Guy talks about…”silence and place”

warmup notes from a lecture-performance by Guy Livingston at KABK INSIDE on May 17th @ 13:00

I have a recording studio in the former US Embassy (no, not shown in the photo – my studio is much much smaller)

The word silence encompasses a multitude of concepts, and varies widely across disciplines and cultures. Silence can be subject, verb, and object. It can be societal, religious, mindful, meditative, diplomatic, political, aggressive, or punitive. Silence is employed in conversation, rhetoric, music, art, religion, and politics. Since the Western words for silence are so overloaded, many works on sound refer as well to Japanese and Chinese terminology, which offer an alternative viewpoint. Fascinatingly, the terms most often used – ‘ma’ and ‘liú bái’ – are both inextricably linked in their original languages to painting techniques (the white space between the ink strokes) as well as to visual design in general (architecture, gardens, ceramics).

  • Questions we could ask about silence:
    • is there a performative stillness
    • are there colors?
    • are there signs?
    • are there symbols?
    • how do you show the absence of something?
    • can we SEE silence?
    • or do we HEAR silence?
    • are there markers or frames?
    • are there gestures or bodily poses?
    • how noisy/quiet is the silence?

societal silence

“Quiet is peace. Tranquility. Quiet is turning down the volume knob on life. Silence is pushing the off button. Shutting it down. All of it.”

(Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner)

To a large degree, silence in society is perceived as a goal to be attained. Against the noise of modern life and its hectic pace, the inner silence must be sought. Yoga, mindfulness, Zen meditation, walking, are all means to this end. Silence has become a commodity, a luxury, and a quest. (Biguenet, 2020; Chayka, 2021) This journey has been documented in countless books, most entertainingly, Silence in the Age of Noise (Kagge, 2018). Erling Kagge spent weeks trekking alone through the snow to reach the South Pole. This is a saga of Zen-infused adventure in which he reflects on snow, walking, solitude, and silence. 

“Alongside so much tragedy and despair, mass quarantine has represented a final fulfillment of the pursuit of nothingness, particularly for the privileged classes who could adapt to it in such relative comfort.”(Chayka, 2021)The disastrous isolations imposed by the corona crisis in 2020 created a sudden awareness of silence, especially silence in nature, but also silence in art and music, at least for those who stopped working. 

experimentation in sound art with silence

While Cage was experimenting with silence on-stage, Max Neuhaus was trying out similar silences on the streets of New York and in art galleries. I’ll come back to his radical “LISTEN!” walks later.

Meredith Monk, Joelle Léandre, and Pauline Oliveros offered music which reached out via community involvement, deliberately un-silencing non-dominant voices, and also leading new explorations of musical silence via improvisation. 

Matt Rogalsky has concatenated silence from BBC radio broadcasts, using software to remove all but the silences, and then creating a new artwork by playing the silences sequentially: “All the sounds I collect, which fall below a very low threshold, become quite noisy on their own, when they are placed together end-to-end without gaps between.” (Hodkinson: Presenting Absence pp. 188-189) 

Douglas Webb’s installation at the Guggenheim Museum in New York offered the audience a chance to experience a quiet – inspired by anechoic chambers. Note how the posed photo resembles a fashion shoot. This is silence as luxury:

architecture as container for silence

The urban-, architectural-, or built- environment plays a key role in our experience of silence, both musical and non-musical. 

“In Egyptian temples we encounter the silence that surrounded the pharaohs […] The silence of architecture is a responsive, remembering silence. A powerful architectural experience silences all external noise; it focuses our attention on our very existence, and as with all art, it makes us aware of our fundamental solitude.” (Juhani Pallasmaa: The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture of the Senses. London 2005, p. 52)

The silence of a church, the silence of cloisters, the silence of a garden, the silence of an inner courtyard or a quiet room: these are places to experience silence and shelters from the noise of contemporary life. As early as 1882, Nietzsche (Die fröhliche Wissenschaft) foresaw the need for calm spaces to seek refuge from the noises of the city.

Hush City is a smartphone app that helps the public worldwide document (photography, describe, and record) urban places and rate their silence quotient. Led by Antonella Radicchi, this open source project has allowed “citizen scientists” to register hundreds of spaces worldwide. I wish the information they provided were more detailed. It’s far too vague for my interests. But I see a lot of potential. 

In Belgium there have been many recent responses to the need for silent places. Although architectural engineer and artist Jolien Naeyaert (A+ Magazine, December 2019, p 67) laments that the language of silence seems to be disappearing from architecture, she has hope that new typologies are being created to respond to modern societal needs, for example by Studio Thys Vermeulen, specializing in the re-purposing of unused churches. 

The design team of Peymen Jellema, whose motto is “architectuur as gebaar naar verstilling”, has been studying the possibility of “le lieu-refuge” or “luwteplekken” since 2012.[1] Their research did “not reveal what silence is, but went in search of what permits stillness in public space.” (Peymen Jellema, De Luwteplek: 2017 p. 6) They have created an analysis tool (image right) for measuring both quantitative and qualitative experiences of silence. (“Architecture in Belgium,” 2019, p. 5)

signs of silence

this is just the beginning – there are a lot of icons and symbols which tell us to be quiet, to shut up, to silence ourselves or our music or our words…fortunately, there are also more subtle visual ways of encouraging quiet or creating a restful environment…to be discussed!


some of my favorite cartoons about silence:

[1] Early in their research, they identified sixteen “luwteplekken” which had high values of stillness for Gent residents. Involving actors on the state and local level, community groups, and students; as well as healthcare agencies run by religious orders (who own many of the properties), they created protection for these sites on the basis of their societal value.