growing deeper, darker, as the sun passes behind a parade of clouds, driven by the wind, which modulate the interior light in ever-changing intensities.

I hear also sounds inside me, I breathe, my heart beats. If I scratch my jaw or rub the nape of my neck, a sibilant rumbling is heard in my ear. If I rub my hands together, or sweep them across my clothing, I can hear a soft sound, like wind in the sand dunes. Some sounds don’t exist as physical modulations. My tinnitus is always there, but it is not produced by the regular motion of air particles; it is a malfunction of the hearing apparatus itself. And there is the underground river of blood, a constantly ebbing and flowing stream, like quickened tides. But one only hears it, or so I am told, in an anechoic chamber.

I can hear the ring of the room, it is like being inside a bell. Decades ago, in film school, when I was shooting synchronized sound indoors, I was advised to always record a few minutes of the chosen location without any talking or human activity. A supply of such “silence” was useful to give the film editor the flexibility to cut in silence here and there to create rhythm in the edited scene. The use of blank tape would only call attention to these cuts, because true technical silence has an unnatural “sound” when placed in stark comparison next to what we would call “silent” in a human context. The sound of nothing happening in the location of the filmed scene is a good way to hide these transitions. So, nothing is something. The sound of nothing happening is still a sound, excited air molecules, nearly imperceptible, their minuscule resonances the residue of the struggle of architecture against gravity. Yes, if you listen closely, the room rings.

Do this experiment. Record the sound of a room empty of any sound-making creatures or objects. Normalize it to boost the signal saturation. Apply aggressive equalization by making a narrow frequency band, pushing the volume up to the limit, and then sweep this narrow spike up and down the sound spectrum of the normalized recording. At certain places, you will hear steady tones with the eerie timbre of a singer of infinite breath holding a note. If you allow yourself, you will hear the vowel ‘a’ or ‘i’ or ‘o’ being sung, differing from frequency to frequency. Explore the character of the room, plumb the depths of its hidden life, through these more or less orderly displacements. The silence is alive, I tell you. It is a chorus.


This essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 12th post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“