‘If you sit in Hyde Park just far enough away from the traffic so that you don’t perceive any of its specific details, you just hear the average of the whole thing. And it’s such a beautiful sound. For me that’s as good as going to a concert hall at night.”
I came across this observation years ago in a book called Brian Eno: His Work and the Vertical Colour of Sound, about the music of the producer and anti-musician who midwifed innumerable classic albums by bands such as U2, Talking Heads and Coldplay.
Silence is a persistent theme of Eno’s work, which has focused on the avoidance of cliche and short-circuits of understanding. One of his legendary Oblique Strategies – a deck of cards designed as prompts for artists when they hit a blank or a block – reads: “Don’t break the silence.” Perhaps Eno’s most important contribution to rock’n’roll has been the understanding that making a noise, or singing something, can be a loss rather than a gain, especially if what emerges is a truism or a lie. “Every event,” he told an interviewer in 1981, “either obscures another event or obscures silence, so you may as well leave as much out of everything as you can.”
I quoted him the other Sunday – St John's Eve, as it happens – when I helped launch a CD called Anáil, in St Ruain's Abbey in the village of Lorrha, Co Tipperary. Anáil, produced by the local community, is astounding in both its conceptualisation and purpose.
The three-track CD is the outcome of a series of recordings conducted in the three ruined abbeys of Lorrha at the dead of night, the first part of the Breath Project, recently launched in the community as a way of raising funds and awareness about emotional wellbeing among young people.
The Breath Project aims to address matters such as suicide and bullying and seeks “to move away from providing children with a victim/victimiser vocabulary”.
Philosophically, Anáil derives from ancient concepts of meditation, and the more modern idea of "mindfulness" – reconnecting with here-and-now reality by quieting the mind and body and focusing on the breath or on incidental noises in the vicinity and beyond.
There’s little need to labour the particular relevance of this initiative right now, in the era of iPods, phone-ins and 24/7 pop radio – not to mention the unmentionable twit-twatting of the internet. Silence, or what passes for it in the babble of the modern world, seems increasingly to be the most feared force on the planet.
Just listening to Anáil is a radical experience, since focusing on silence in a world that increasingly repudiates that possibility is a profoundly engaging endeavour.
Of course, the tracks do not contain silence, since there is no such earthly thing. You need headphones, not so much to hear as to leave the constructed world you live in every day.
The human ear is no more able to hear silence than the mind can conceive of nothingness. But the pursuit of silence is a vital means of accessing the mysteriousness of being here at all. Modern culture strives to extinguish that mysteriousness with constructs of thoughts and words that affect a semblance of a total reality. When this fails to satisfy – which it must – the human being becomes vulnerable to despair. The antidote offered by “silence” is the invitation to become aware of the depths of possibility from which we’ve emerged and wait to return.
Talk is cheap
Our culture nudges us to see and hear words as the key to all understanding. Constantly, we "explain" things or listen to "explanations". Words appear to be all we have, so we use them assiduously and become fixated on what they seem to contain of our intuitions.
In the years before his death seven years ago, I became friendly with Peter Kavanagh, younger brother of Patrick, whose poems continue to bear witness to the created universe and the Presence he observed in everyday things. Both men understood the limits of words. The important thing about a poem, Patrick would say, is "the Flash".
By this he meant the intrusion of the exceptional, the unexpected, the Other. I once asked Peter about the relationship between the words and the poem’s immanent content. “The words,” he replied, “are the least important part. In a poem, the words burn up in a tremendous thread of something unusual.”
A paradox, then: we need the words, however limited, to make possible the spaces between them – but the words alone always come to nothing. At best, they ignite in the listener, reader, a sense of recognition, which becomes stronger when the silence re-enters.
Secretly, we seek the fewest and least inadequate words, to bring the minimum of clutter to our thoughts. Really, there is no communication except the mutual exchanging of experience. We understand only what we already know. The words help, but are not the thing.