Listening for Silence With the Headphones Off – Mark Richardson

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mmersive portable audio—the ability to be out in the world while listening to your favorite music privately, on headphones—is a relatively new phenomenon. In 1972, a man named Andreas Pavel more or less invented it. At least that’s the way he tells the story in Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow’s fantastic 2017 book Personal Stereo.

Pavel was a hi-fi nut on holiday in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and he wanted to bring the luscious sound of his home system with him wherever he went. After tinkering with a small commercial tape player and the lightest high-quality headphones he could find, he had a setup he thought could work. On a beautiful evening with the snow falling, he decided to test it with his girlfriend in a nearby forest. He put the cassette of Push Push, a 1971 instrumental album by jazz flautist Herbie Mann, into his player, and pressed play. “What started put us in a state of ecstasy,” Pavel recalls in Personal Stereo. “We started feeling as if we were floating through the trees. It was unreal… life became a film. A 3D film. Suddenly I’m inside a film.”

Headphones for home listening were quite popular by the 1970s, but they were understood as an extension of the stereo, a way to make the listening that was already happening in bedrooms and living rooms private. But without portability, headphones merely rendered the room in which the listening happened in a different light. This effect was not insignificant—the “headphone album” in the ’70s suggested a personal journey into inner space, and a new kind of listening—but the fact that it happened in the same room as “regular” speaker listening localized (and minimized) its impact.

Before Pavel’s breakthrough, one scenario for splitting what we hear from what we see was an automobile outfitted with a good stereo, which created a mobile listening environment and allowed one to view the passing landscape through a windshield while hearing the music of one’s choice. By the late 1960s, when the emergence of 8-tracks brought driver-selected music in the car to the masses, the automobile as a listening chamber was well established. But that experience didn’t quite go all the way—you could still hear the engine, the voice of the person next to you, the wind rushing over the car’s body.

The leap from jamming songs in the car to truly all-enveloping mobile sound—possibly first introduced by Pavel in ’72, popularized when the Walkman exploded in the early 1980s—was earth shattering. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the portable stereo, featuring headphones with enough isolation so that you heard only the music and not what was happening nearby, changed human consciousness. The sight/sound split it made commonplace has generated untold pleasure and, later, perhaps a certain amount of misery.

 

We all know the ecstatic feeling Pavel describes, that drug-like sensation where the visual field is colored by the tone of the music, and the music is given a different emotional tint by the visuals. My experience with this phenomena is so rich, I can look back on dozens of times when I was walking somewhere and listening remembering just how intensely blissful that moment was. Sometimes, I can close my eyes and put myself back in that space and recall what I was thinking and feeling—what felt good, what didn’t: the time I crunched through the snow along the shore of Lake Michigan while visiting my brother in Grand Haven and listened to Modest Mouse’s Lonesome Crowded West, worried about money and my future; the period after I bought my first Merzbow CD, Hybrid Noisebloom, and walked the streets of San Francisco blasting it, terrified and exhilarated by what I was hearing; the day in the fall after I’d moved to New York, finding myself moving through Manhattan on a nice day while listening to the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms and looking at the endlessly rich street life before me; riding the subway while listening to William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops, feeling the decay of the music inside the squealing car; the weeks in Chicago taking in new sights while immersing myself in the overwhelming sonic landscape of Gas.

There are few pleasures in my life that can compare with listening to a piece of music loud while I’m in motion. It’s pure bliss, euphoria. All of my problems fall away, and I momentarily feel centered, confident, excited about the future, and grateful for the good parts of my past. In recent years, my desire to share this overwhelming experience has spilled over to social media. On Instagram, I got into the habit of documenting what was in my headphones every time I walked by the Empire State Building. When I now look at the images I snapped and the notes on what I was hearing when I saw them I can transport myself back to that instant and feel a tingle, a faint suggestion of time travel, the specific memories and feelings embedded in that glance still faintly accessible.

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But sometimes I want to think more deeply about how I’m moving through the world, the true meaning of escape, what I might be missing when I draw into myself with my headphones on. There’s a stanza in “Self Portrait at 28,” a poem by David Berman of Silver Jews taken from his book Actual Air, that struck me like the clang on a Tibetan prayer bowl the first time I read it, and the tone has never fully retreated in the years since. I can still hear it, now, right at the threshold of silence:

All this new technology
will eventually give us new feelings
that will never completely displace the old ones
leaving everyone feeling quite nervous
and split in two.

