As a music reviewer, appreciator, and general fan-girl, my life is almost constantly surrounded by sound. Up until a few weeks ago, I lived in New York City, where anything close to silence feels uncomfortable and just plain wrong. The same can be said for my time spent in the office, where anything too quiet makes me squirm. I even sleep with a fan on at night for white noise. On my way into work, I put my headphones on to block out the world; while working, I listen to create my own.
But every Thanksgiving, I join my family, friends, and assorted others in what feels like one of the quietest places in the universe: Cape Cod in the winter. In their neighborhood, you're lucky if every fourth house is occupied during the colder months.
This year, I took my dog out for some air prior to the descent of a dozen relatives and relative strangers upon the homestead. What I was hoping would be a quick spin around the block turned into a much longer journey. Save for two people and a handful of cars, we didn't encounter anyone for most of our trip. It felt as those it was just my trusty canine and me, traveling through a post-apocalyptic world in which we'd eventually be on the hunt for other life-forms. But in that moment, we weren't really in a hurry to do so. In fact, the only really prominent sound was the lack thereof.
Sometimes, I think we don't realize how much noise encases us -- or defines us -- until we experience the exact opposite. Alone with your thoughts, it's a return to center. Daily we define who we are not as who we believe ourselves to be, but as how others perceive us (or worse, how we perceive others' perceptions). When there's no one left to tell you who you should or shouldn't be, it's an opportunity to discover who you really are.
In music, silence can be the most powerful tool available in an artist's repertoire. In the moment after a song ends, a listener is hanging on to the feeling of the number, with the last note ringing true only in his or her thoughts. In the moment before, a listener is full of anticipation, waiting for that first note to begin eagerly, ever hopeful.
But nothing is stronger, musically, than a break mid-number. Even just a quarter-note rest tricks the ear, shocks the system regardless of how many times its been heard before. It can set up a change or a breath, a climax or a fall. Silence can impart more emotion than a thousand notes or instruments, especially in contrast to the constant noise we've come to expect from our busy lives. And yet it seems to be used in music these days more rarely than ever before.
I'll continue to wear my headphones on my commute to work and in the office when a break in conversation leads to a period of silence, and I'll still turn on a fan for white noise to drown out my busy thoughts when it's finally time to sleep. But I will also remember this pure silence, and who I am when the noise dies down. And perhaps most importantly, I'll keep with me the power of pure nothing in contrast to the sheer everythingness of it all.