The Denied Silences of Modernity

NB: This is a republication of a piece originally published in 2019.

Since I began a new job where every day we have music playing over the loudspeakers, I’ve often been thinking about how inured we’ve become to noise pollution — even if, on a deeper level, I believe we share a collective, repressed stress due to its impositions. When noise pollution has been brought up, I’ve usually seen it in the context of the sounds of traffic, construction projects, and large groups of chattering people. Less usually considered is the music which we are subjected to in public interiors invariably without consent.

To step foot into a store of any type is to have more of our auditory space subjugated by music. This is just a thing so common now that most people probably don’t give it a second thought. It’s like getting wet from water. Or is it? Well — no. Nothing about having our ears followed by a Spotify stream wherever we go in a grocery store is a matter of course. It’s a trend enacted by corporate dictates founded upon “consumer behavior” data or an anxiety over quietness — the sense, conditioned by the perpetual noisiness of modernity, that there is something wrong about sitting in a cafe and hearing only people talking.

More specifically, I’ve been thinking about this in conjunction with classical music, and how truly one of the most wonderful things the tradition has given to all of us is a legacy of instrumental, non-percussive music with an abiding respect for sonic tranquility and sensitivity; and how truly deeply tragic it is that this legacy is ignored by the vast majority of people today.

To describe and praise classical music thusly is to not make an intrinsic judgment of vocals and percussion in music; it is instead to say that almost all of the music we’re subjected to publicly is vocal and percussive, and that there is very little diversity in either: lyrics are sang as loudly as possible, as if our sole artistic god were the omniscient eye of American Idol or its variants, and aspects of percussion and rhythm are oppressively limited to dance music. This latter aspect is a gross irony formulated by the logic of “marketability.” Dance music began as a liberationist kind of music which could induce in people Dionysian frenzies. Now it’s what you blast at 6am while at the gym before a breathless ten-hour workday.

Of course, classical music has its own problems, such as, what I would argue to be, the over-presence of certain composers; but many of these problems are in a sense external to the music, even if they surround it. It is quite different from pop music, where the blaring authoritarianism of the industrial-consumerist structure is expressed by every element, and where, I would argue, the music is not so much about the specifics of the music itself and is much more about its sheer impact and relationship to our investment in the personae of its multi-millionaire producers (whose work may have been ghostwritten by someone else anyhow). The idea of someone caring about Adele’s music separate from her persona is almost inconceivable. This is why complementing a pop song with a music video (which tends to have the graphic violence of a commercial) is as prevalent as it is. Indeed, it’s basically mandatory. And although we might not be paying for the music, a transaction has occurred; in exchange for the further occupancy of our imaginative real estate, we are “sold” an attitude shot through with that word advertisers of late have loved to employ: BOLD.

But just as much as we are creatures of activity and chattering, we’re also creatures who need space for reclining and varieties of quietude, and this need is bluntly denied by public spaces and pop music. What I’m writing here is, like much writing, a personal exorcism and an effort to compel others reading to, if they do not, see sound as sacred and yet violated by so much every single day. I had an incredibly busy workday the day before Thanksgiving, and all of the stresses brought on by the unending stream of guests coming in were, I noticed, aggravated by the ceaseless noise of the loudspeakers’ music; such that when I got home, and finally availed myself of a solemn piano piece by Masashi Hamauzu, I broke down crying when, in the middle, it further quieted itself, as if I were tenderly taken aside and shown something secret and precious blooming. Suddenly, I could release that noisome, cancerous slop accrued over the day by relentless work and relentless noise.



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