Tuesday, April 20, 2010

New book looks at the nature of silence

Katherine Bouton's review in The NY Times:

What is silence? I am profoundly deaf in my left ear (I have a cochlear implant). The ear is useless for hearing, though it makes a pleasant decorative ornament and serves as a place to display earrings and anchor glasses; no sound can penetrate it. You would think that profound deafness is as silent as it gets. And yet it is not quiet in there. I hear deep space sounds, a hollow hum that washes in and fades away, changes in pitch and volume.

George Prochnik seems to have found a place that is even quieter than my deaf ear. The underground chapel at the Trappist New Melleray Abbey south of Dubuque, Iowa, is so quiet that visitors sometimes find themselves physically unable to remain there. Mr. Prochnik embraced it, wanting “to remain and sink deeper into it.” The silence allowed him to acknowledge “the limitations of our grasp on what lies within and without us, the knowledge that there’s something beyond the self.”

It’s an elegant and eloquent observation. But can you experience total silence in the presence of another person? Mr. Prochnik, who was with a guide, doesn’t address that.

He traveled far and near in his pursuit of silence: to Copenhagen to learn about “noise mapping” in urban areas, to a Zen garden in Portland, Ore., to a neurobiology lab in upper Manhattan, to one of New York’s vest pocket parks right around the corner from his office.

At Gallaudet University he contemplated silence as it is manifested in so-called Deaf Architecture: an emphasis on natural light, the permeability between inside and outside spaces, “free-flowing curvilinear movement.” Transparency and openness enable the deaf “to depend on visual cues where one would ordinarily depend on sound.”

A deaf graduate student in architecture shows him a space built by a hearing architect as a gathering place for Gallaudet students: cozy, surrounded by shrubbery, two benches facing each other, brick walls behind them. But with no sight lines a deaf person had no way to tell that someone was approaching. Students felt vulnerable there.

Instead they gathered in front of a dorm on an open plaza. Standing there himself, Mr. Prochnik could see that the “fortuitous alignment of buildings, landscaping, and roads, the peripheral sight lines were as spacious and open as the center of the visual field.”

But it is the noisy places that energize his writing. At a competition sponsored by Explosive Sound and Video, in Central Florida, Tommy the King of Bass expects to create a sound with his car audio system that will crack his windshield (not for the first time). Mr. Prochnik makes his way through a labyrinth of boom cars, “swampy heat and bass merging into a brain-swamping blast.” MP3 Pimp demonstrates his vehicle’s audio system, especially the power of the sound waves from the bass, with “the hair trick.” A woman with long red hair leans into the passenger side as Pimp turns on the audio: “her orange hair began flying up in the air, like a free-floating wildfire.”

We make noise to muffle noise, as the author observes. The Walkman was promoted as a way to block out city sounds. IPods, as one user after another testifies, filter out distractions. White noise is noise. In one of many surprising nuggets, Mr. Prochnik tells us that research indicates that music on an MP3 player can enable people with attention deficit disorder to concentrate. Even for those without A.D.D. or autism spectrum conditions, he writes, “a steady noise under that individual’s control may mask the distraction of other, novel stimuli.” Thus your teenager doing his homework with his headphones on may actually be paying attention.

Some of Mr. Prochnik’s factoids seem more speculative than others. A woman with an acoustic neuroma, a benign tumor of the auditory nerve that can cause hearing loss, “might have denied the tumor the acoustical stimulation that helped trigger its development.” (The research on the contribution of noise to the growth of acoustic neuromas seems preliminary.) Flea collars emit 80 decibels right beneath a cat’s ear, which he adds, “the felines quite possibly find agonizing.” The Mabaan villagers in Sudan have extraordinary hearing in part because their low-fat diet “kept the cochlea well nourished.” Or so one researcher said.

In the end Mr. Prochnik goes back to Brooklyn, where his search for silence began. He has a new appreciation of the noise lovers, and also a new understanding that our priorities about noise and silence need to be reordered. “We spend all this money making noisy places a little less noisy,” a noise expert tells him. We need to create quiet places, the expert says, small contained areas like those vest pocket parks, at a cost far less than that of reconfiguring the urban infrastructure. We’ve made a start. In the middle of our cacophonous cities, Mr. Prochnik writes: people are making “oases of quiet in which sounds that nurture our sense of peace, compassion, and imagination — like falling water, rustling foliage, and birdsong — become audible again.”