I've been thinking a lot about silence and sound lately after hearing Sunday morning's episode of On Being on NPR. Krista Tibbett speaks with acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton about silence ("not an absence of sound, but an absence of noise") and its effect on our brains, on our ability to be truly present, to take in the sound and the space of the place we're in. They discuss the intimacy of really listening -- actually being open to and taking in another person and their experience, instead of searching for what we want them to say. Or from an actor's point of view, waiting for them to finish talking so we can speak ("Bullshit, bullshit, my line... bullshit, bullshit, my line" -- Man on the Moon). It's really worth a listen, and there are extra little sound meditations available on the site. The one I've included below is particularly cool: the variations in the sound of silence from three different locations around the world.
But I was primed for this discussion, because the night before we'd been to the Met to hear Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. If you're not familiar (I wasn't), the opera is based on Herman Melville's novella -- a morality tale of sorts, depicting the murky waters of what (or whom) is good and what is evil; how do we know the difference; what happens when we have to make that judgment call? The production was wonderful: great singing, powerful staging and design, really affecting performances (this from the girl who prizes the storytelling before pristine singing every time).
And I was struck, as I often am at the Met, by the power of silence. There is no amplification in that enormous hall. It does not request that everyone be silent -- it requires it. The final moments of the show are incredibly powerful -- the orchestra slowly fading out as the tenor finishes his aria, until he stops, a cappella, at no ending at all (musically speaking) except that is the last note on the page. But life is like that, isn't it? Murky, confusing, full of regrets, and lacking in tidy packages or neat bows. I could hardly inhale during the moments after he stopped singing, before the curtain came down. There wasn't a noise in the hall. We were all listening to the silence, as much a part of the story as the hours of singing that preceded it.
So there's a big difference between opera and Broadway, huh? Compare that to the rock concert, in-your-face spectacle of GHOST, for instance -- in which the chorus sings lyrics like "more more more more more" and the words MORE MORE MORE MORE MORE are projected against the back wall, in case you missed it. Or weren't listening. Obviously it's an unfair argument, comparing apples to oranges. GHOST has some great singing of its own and really amazing special effects; rock concerts are just as valid entertainment as opera anyway, and I'm not going to get into a high/low art thing here. But it does remind me of hearing Damien Rice play at Radio City a few years ago. It was loud, too loud really to hear the music, and people milled around, getting drinks from the bar and talking with their friends, although Radio City is a theater and not a club. I sat and tried to listen, and when it was all over at the end of the show he came back out to play his encore. Acoustically. And everyone shut up, because they had to, and lo and behold that hall was actually built for music. I think he sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow;" I'm not really sure. I was listening more to the silence around the song.