Among other things, I think of this line in connection with the rapture of portable music listening. As much as I love this activity—and man do I love it—I’m also aware that I might be losing something by living inside of my headphones. The feeling of wholeness, of a fully integrated sense of self, taking in my immediate surroundings with all of my senses simultaneously, truly feeling the present. For most of human history, truly feeling the present was the only way to live, there was no choice. But in the past 50 years, such integration has become optional, at least part of the time. Music can both drown out the noise of living and fill an uncomfortable absence.

In their book Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?, Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter explore how silence can be an expression of power as well as powerlessness. “Teachers, judges, priests, and tyrants all have the power to silence others,” they write. “To be silent in the face of authority can show either deference or defiance. The asymmetric relationship between those who give orders and those who must obey is always demonstrated by who controls access to the soundscape.” Silence is a force, something that can be pushed on to someone or pushed against. It’s also a kind of reservoir, especially when it’s chosen by an individual for a specific purpose.

Two related thoughts on silence have been bouncing around my mind the last few months. One is from Mother Teresa, when asked about what she says when she prays, and she answered, “I don’t say anything. I just listen.” When asked what God says to her, she said, “Nothing. He just listens.”

The other is from bassist Mike Watt, formerly of the bands the Minutemen and fIREhOSE, who was interviewed by The Believer last year. As he so often does, he spent part of the interview talking about D. Boon, guitarist of the Minutemen and Watt’s childhood best friend, who died in a van accident in 1985: “People ask me what kind of bass player I am, and I tell ’em, ‘I’m D. Boon’s bass player.’ There’s something about never wanting to let him go. … I talk to him a lot. He never answers. He wants me to think about it.”

So another way to frame silence is as listening to listening.

In early May I bought a cheap sound pressure meter. I wanted to get a sense of how the noise in my daily life might be measured, what kind of sound existed during seemingly silent moments. I wanted to see whether the screeching brakes of the trains on the MTA’s ancient C line were as punishingly loud and potentially dangerous as they seemed. I wanted to put numbers to what my ears were experiencing every day, perhaps to make it more real, or maybe because it would allow me to listen deeper. It was also a way for me to focus on listening without headphones, to reconnect with the sound environment around me.

The closest I came to silence was an interior conference room in the World Trade Center, where I worked, a room that borders no other rooms, has no windows, and has no discernible ventilation sound. I started retiring to this room for 10 minutes at a time to meditate, something I had never done in my life. I had consciously avoided meditation because I wanted to keep one common mental health remedy untested, so that when things were bad I could always think to myself, “Well, I still haven’t tried meditation.” But this year, I gave in, and started to meditate in an attempt to counteract something that the Zen master and writer Thich Nhat Hanh once identified in his book Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise: “There’s a radio station playing in our head, Radio Station NST: Non-Stop Thinking. Our mind is filled with noise, and that’s why we can’t hear the call of life, the call of love.” The endless thought-loops that my mind cycles through are exhausting, like a blast of sound. I wondered what they might be covering up.

My meditation room at work, which seemed close to silent to me, registered about 40 decibels on my sound pressure meter. A sound environment below 30 decibels is hard to come by in everyday life—the world simply makes too much noise. Birds, wind, a plane overhead—there’s always something generating at least a small amount of sound, even if you’re not sure you can hear it. There is at least one place to experience quiet below that threshold, though: an anechoic chamber, a specially designed room constructed with walls that absorb almost all reflected sound.

I became aware of anechoic chambers when reading hi-fi magazines in the ’80s, but they first sparked my imagination when I read John Cage’s book Silence. Cage has long claimed that a visit to an anechoic chamber inspired his famed “silent” piece, 4’33”, and also convinced him that true silence is impossible. He claimed that he could hear two sounds in the chamber, which a scientist later explained to him was the sound of his nervous and circulatory systems in operation. (In his great book No Such Thing as Silence, which is about Cage’s 4’33”, Kyle Gann suggests that people can’t really hear their nervous systems in operation, and that Cage may have actually suffered from tinnitus, which hadn’t been revealed to him until he encountered a suitably quiet room.) After reading Cage’s story of his visit to the chamber many years ago, I’ve wanted to try it for myself.

