Tag Archives: Silence

‘All together in a sudden strangeness’

NE Alberta Street. December 2016

NE Alberta Street. December 2016

Portland is many things but it’s not quiet. At least it’s not in the area of north Portland where we live.

Traffic is fairly steady in the streets around our end of N Mississippi Avenue, where the nearby I-5 provides a fairly constant background hum in the daytime hours. It’s not intrusive, just an ever-present feature.

It’s also one you don’t notice until it’s gone. Which is what happened over the past 48 hours, as a winter snowstorm hit the Rose City.

And so, confronted last night by sub-zero temperatures, slick streets and frozen pavements, I did the first, if slightly reckless, thing that came to mind: I stepped out for a five-mile walk.

What struck me was the silence.

Earlier that day I had read a Guardian article on the theme of walking through an urban area at night. One of the most common observations of those who undertook such outings was the lack of noise, the absence of traffic, other pedestrians, construction activity.

Walking down N Alberta Street now, there was no evening rush. MLK was quiet – the motorists who had ventured out were sticking to a crawl as they navigated frozen, untreated roads. There were few pedestrians on the slippy pavements, and the cafes and bars of the Alberta Arts District were forlornly empty.

And so I walked. For miles (more than five, to be exact), across snowy pavements and intersections, meeting only the occasional dog-walker or stubborn pedestrian. When I did, as Pablo Neruda wrote, we were all together “in a sudden strangeness”.

This was a different Portland, one I hadn’t seen and one which appears only very occasionally. It showed me a different city, the physical structures and thoroughfares standing apart, freed from the constant, sometimes choking, activity that passes through and around them.

One of the contributors to the Guardian feature wrote that, at night when the streets are deserted, “the empty city feels like it’s yours…you feel outside the world”. So it was for me, for one night at least, in snow-struck Portland.

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The right notes – music to read by

FullSizeRender (1)Back in the early 2000s I worked a night shift job. Each morning I’d return to the house I shared with three others at 4 or 5am, and read for a hour in bed before turning in.

I’d always believed that reading, like sleeping or writing, was best done in silence. But there’s silence and then there’s 4am silence. The coastal suburb I lived in was pin-drop quiet.

And so I picked up a new habit – I’d play music as I read. The only condition was that the music had to be quiet – not solely in terms of volume but also by way of sound.

I spent most of those early mornings listening to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works, Volume II. The slow surges, whale-call noises, absence of percussion – all served to fill the lingering silence of an early summer morning in Clontarf.

The music also helped me, it seemed, focus on what I was reading. The subject matter might have differed (two of the books I read at that time were Crime And Punishment and a popular biography of Irish Arctic explorer Tom Crean) but the effect of music was the same. Like the ambient hum of one’s body heard in a sound-proofed room the music lingered, just out of feeling but present, while I read.

Brian Eno. Detail from 'Music For Films' sleeve

Brian Eno

The use of music as an aid to reading is a well-covered topic. This week I was brought back to my pre-dawn reading sessions when I encountered a post by Sam Jordison on the Guardian’s Books blog. Much of the article concerned how we can battle ‘aural sludge’ – distracting and loud daily noises -when reading.

I find it difficult, if not impossible, to deep read amidst loud noise – even custom-made soundtracks are unlikely to help me.

But the article led to me to ask: what other music worked like Selected Ambient Works, Volume II did, as a reading aid?

In the 12 years since those night shift days I’ve encountered only a few: a Naxos collection of Chopin’s piano works, Brian Eno’s Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks and, perhaps, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

The ‘x’ factor in each of these recordings is hard to pin down. Perhaps the tidal feel of the music in each set of recordings is the key; or perhaps the absence or mere suggestion of a beat which, when present, is no faster than my resting heart rate.

Whatever their key is they all work to break ground, coming through silence to open my ear and eye and mind to absorb the words.

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Walking out of the body and into the mountain

Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

By influence habitual to the mind
The mountain’s outline and its steady form
Gives a pure grandeur; and its presence shapes
The measure and the prospect of the soul
To majesty; such virtue have the forms
Perennial of the ancient hills; nor less
The changeful language of their countenances
Gives movement to the thoughts, and multitude,
With order and relation.

So wrote William Wordsworth, a man familiar with the ‘ancient hills’ and the trudge of a long hike (he would reputedly think nothing of walking 30 miles across the Lake District to visit his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Walking nine miles across Glenmalure to the top of Lugnaquilla last Saturday my mind was void of such majestic thoughts. I had arrived at the mountain, as often happens, with a garbaged mind – too tired or preoccupied or unmotivated to look beyond the top of my boots.

Lacking order and relation what mountain thoughts I had concerned only with the sub-zero wind and the best route up over the loose snow and rime ice on the slopes above the Fraughan Rock Glen.

An hour will surely fix me, I thought.

But that hour passed and most of the next. And still Lugnaquilla, a boon companion over the years through all weathers and moods, did not work its magic. Racing, my mind remained back in the city.

