While at our local library, I came across the most beautiful children’s book entitled The Sound of Silence, written by Katrina Goldsaito and illustrated by Julia Kuo. It’s about a young boy named Tashio, who lives in very noisy Tokyo, Japan. One day he comes across a musician playing a koto, a long stringed instrument that is plucked with the fingers. Toshio asks the musician, “Sensei, do you have a favorite sound?”
“The most beautiful sound,” the koto player said, “is the sound of ma, of silence.”
In the back of the book, the author explains ma: The Japanese concept of ma is the silence between sounds. It’s the moment when musicians pause together and it is at the heart of traditional Japanese music, dance, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, storytelling and even conversation.”
What a beautiful concept to include in all aspects of one’s culture and I couldn’t help but wonder why so many other cultures didn’t? Why do we fearfully prefer to keep silence at bay?
There’s a scene in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande A Parte (from 1964) where three misfits decide to conduct a “minute of silence” in a busy café. This silence ends after 36 seconds when one of the characters finally quits with, “That’s enough for me. I’m going to put on a record.”
The Estonian composer Arvo Pärt is a composer who’s known for his embrace of silence in his works. In an interview he did on NPR, Pärt said, “On the one hand, silence is like fertile soil, which, as it were, awaits our creative act, our seed. On the other hand, silence must be approached with a feeling of awe. And when we speak about silence, we must keep in mind that it has two different wings, so to speak. Silence can be both that which is outside of us and that which is inside a person. The silence of our soul, which isn’t even affected by external distractions, is actually more crucial but more difficult to achieve.”
Awe and silence. Pärt includes these in his compositions and, by so doing, makes us more aware, more attuned to the notes that are played. Silence draws us in and forces us to hear more clearly than we would if the silence wasn’t there. The silent spaces in his music amplifies the spiritual and emotional aspect of his work. The silence works within the framework of his use of Gregorian monody and early Renaissance polyphony, as Pärt studied the intricate framework of ancient chants and the music associated with the Russian Orthodox Church. He also uses the tintinnabuli (a word derived from the Latin term for “little bells”). The bells ring into silence and the composer uses that silence to a startling effect in his tintinnabuli system. How? The silence punctuates individual phrases of the vocal music and provides moments of stasis that one does not expect to find in modern music. Yet it is from this very silence that his music is born. “The silence must be longer,” he wrote, “This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.”
“Music is the silence between notes,” Claude Debussy once said. Someone who would agree with Debussy’s assessment is the modern composer, John Cage.
Cage’s use of silence was heavily influenced by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu who said that without silence, sound would be meaningless. He also said that his favorite sounds were “the wind through bamboo and the sound of silence” (it was this quote that inspired the children’s book). One of Cage’s most controversial and well-known pieces is entitled “4’33” (because it contains exactly four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence) and was nicknamed “the silent piece” because the performer would sit down at the piano and play nothing for over four minutes. “There’s no such thing as silence,” John Cage said,”You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
His audience grew uncomfortable and angry with silence.
Because so much of our culture pushes back at silence and wants to fill it with noise: in our restaurants (where we often have not only the sounds of conversations and the clattering of dishes and the movement of people, but also music playing through the speaker system and, sometimes, even televisions on as well), our stores, and even when we go on walks or runs (ear-buds in, listening to music on our iPods). The world is inundated with noise. I am grateful every time one of my sons asks if we can drive somewhere without the radio on, that they are embracing the opportunity to have a quiet space to think and reflect.
A filmmaker who adopted a slower pace for his films and embraced moments of sheer silence, was the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. “Being silent for awhile is good,” he once said, “Words can’t really express a person’s emotions.” He realized that so often the discordance and the noise was because we are spiritually disconnected from ourselves and our environments. Tarkovsky’s use of silence allows for the beautiful, tranquil and meditative nature of his films. He allows for silence so that his characters can explore their inner selves just as we best can in stillness and silence.
Tarkovsky understands that noise is often pollution with physical, emotional, psychological and, definitely, spiritual implications. In his masterpiece Stalker, Tarkovsky has a Stalker leading an expedition of a Professor and a Writer to a place known only as The Room. In The Room, a person’s deepest, innermost wish is granted. While other scenes in the film contained noise (such as the clanging of the railway cart or the metallic sounds) The Room is filled with silence. A contemplative silence that is broken only when the Stalker finally says that he’s “home.” Andrei Tarkovsky uses silence and longer, slower shots to create what he calls “a special intensity of attention.” He is drawing the viewer in, making them pay attention because there isn’t a lot of action, it’s not fast-paced and there is silence (something most people are not used to in cinema).
Tarkovsky uses silence and natural sound (wind, rain, the cry of a bird) to create a more haunting atmosphere, where our senses are forced to pay attention to our surroundings. Tarkovsky sees this as a spiritual act. God dwells in the silence of eternity and is reflected in such directors’ works as that of Tarkovsky and his influences: Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman. Robert Bresson even stated, “The eye solicited alone makes the ear impatient, the ear solicited alone makes the eye impatient. Use these impatiences. Power of the cinematographer who appeals to the two senses in a governable way. Against the tactics of speed, of noise, set tactics of slowness, of silence.”
One cannot go to the movies now without the loudness and bombast of sound. Veterans who were at the actual battle of Dunkirk stated that Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk was louder than the real one. Filmmakers use loud sounds to raise our adrenaline and excite us.
But how is this lack of silence impacting our daily lives?
Studies have been done that show that the physical rhythms are, indeed, being affected by the constant sound that is outside of us all of the time. Noise affects our bodies in four different ways: physiologically, psychologically, behaviourally, and cognitively.
Noise has even been called a “modern plague” by the World Health Organization. Florence Nightingale understood the impacts of noise on a person’s health way back in the 19th century, when she said, “Unnecessary noise is the most cruel absence of care that can be inflicted on sick or well.” She was correct. Noise pollution has been found to cause increased stress levels, heart attacks, and high blood pressure.
Silence is needed not only for our health but for self-reflection and self-generated cognition (meaning daydreaming, meditating, and simply letting our minds wander). In silence, our minds can connect to our own thoughts, emotions, memories, and creativity. Silence also helps to regenerate brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion.
“To hear,” the writer Ursual K. Le Guin wrote, “one must be silent.”
We cannot truly hear because we no longer listen to silence first. Studies have shown that in this modern day and age, people can only hear about 1.6 of a conversation. Why? Because we are busy, both in our exterior and interior lives, and we do not silence the noise of them both. We do not quiet ourselves, so we are unable to listen.
Ma, or the silent spaces, are worked into every part of Japanese culture. Paintings even allow for that empty space. As an example, just look at Hasegawa Tohaku’s painting Pine Trees where one can visually see ma.
We all need ma, this space for quiet time to bring meaning to our busy lives. We need to create this space for our peace of mind. The Japanese also have a word for that and it’s heijoshin, which means “calm, peaceful, steady.” Ma and heijoshin are interconnected. There is an old Japanese poem that speaks of ma:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
though the space between them is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay,
though the space inside them is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
though the space within them is the essence of the house.
This is why my family and I are embracing this concept of ma in our daily lives: to help us recalibrate and focus. We are learning that a deeper communion is most often found in silence. That silence is healing and reshaping not only how we view and interact with each other, but with the world around us. And it is helping to us to listen: to each other, to the sounds of nature, to others. We are learning what the Sufi poet Rumi, “Silence is an ocean. Speech is a river.” Silence is large, expansive to the soul. There is something sacred and holy to be found in silence that one cannot ever find amidst the noise. We are learning that silence is the language of the spirit.
What a beautiful lesson to be learned from a children’s book.