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I contacted the mechanical engineering department of the Manhattan college Cooper Union, which has an anechoic chamber on the premises, and was told that I could meet briefly with Dr. Melody Baglione, who would explain the chamber to me. When I walked into the room that housed the chamber, Dr. Baglione was there with two students, and they were all fiddling with devices and preparing objects for tests. There were musical instruments in the room—drums, a piano, what looked like a harmonium—and objects and electronics were piled on workbenches. Along the left wall was the door that led to the chamber.

I removed my decibel meter from my bag and showed it to Dr. Baglione, and I told her that I’d been using it to measure sound pressure levels in the city. She compared the readings on my meter to the one she was holding, which was similar in shape but much larger, and which had a screen with charts and graphs and all sorts of real-time data. “How much did that cost you?” she asked, and I told her $25. The device she was holding cost several thousand, but the reading on my device was reasonably close.

I walked into the chamber with Dr. Baglione and Cooper Union’s media representative holding my decibel meter and we closed the door behind us. The effect was immediate. The room was the size of a large walk-in closet. A single naked bulb suspended from the ceiling provided the only illumination. We stood on a steel grate, so that sound could be absorbed into the material underneath our feet instead of being reflected from a floor. All around us were conical protrusions jutting out at an angle, not unlike stalactites in a cave, which looked like they were covered in chicken wire and something that resembled fiberglass insulation. In the spaces between these protrusions, all the sound that didn’t enter our ear canals or wasn’t absorbed by our bodies disappeared into nothingness.

Immediately, you could tell that the only sounds we were hearing were the ones we made. Dr. Baglione and I compared our meters again. Mine still read in the 30-decibel range, and we discovered that my inexpensive equipment must have a limitation on its lower end—practically speaking, there was no real reason for it to go lower, since only in a controlled scientific environment would that degree of silence be encountered. Dr. Baglione’s sound pressure device was showing 16 decibels. She said it would get quieter.

As we spoke, I noted that our voices sounded very different, with the sibilant “s” sounds much more prominent. We sounded like we were hissing at each other, because higher pitched sounds are far more directional in nature. It gave our talk an unusual intimacy, as I was hearing mouths and not just voices. After a couple of minutes, I asked if I could be alone in the space.

They left the chamber, and I could hear the thick door close and a latch on the other side engaged. (They had a rule that no one could be in the chamber alone without someone on the other side of the door.) I knew from reading that time in this level of quiet could be disorienting for some people. I was already starting to feel slightly queasy after just a few minutes inside. If you’ve spent your whole life knowing where you are in space in part through your hearing, being without that reference point can feel weird.

I sat down and I took a selfie, then I shut off my phone and put it in my bag. I focused on what my ears were doing. Before coming to the chamber, I’d thought about Cage and his tinnitus, and was terribly afraid that being in something closer to pure silence might make me more aware of whatever hearing damage I’ve suffered in my 48 years, after spending far too many nights in clubs that are far too loud without ear protection. But as I sat and focused, my ears seemed OK.

When I was 19 years old and wondering what I might do with my life, I entertained the idea of studying mechanical engineering, and even changed my college major for a couple of semesters. My thinking at the time was that I would grow up to design loudspeakers. I was obsessed with music but also with how sound was made, and a mechanical engineer who worked on speakers sounded like the perfect job for me. This fantasy was quickly squashed when I took a course in calculus and discovered the limitations of my mind when it came to abstract mathematics.

As I sat in the anechoic chamber, I thought about that other life that I once wanted, one in which I was able to master the numbers and bring hi-fi to the world, and I thought about everything that led me from there to here and all that had happened since. I looked around the room and counted my breaths for a moment, and then I tried to see what else I could hear. I sensed what sounded like ticking, and then I realized that it was my heart, and the sound seemed to be coming from a vein in my neck. I could only remember experiencing my heartbeat as a thud, but in here, it sounded uncannily like a faint mechanical watch.

I thought about silence as a metaphor for death, what it means to not be able to hear the voice of someone you love. I thought about Mike Watt still gleaning lessons from D. Boon, and Mother Teresa and God listening to each other. And then, being generally claustrophobic and wanting to scare myself a little, I closed my eyes and imagined what it would be like to be in a coffin. With my eyes shut underneath the bright light, I saw red and orange instead of black—there was still blood moving through my eyelids. I sat for a few minutes like that, seeing if I could hear more if listened harder, but the tick of my heart was it. It didn’t feel like death. It was quite the opposite. I thought about writing it all down. I opened my eyes and blinked and stood up and took one last look around, then I knocked on the door.

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