Guy talks about…”silence and place”

useful notes for students in design/architecture at KABK

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. 

three podcasts on silence that I produced

The Silence In Betweenfor Irish Radio, 1-hour show about music and silence, featuring violinist Monica Germino, and Space Satellite engineer Luis Rolo. (2019)
Zindering5-episodes about the Zindering Festival of Music and Silence (Mechelen, Belgium) (2022)
Under/City/Soundexperimental 5-part podcast on silence, covid, isolation, and surviving the first lockdown in The Hague. (2020)

some books to read, in no particular order

“Sound Houses”: Music, Architecture, and the Postmodern Sonic, by Nicholas Till
read it online at:
This book examines different kinds of analogies, mutual influences, integrations, and collaborations of the audio and the visual in different art forms. The contributions, written by key theoreticians and practitioners, represent state-of-the-art case studies in contemporary art, integrating music, sound, and image with key figure of modern thinking constitute a foundation for the discussion. It thus emphasizes avant-garde and experimental tendencies, while analyzing them in historical, theoretical, and critical frameworks. 

Novak, Marcus. “Computation and composition.” In Architecture as a translation 
of music, edited by Elizabeth Martin, 66-69. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1994.

book: Shots in the Dark: Japan, Zen, and the West
by Shoji Yamada; University of Chicago Press, Chicago (2005/trans 2009); translated by Earl Hartman
About Ryoanji, the author writes that it was only in the postwar context that the garden came to be associated with zen, and that this could be an accidental, or deliberate anachronism, tying into the Western interest in modernist art/architecture and search for abstract meaning. The original name of the garden may have been “tiger cubs crossing the river”

Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Experiencing Aural Architecture 
Author: Barry Blesser MIT press

Music, sound and space
edited by Georgina Born
Abstract: Music, Sound, and Space is the first collection to integrate research from musicology and sound studies on music and sound as they mediate everyday life. Music and sound exert an inescapable influence on the contemporary world, from the ubiquity of MP3 players to the controversial use of sound as an instrument of torture. In this book, leading scholars explore the spatialisation of music and sound, their capacity to engender modes of public and private, their constitution of subjectivity and the politics of sound and space. Chapters discuss music and sound within specific settings, including sound installation art, popular music recordings, offices and hospitals, and music therapy. With international examples, from the Islamic soundscape of the Kenyan coast, to religious music in Europe, to First Nation musical sociability in Canada, this book offers a new global perspective on how music, sound and space transform the nature of public and private experience.

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!

Short Film about Silence and the former US Embassy in The Hague

Some quotations

Silence is unidimensional acoustically (defined only by its length) but multidimensional perceptually (describable as tense, relaxed, too short, arresting or disturbing)

—Margulis, 2007, p246

L’armature intellectuelle du
poème se dissimule et tient – a lieu – dans l’espace qui
isole les strophes et
parmi le blanc du papier : significatif silence qu’il
n’est pas moins beau de composer, que les

—Mallarmé Livre 

“What silence requires is that I go on talking” 

— p 109, Silence, John Cage

“the words help make the silences”

— p 109, Silence, John Cage

Silence requires one decision: sound or no sound. Sound requires a great many more decisions. These shape the sound and give it its quality, feeling and its content. Thus silence, in its comprehensive, monolithic presence always stands as one against an infinite number of sounds or sound forms. 

—Jürg Frey, 1998 “The Architecture of Silence”

Sounds make the silence possible by their ceasing and give it a glimmer of content. As the space of silence stretches itself out, the sounds weaken in our memory.

—Jürg Frey, 1998 “The Architecture of Silence”

“You know you open the score for the first time and it’s really complete silence. But this is the only way also to train your ear, to imagine what you’re gonna hear without having the actual sound.  Again Giulini was saying that music is an art form that doesn’t live unless you bring it to life. If I show this to most people, it doesn’t mean anything. So it needs to actually be brought to life. But conductors, we have to bring it to life in our mind, to hear it in the silence. So that when you actually hear it for real, you can have a meeting of the imagination and the reality. “ 

—conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin of Montreal, now of the Metropolitan Opera, in a PBS documentary

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.