Hearing Silence, Seeing Darkness

I once went out into the desert to record silence.  You might wonder why, and even how can one record silence – it being so quiet and all. But in the sound business one finds the constant need for what might better be labeled as ‘ambiance’ to play behind dialogue or to enhance a mood for the characters. The quietest scene will always have at least a ‘room tone’. In the real world you only get quiet but very rarely is silence achieved. In the sound track of a film, ambient sounds may be labeled as sound effects but they are orchestrated no less than the musical score.

I once cut backgrounds for a scene in a movie that took place in a meadow. Because of the way it was cut, what would really last over an hour – bright sunlight turning to dusk, took about five minutes of screen time. I cut various tracks of birds and breeze, gradually phasing out the birds and overlapped them with other birds and cicadas and then crickets so the visually compressed time felt natural in the transitions. It felt good when the producer announced that I was an artist.

So, back to the desert. I wanted to record natural sounds, away from traffic or mechanical and man-made sounds. In Los Angeles County, that is nearly impossible. One has to go a long way into the desert to escape the ubiquitous sounds of humankind.

But I discovered something. This may seem self-evident, but it was a revelation to me. It is in silence that one can really hear everything happening.

I set up my recorder and microphones in my wind break and sat still, awaiting the symphony of nature to unfold before me. First I heard the freeway, several miles away and sounding like a distant surf. Then a mile or so distant, someone started up their tractor and drove it into their barn. I heard meadow larks marking their territory. A distant horse neighed. A truck door slammed. Something rustled in the brush. A gust of wind met a clump of dry sage. A crow flew by, its feathers beating the air. It spoke its click language to a neighboring crow. It was so quiet, I could hear everything.

Had I been recording in almost any other location, almost none of those discreet sounds would have even been noticed. We are submerged in a cacophony and are barely aware of it. It was only where there was hardly any sound at all that I could hear so much activity. Ordinarily, we are deafened by the sheer number and volume of sounds constantly barraging our ears. In the recent rains, did anyone hear any individual rain drops?

In a similar vein, we don’t really see, unless it is dark. Or, if you will, we are not aware that we see unless we are focused on what draws our attention. I took my kids camping at Lake Cachuma some years ago. That night, we left the tent to take in some night air.

I looked to the night sky and fell speechless at the splendor of the stars on that moonless night. We could actually see the Milky Way laid out before us. The sheer scope of the night sky, unsullied by city lights, was beyond description. The constellations everyone can identify, even in the city, like the Big Dipper or Orion, were almost lost in the pointillist cloud of stars – each one a sun.

One may be important in one’s life and to others, but on the scale of the vast night sky, one can only be humbled.

Likewise, the time I saw the Northern Lights was unforgettable – a vast luminescent curtain blowing in the cosmic wind. The radiation which causes them is almost always present. But the circumstances whereby one can take in their awesome display requires that one, at the very least, look to the sky with open eyes.

A cat or a dog sees, but they are not aware of their sight. Sight’s purpose is to maneuver about, to find the thrown stick, to catch a mouse. It is only when consciously looking at something (which might always be there) but never noticed, that one begins to truly see. Suddenly, one gains perspective on everything present to our senses but drowned out by the many, many things barely looked at in passing. One becomes present in their own life, but only if one participates.

 

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