Magazine

The power of silence

  • 9 November 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Lips

A record by the Royal British Legion featuring only silence is hoping to beat Take That to the number one spot this week. It reflects the immense power that - for many people - silence can wield, if only we stopped to listen.

Stop.

Close your eyes.

Take a deep breath.

Shut out the world around you.

Those moments when you are immersed in quietness are all too rare in today's world.

Noise pollution is a companion to modern life, with traffic, ringtones and other people's conversations providing the soundtrack to our daily routines.

But at this time of year, when the echoes of the bangs and fireworks of the calendar's noisiest festival have only just passed, it's the absence of noise that takes centre stage.

On Thursday, Armistice Day, the nation will fall silent for two minutes at 11am and recall the moment the bombs stopped in 1918. Many will also respect a silence on Sunday.

This sombre reflection is probably the most famous expression of silence in British society, and it will have an even stronger resonance this year.

This week, the Royal British Legion released a single called 2 Minute Silence, which is competing for top spot in Sunday's Top 40 with Take That's first record since their reunion, The Flood. The Legion's video features noiseless contributions from some famous figures.

The Legion's director general, Chris Simpkins, said he hoped people would appreciate the significance of the absence of sound.

"Rather than record a song, we felt the UK public would recognise the poignancy of silence and its clear association with remembrance."

But silence need not be sad or contemplative. It has many powerful functions, depending on the circumstances. Here is a selection. Add some more using the form at the foot of the page.

PROTEST

The web-based Cage Against the Machine campaign aims to put a work of silence on top of the Christmas charts.

John Cage's most famous work, entitled 4'33 and made up of three movements in which the musicians are instructed not to play their instruments, is an attempt to hold off the X Factor winner from its anticipated slot, as was achieved in 2009 by a somewhat noisier Rage Against The Machine track.

It may be a playful exercise, but according to Guardian classical music critic and presenter of BBC Radio 3's Music Matters Tom Service, it is fully in keeping with Cage's reasons for creating the track.

Service says the composer was, in part, reacting against post-war America's inescapable soundtrack of muzak.

Nothing, after all, is more terrifying to radio producers than the prospect of "dead air", and nor has any other musician presented a starker contrast with the noise of modern urban life.

"In the world we live in, it's really quite a subversive thing to do because you never really get silence otherwise," observes Service.

"In fact, what you're listening to isn't silence - it's background noise, and Cage is asking us to focus on it rather than block it out.

"It's a radically simple idea and it cuts across our notions of what is music. Cage Against the Machine makes perfect sense."

HEALING

On 24 February 2007, the Ireland rugby team hosted England at Dublin's Croke Park, in one of the most emotionally charged sporting fixtures in recent years.

The stadium, home to the Gaelic games, was the scene of Bloody Sunday in 1920, when British forces opened fire on the crowd watching a match, killing 14 spectators and players.

Image caption A respectful silence greeted England in Dublin

There was much talk in the build-up to the match about what kind of reception England would get, and how God Save The Queen would be treated in an arena strongly associated with anti-British enmity of the past.

Writing in the Times on the day after Ireland thrashed England on the pitch, columnist Simon Barnes said the short silence before the British national anthem was so well respected, and emotional, that it was transformative for the Irish nation.

"It [the national anthem] was preceded by a silence that was almost reverent - not in respect of the sentiments of that terse and tuneless ditty but because freeing oneself from the shackles of history is worth a moment's savouring.

"Then the tune was played and the England team and the 7,000 England supporters sang along, and there was not a whistle or a catcall or a boo. Why should there be? This was just sport, was it not?

"Then, extraordinarily, a round of applause; not for the song but for the silence, the palpable feeling that the end of an era was being celebrated."

WORSHIP

Silence has long been recognised by religious groups as a key component of an ascetic path to spirituality, founded on a belief that denial offers spiritual focus.

The recent BBC programme The Big Silence - in which five volunteers were sent to a Jesuit retreat in for over a week, and only allowed to talk for an hour a day - brought the practice to broader attention.

In Christianity, some orders of monks take vows of silence. Others, such as Trappists, only speak when it is deemed necessary.

Hindus also have wise ascetics called munis, or silent ones.

To those who practise worship in this way, the power of keeping quiet relies on the opportunity it creates for contemplation.

Kim Nataraja of the World Community for Christian Meditation says silence offers a pointed retreat from the noise, bustle and distractions of modern society.

"We need to rediscover the power of attention and we do that through silence - the concentration that we use in prayer can be used in everyday life," she says.

"The intuitive knowledge that lives in silence helps us deal with life's surprises. If you are silent that allows you to be fully attentive to who you are."

MENACE

Pauses became such a hallmark of playwright Harold Pinter that they even get a mention in the Oxford English Dictionary under the term "Pinterism".

The Nobel prize winner made a short silence as loaded with meaning as the lines themselves, elevating it from being a gap in conversation to an important dramatic tool.

A Pinter pause - typically about 10 seconds - could convey a range of emotions. It commonly amplified a sense of menace by ratcheting up the dramatic tension in an exchange.

These silences were also capable of fear, rage, indecision or introspective trauma. Each break in dialogue, sometimes mid-sentence, became an important aspect of character.

Pinter himself said too much was made of them, but director Sir Peter Hall said the pauses in Pinter's work are all there for a reason. Three dots is hesitation, he remarked, a pause is a mundane crisis and a silence a full-blown crisis.

"Beckett started it and Harold took it over to express that which is inexpressible in a very original and particular way, and made them something which is his."

Michael Billington, theatre critic of the Guardian, says: "Pinter carefully orchestrated his plays with pauses and silences and, if you observe what he wrote, the plays acquire their own rhythm and music.

"What he disliked was productions that arbitrarily inserted pauses and sacrificed the natural moment of his dialogue."

COMMUNICATION

Silence is not just the absence of sound, it is an important way of communicating. It can denote agreement, disapproval, intimacy, power - any number of emotions and feelings.

Just like the spoken word, it fulfils the basic functions of language - the referential, interpersonal and textual - says Professor Adam Jaworski, author of The Power of Silence.

"Where it does most is in the interpersonal area. It is often associated with the negative actions of communication and implies concealment, but we often need to use it this way to protect ourselves.

"However, silence also speaks of intimacy, love and security for people. It's a hugely important role of silence. Good friends can be together and be silent, people who aren't good friends find silence uncomfortable."

Another important thing that silence communicates is power. People in authority can regulate speech and silence. They can nominate when a person talks and when they don't. Those who are subordinate often stay silent until spoken to.

RESPECT

Silence has been used as a collective show of respect for many years, but it really became part of British life in the early 20th century, says Professor Jaworski. This is probably because it was a time when national identities became very important.

Records show a period of silence in remembrance of King Edward VII, when he died in 1910. One was also held after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. But the practice of using silence to remember the dead was firmly established on 11 November 1919 - the first two-minute commemorative silence on Armistice Day.

It's thought the idea was first proposed by Australian journalist and World War I veteran, Edward George Honey. It led King George V to order a two- minute silence, saying "all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead".

Now silence is commonly used to show respect after many high-profile deaths and tragedies. This is because it is collective, it involves everyone and can be done in unison, says Professor Jaworski.

"It is a ritual and as such provides a safe script for people to express extreme emotions. People know the conventions and know how to behave. Also, it is a way of saying 'there are no words that are fitting to say how we feel about this'."