Sound & Silence
Preface by Fiona Mitchell
To a certain degree, every author who has written for HARTS & Minds has had to negotiate the complexities created by the physical and conceptual distance between their readers and the subject matter of their work. This tension is particularly notable for those discussing the topic of ‘Sound and Silence’ in this issue. They, or the authors of the primary texts they are analysing, must convey and explore auditory experience through writing; a medium lacking any auditory element. Writing silently conveys the sounds of language, and, through these unvoiced sounds, meaning. So the reader must, in this synesthetic process of reading sound, reconstruct the sound and meaning of the author as closely as they can.
In my own discipline, Classics, the tension between sound and silence is a constant undercurrent to our work. We read languages which are no longer spoken and study poetry and plays set to music which has long since been lost. However, a larger silence informs our work. More of the texts and artworks produced in antiquity have been lost than have survived; some authors’ works exist only through summaries and descriptions written by others. In a number of cases we have just the title of the work, its content now entirely missing. Many more have simply disappeared over two millennia. Thus, since we form our understanding of antiquity through the extant material, our analysis of Greco-Roman culture is shaped as much by what is absent as by what remains. So this interplay between what is left, the sounds and language that have survived from the ancient world, and the silence of what is missing, blend to create our understanding and perception of antiquity.
Sound and silence are strongly associated with particular values and meanings. Public discourse is frequented by complaints about the noise-saturated world that we live in. For example, in discussing the way that sound and noise influence our everyday experience of the world, Gabor Csepregi laments that ‘our whole being is nowadays immersed in music: we are unable to work, study, eat, ride a bus, or drive a car without music. We are no longer swimming, but, almost literally, drowning in the grand sea of music.’ Silence, in contrast, is nostalgically associated with a more innocent and simpler past; see, for example, Matthew Wraith’s examination of industrial noise in H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia in this issue. Despite some authors’ fears for modern society, these complaints are not new. Even Seneca and Juvenal bemoaned the incessant noise of ancient Rome: Seneca complained about the ceaseless noise coming from the baths beside his home and Juvenal about the nightly din that prevented him from sleeping. Sound and silence also have associated meanings specific to particular contexts. In politics and social movements, for example, sound is associated with power; to lack a ‘voice’ is to be invisible. In constructions such as these, sound and silence fall into a rigid binary: silence becomes simply the absence of sound. However, as Salome Voegelin explains, silence can be more active and creative: ‘Silence is the dynamic locale of the agency of perception and it is also the locale of anticipation that wills experience to speak’. Thus, it is not just through their opposition, but through their complex interaction with one another that sound and silence can produce meaning.
The construction of meaning through the combination or contrast of sound and silence, and the values and symbols attached to these concepts, are significant in many of the pieces in this issue, including Nicholas Kelly’s book review of Justin St. Clair’s Sound and Aural Media in Postmodern Literature: Novel Listening, which argues for a greater development in the field of sound studies. Lydia Furse’s article ‘Silence: What is in a Name?’, for example, explores the way in which the concepts of sound and silence can be gendered through her examination of the thirteenth-century French text La Roman de Silence (The Romance of Silence). Matthew Wraith analyses the values that came to be associated with mechanical sound during the early twentieth century, a period in which society was adjusting to huge industrial change as presented in H. G. Well’s utopian novel. The importance of the use of speech to create meaning – not only through communication, but also as a method of characterisation – is examined in the article ‘Speech and Silence in the Novels of Dashiell Hammett’ by Olivia Ho.
Several of the pieces in this issue focus on the ways that sound and silence influence our experiences or the ways in which they can be used to reflect experience. Elizabeth Benjamins’ ‘The Sound(track) of Silence: Hearing Things in Dada Film’ explores the techniques that a wide range of Dada films, produced during the period of silent movies, used to shape and manipulate sound and silence in order to influence the experience of the viewer. Panayiota Demetriou also focuses on connections between art and sound. She examines the use of oral histories in contemporary art and how such artworks use sound and silence in the preservation and display of the past. This connection between the auditory and the visual also appears in Candela Delgado-Marin’s review of Silent Cacophony. This event, staged on Remembrance Day 2013, engaged with ideas around memorial and the experience of war through performances in which the participants made particular use of sound and silence. Experience and memory are also explored in Liz Bahs’ poem Flight 1549 and Catherine Avery’s short story I Watched Her Fall. The cognitive impact of sound is examined more directly in the article by Boutheina Boughnim Laarif which develops on the work of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. Laarif analyses the psychological experience of music and rhythm and how they influence the creation and deconstruction of subjectivity.
The final group of pieces focus on the replication and communication of sound and silence. Adele Bardazzi analyses Eugenio Montale’s poetry and how sound and its absence can be equally eloquent in Montale’s communication of ideas. Similarly, Miranda Fay Thomas explores literary communication of silence in Camus’ short story collection L’exil et le royaume [Exile and the Kingdom] and the multiplicity of ways that silences are used within this text to create different effects. Helen Wainwright examines the uses of different auditory effects in Anthony McCall’s artwork Circulation Figures. The photography and filming used in this installation were recorded several decades before their display, and Wainwright studies how the role of sound in this artwork both marks the distance and bridges the gap between the creation and exhibition of the work. The connection between auditory and visual experience are also the focus of Anastasia Moskvina’s article concerning depictions of Saint Cecilia in Early Modern Italy. Moskvina considers, in a manner that engages with many of the themes of this issue, how the viewer of such artworks interacts with and experiences the representation of music in visual imagery and how the cultural context of the artworks influence the meanings associated with such depictions. The complexities of translating and communicating sound and silence are also explored in the creative pieces Aphasia and Aleph by Dorothy Lehane and Shouting Back by Eadaoin Lynch, and in Owen Coggins’ review of David Novak’s Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, which aptly answers Justin St. Clair’s call by investigating the cultural significance of sound and music in Japanese culture and its influence on the Western world.
As the variety of the topics addressed in this issue shows, sound is pervasive in art and literature due to its constant presence in our experience of the world. However, in many of these articles the authors have explored sound and silence, and the values and meanings associated with these concepts, in works in which these topics are considered secondary, and thus receive little attention. Together, these articles, reviews and creative pieces help to draw out the multiplicity of ways in which we experience sound and silence, and so demonstrate the complexity and intricacy of the way they interact.