Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sunday Poetry: Moore Silence


My father used to say,
"Superior people never make long visits,
have to be shown Longfellow's grave
nor the glass flowers at Harvard.
Self reliant like the cat --
that takes its prey to privacy,
the mouse's limp tail hanging like a shoelace from its mouth --
they sometimes enjoy solitude,
and can be robbed of speech
by speech which has delighted them.
The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence;
not in silence, but restraint."
Nor was he insincere in saying, "`Make my house your inn'."
Inns are not residences.

Marianne Moore

Of course there's no such thing as silence, except to perhaps those who were born deaf. Yet if they retained and developed the gift of language, then I suppose they too might often have that continual internal dialectic flowing from place to place in the mind and therefore have the experience of the "noise" of thought.

Bright sunlight affects me that way. It's as if it causes a great but silent din. I find it intolerable, actually. Like standing under the revving blades of a helicopter rotor, or closely beside an unmuffled motorcycle engine.

Assuming that your hearing is intact, if you sit still in an anechoic chamber you will probably hear at least two things: a high-pitched sound experienced as a light "ringing" in the ears, which is neurological, and also the low hum of blood coursing through your arteries. That is, if you hold your breath for a moment.

The most famous "Silence" was that piece of music written by John Cage, sometimes called 4'33" after its customary length.

He "wrote" this musical score in 1951 after visiting the sound-proof Harvard University anechoic chamber.

The silence of the anechoic room has inspired musicians, too. The American composer John Cage visited Harvard University's facility in the late 1940s. Though he was in a room with no background sound and no echo, Cage discovered that total silence is not actually possible: he claims he heard two sounds, "one high, my nervous system in operation, one low, my blood in circulation". After this experience, he was inspired to write his "silent" piece, 4'33", in which the "music" is made by the ambient sounds of the concert hall alone.

I had a late-night college radio show back in the day, from ten p.m. to one a.m. on a weeknight. Prime study time. After explaining the "piece" and describing the "score," I turned down the radio pots for each "movement," interrupting momentarily between each section, for an excruciating total of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of dead air.

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