Internationally renowned documentary sound recordist and soundscaper Chris Watson explores the elusive appeal of silence...
No Silence Please
Bioacoustic researchers listen to the world in some very unusual ways and I am interested in tuning into these varying perspectives. Peng Lee who has the fabulous job title of ‘Principle Investigator of Insect Acoustics’ works at The National Center for Physical Acoustics (NCPA) within the University of Mississippi in the United States and I was there to observe him making sound recordings of fire ants to try and discover if these insects were communicating using near field sound. This is airborne communication not as we hear by changing air pressure but by detecting particle vibrations within approximately 100 mm of their antennae.
Clearly this requires a quiet place in which to record, a very quiet place. The NCPA have an anechoic chamber which is an acoustically isolated room lined with large sound absorbing panels which provide an echo-less environment within which we were recording the fire ants. As much of my fieldwork involves recording sound out on location in an increasingly noisy world I was keen to experience such a space on my own. So at the end of our recording session Peng Lee closed the door behind him, there was a dull clunk, and I was left alone in this artificial and acoustically dead environment.
There was no sound, nothing. A blanket of silence enveloped me and I could feel the weight almost as a physical presence. I searched for a reference and began to internalise sound sources. There was a hissing in my ears and a low pulsing that I can only guess was the sound of my blood circulating. After less than two minutes I could stand it no longer and asked to be let out. So, silence is not golden. The complete absence of sound was a disturbing and disorienting ordeal and for me an extreme form of sensory deprivation.
We need sound for a balanced stimulation of all our senses and, for my music, I feel it works best when it contains a range of dynamics. However, loud and quiet are not absolute but relative levels, and ones which can be achieved in any listening environment, for example, just as much on Radio 1 or Radio 3 as out on the Cheviot Hills by creating a balance either through creative production and mixing techniques or by changing one’s relative position to the sound source. The analogy would be like framing a landscape photograph; it’s aural light and shade.
However we sometimes need the music to stop, and in this respect I fully supported Bill Drummond’s ‘No Music Day’ on November 21st, not least because that’s my birthday and this year I valiantly saved playing a wished for cd gift until the 22nd. But when I otherwise choose not to listen to music or any other recorded sound at home, I seek out one of my favourite places in Northumberland that has a particular acoustic combined with an unobtrusive ambient tone. Distant waves on Embleton beach, a breeze hissing through the conifers in Kielder forest, the sigh of Chevington reed beds or even the low drones of distant city traffic in my back garden at night; these continuous harmonically rich backgrounds are a kind of reference signal upon which we can project our thoughts and imagination. Rather like the wildtracks or atmosphere recordings used in the composition of Film, TV and Radio soundtracks, they are a simple but necessary component part, remove them and the spell is broken.
I feel the search for these sounds is not just an aesthetic whim to be enjoyed in isolation, but a basic human need and a staple requirement in all our daily lives. Experiencing this sonic layer allows us not only to relax, but also to focus and expand our creativity and thought processes. I believe there is also a fundamental element to our relationship with these apparently simple sounds. As a developing foetus our ability to hear begins at around twenty four weeks. Within our mother’s womb we are surrounded by sound; a pumping heart, circulating blood and an active digestive system all contribute to a low level ambient atmosphere rich in frequencies and harmonics. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that in later life we sometimes seek a return to the type of sonic environment we experienced before we were even born.
Chris Watson, December 2006