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I don’t know at what point noise became intolerable for me. I do know when I decided that, having lived for a long time—weeks, months even—in a state marked by my increasing inability to tolerate high volumes of sound, I decided, with a sudden certainty more characteristic of schizophrenics, or teenage lovers, to seek out the opposite, and track down silence wherever it might live.
I was standing on the uptown platform of the Broadway local at 79th Street, in Manhattan, waiting for the train to ferry me and my children to the 116th Street stop. The Broadway local was taking its time about showing up, and I suppose the charge of frustration stemming from delay was a contributing factor. New York, in a non-Newtonian way, seems to boost the quantum of energy one brings to any event or problem with each additional unit of time spent in the city. Through vents leading to the street above, I heard traffic rush and honk. And the kids were squabbling. . . .
None of these factors would have made me particularly content with where I was or what I was listening to that day, although none of them should have bothered me inordinately either. After all, having lived in the city that never sleeps for ten years, I had, like most residents, evolved a higher threshold of tolerance toward over-the-top input of any kind. At some brute level, higher volumes of input are one reason we choose to live in New York.
I take this ride several times a week. You might think I’d be inured to what was about to happen.
The Broadway line south of Ninety-sixth Street consists of two local tracks, one uptown, one down, with two express lines in the middle. Similar equipment runs on each track but the local trains, which stop at every station and don’t enjoy the long stretches of acceleration available to the express, travel slower. On the afternoon in question, at approximately 4:17, the downtown local screeched into the station, across the tracks from us. Even one train—with its steel wheels mashing steel rail, brakes woefully lacking in grease, ventilators roaring as they struggle to keep the temperature of both motors and passengers in check—hits the ears like an extrusion of New York, in all the city’s unapologetic whaddya, its in-your-face aggression. The level of sound it generates will set babies crying.
That day, however, just as the downtown local was coming to a halt, the uptown local came in; and at the same instant the downtown express entered the station, its seven burgundy-colored cars thundering shrieking roaring at 40 mph between the slowing locals. Immediately thereafter the uptown express, as if anxious not to miss the party, showed up around the curve from Seventy-second Street and blasted into a station already occupied by three other trains, two moving, one now stopped.
The noise was immense. It was gut-pounding. It smacked the cosmos. Without thinking I clamped the flat of my palms to both ears and screwed my face into the scrunched expression of a root-canal patient. I usually despise people who do that on subway platforms. Wimps, I think; milquetoast souls who cough if someone is smoking across the street, who wear cardigans and bicycle clips; for God’s sake, if you’re so delicate, move to an ashram! But here I was doing the same thing. And still the noise grew, as the express trains slammed past each other in the stone tunnel, and the flanges of their wheels rocked forty-five tons of weight against the edge of rail; the whine of motors; the warning “dings” as the doors of the downtown local closed and ours opened; the grunts and plaints of sardined passengers; and the overamped voice of the conductor yelling, “Seventy-ninth, let the passengers off—stand clear of the closing doors.”
I remember keeping my hands power-glued to my ears, even as we boarded and sat down. My daughter Emilie, who as a teenager is always alert to signs of egregious weirdness on the part of her progenitors, glanced at me nervously. But for once something had cracked the enamel coating New Yorkers must accrete to live in this town, and I kept my ears covered, cringing at the rumble that filtered through my palms; thinking, I can’t put up with this kind of noise, day in, day out, any longer. I mused, This has to damage me in some way, reflected also—because that was the other wheel of this scooter of thought—I need to find somewhere quiet. And the train rumbled slower, and stopped, and the loudspeaker blatted, “Eighty-sixth, let ’em off!” and I thought no, not just quiet; what I want now is silence.
No noise. No sound. Nothing.
That was when I thought of the farmhouse.
It’s an old, dark house, smelling of dry rot and smoke, with a fieldstone hearth and thick walls. The farm lies deep in the hills of the Berkshires, far from any roads. It’s the dead of night, at midwinter. The air is frozen and void of wind. Farmhouse, meadows, and woods surrounding are buried in a quilt of snow so deep that everything alive has chosen not to fight, but burrow instead below the white insulation and go to sleep. All is so cold and silent, on that farm in my mind, that the stars, shining against a sky the color of tarnished lapis, seem to give off a vibration that is not sound and not light but something in between—something that is perhaps the essence of silence itself.