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Descending Djouce Mountain, February 2008. Pic: Cormac Looney

Descending Djouce mountain, February 2008.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Before I began climbing mountains I had little conception of the mental silence that could be achieved amidst freezing wind, driving rain, searing bright suns and movement ever, ever upwards.

This was something that rose slowly, within; a silent, solitary realisation, it came in marked moments: descending Djouce as a February sun set behind Scarr mountain; turning to look back at the summit of Mont Blanc as the sun rose over the Col de la Brenva; standing alone on the summit of Carrauntoohil.

Years after I first ventured into the uplands I read Nan Shepherd’s ode to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain –  which provides a true account of this effect.

Here then may be lived a life of senses so pure…that the body may be said to think.
Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience.
This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

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Had I lost this? Last weekend, amid doubt and disillusionment, I suspected so.

Until, cresting out onto the summit plateau onto a field of ice, it rose through. Perfect focus descended, my body and mind and breath were one.

I was thereHere I was.

Shepherd called this “walking out of the body and into the mountain”.

Wordsworth wrote of peaks whose “presence shapes, The measure and the prospect of the soul, To majesty”.

To majesty, eventually. For now: to clarity, to peace, to silence.

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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The sound of silence? It’s quiet good for you

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.
Pic: William P. Gottlieb

You know what’s the loudest noise in the world man? The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

So said Thelonius Monk.

How much time do you spend in silence each day?

Three minutes? Thirty? An hour? Not enough?

On average each of us encounters 52 noiseless minutes every day, according to a study published last week.

But that’s on average. The same survey also found that a third of us have less than a half hour’s silence a day – and one in six of us less than ten minutes.

‘That’s more like it,’ I thought to myself (silently) on reading about the study.

I don’t know exactly how much silence I encounter each day but I’d guess it’s around 30 minutes, usually late in the evening.

Even the time I spend alone – running in the morning or eating breakfast – is not silent. Traffic, the wind, background music, a boiling pan – there’s plenty of ambient sound around.

As the day passes this usually doesn’t bother me. With the exception of a construction drill or a ringing phone I don’t notice any ill effects.

A silent Loch Lomond. May 2010.

A silent Loch Lomond, May 2012.

But every couple of days my mind jerks me alert, demanding ten minutes of silent nothing. The next chance I get (which usually arrives hours later, at home that evening) I turn off my phone, laptop, sound system and just sit, embracing the quiet.

This silence principally fosters a sense of peace, a reason why it’s vital for practices like meditation.

But it’s not just the mind that benefits. Silence is good for your physical health. Absence of it (that is, the presence of noise) can lead to higher blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

It’s also important for your cognitive function, specifically ‘right brain’ activities. It fosters creativity by filtering away daily sound, leaving focus and perspective.

When one focuses on silence it can – in the right circumstances – shift from being a passive absence of sound to being a presence, an active un-noise. The value of silence lies in this presence; the deeper one drifts into it the stronger the pull is.

Perhaps this is why Monk, a metropolis musician who spent many nights on stage alongside blaring brass, described silence as the loudest noise in the world.

Until your neighbour’s car alarm sounds.

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Death of a conversationalist

My one and only encounter with a Nobel Prize winner involved a glass of red wine, a newspaper and ten minutes of complete silence.

Non distube. Seamus Heaney. Pic: Simon Garbutt

Non distube. Seamus Heaney.
Pic: Simon Garbutt

What’s more, I doubt my presence even registered with Seamus Heaney.

This brief brush with literary greatness occurred when the poet walked into the Swan Bar on Aungier Street on a summer evening three years ago.

We tell visitors that Dublin is the sort of city where you casually come across giants of world literature sitting in old pubs.

Of course this hasn’t been the case since Brendan Behan keeled over in the Harbour Lights bar half a century ago.

That’s what made this night unique – there I was sitting minding my own business beside Seamus Heaney, sitting minding his own business.

Not a word was exchanged. Perhaps Heaney was deep in thought grappling with issues of metre or rhyme. Or opting for cheese and onion over salt and vinegar.

A cascade of tributes to the poet in the past week mentioned his humility, his approachability and open nature.

I encountered none of this. But I didn’t encounter the opposite.

I didn’t strike up a conversation about the weather or dig out a pen for a hasty autograph.

The Swan Bar, Aungier Street, Dublin. Pic: Google Maps

The Swan Bar, Aungier Street, Dublin.
Pic: Google Maps

He didn’t remark on the front page story or ask about the merlot dwindling in my glass.

I wasn’t really that interested in chitchat and neither was the Nobel Prize winner.

And so Heaney sat quietly, arms folded, heels on the floor, awaiting the arrival of friends, while I perched, shuffling newspaper pages and clockwatching, until the time came to meet a pal.

The nine o’clock news broke the silence, probably.

And that was it. My face-to-face encounter with a giant of modern literature.

And the least enlightening Seamus Heaney anecdote you’ll read this week.

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