© 2010 George Michelsen Foy
An interview with George Michelsen Foy, author of Zero Decibels
Zero Decibels is subtitled "The Quest for Absolute Silence." How was this a quest, and why did you undertake it?
It all started when I realized my life was being taken over by noise. The first page of the book shows me on a subway platform, with my kids, suddenly finding the noise of different trains roaring into the station at the same time unbearable. This actually happened—of course, everything in the book actually happened. ... From becoming hyper-aware of noise, I whiplashed over to wanting silence, not just quiet, but total silence. I started wondering what absolute silence might be, if it even existed. There was a lot of personal motivation here. Living in New York was noisy, working different jobs and raising kids and rushing around the city was noisy, there was a lot of informational noise too and it all drove me mildly crazy. I came to see silence as something that could heal my life.
So this was personal?
Yes and no. I realized that noise of different kinds is a symptom of the kind of inhumane, stressed existence many if not most people live in modern society. For example, one out of ten people in the U.S. hear so much loud noise in their lives that their hearing system is damaged as a result. Yet few if any are aware of it. I measured the average sound level of my life in New York and realized that every minute I was awake I was subjected to an average of over 50 decibels—enough noise to cause hypertension, and heart problems, that kind of thing. I think this is true of all of us, or most of us. There are serious physical effects from noise. If you add in other kinds of noise, informational, visual, and tactile even, from constant bombardment by publicity, entertainment, from high workloads, from hyper-flavored junk food even, you start to realize that our society is sick from noise overload of different kinds. And that overload, by not allowing us to "hear ourselves think," also prevents us from realizing the extent of the problem.
Did you ever find that healing silence?
You'll have to read the book to find out. But I will say this: by coming to understand sound, and silence, I came to appreciate how complex and beautiful is the world we hear through our ears every day. Even car sounds. If you really listen to the sound of a car passing, you realize it works on two or three frequencies. The engine, the gear train even, and the tires: low frequency, lower, high. Or at least, it can be beautiful, if the input is not too loud and constant to appreciate it. You have to be able to pitch sound at a level you can work with. ...Doing this book I came to understand how important it is to be aware of sound, and also to learn how to control it. Silence or sound are not goals in themselves: what we have to strive for is, achieving the balance between sound and silence that allows us to live with greatest ease, in available peace.
You've worked primarily as a novelist. Did you find non-fiction easier or more difficult?
I love writing novels, but my first serious professional writing was as an investigative reporter. I was lucky enough to work for a weekly newspaper that was committed to publishing long investigative pieces, stuff that took months to research and write. The editor actually appreciated good writing ... In a way, making up a world that is both true and fictional is more stressful, because you always have to strike the right balance, you have to make everything truer than true, in a sense, so the reader will believe. Being able to research the real world—in this case, sound, and silence, and people who know about them: the deaf, acoustic scientists, Trappist monks, oceanographers who measure aquatic sound levels; it was a relief, after novels. I love the process of researching, finding out how the world really works, and verifying that what I write is as objective as possible, and exact.
What was the most interesting research you carried out for the book?
I had a blast researching this book. And I saw so much interesting stuff; it's hard to pick one piece of research. In northern Ontario I went down a nickel mine, one and a half miles down, to an underground lab that is billed as "the quietest place in the universe." I visited a Trappist monastery, the monastery that started the tradition of silent monks in Europe—it was a beautiful and restful place. Researching sound, I went as close as I was allowed to a Space Shuttle lift-off. All of these places, all the people I interviewed, opened new perspectives on what sound is, and what silence might be.
Was there anywhere you wanted to go for research but weren't able to?
Outer space. Theoretically, if there's no air to carry them, no sound waves can exist. Of course once you research what space actually consists of, you realize that it's full of cosmic particles, which do carry sound waves, of a sort—in fact, star systems generate sound, the earth itself makes noise, though it's all so low frequency we can't hear it. Deep space should be silent, in auditory terms, for humans. The problem is, you'd have to take off your space suit to experience it. This might get a little tricky.
Posted December 22, 2010
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