Editorial: on Silences & Noise

The rumble of traffic that runs all through the night. The shouts of children playing, couples arguing, people talking with faraway loved ones as they walk down the street. The ping ping ping of notifications, emails, tweets, whatsapp messages: even when the volume is turned off the knowledge of their arrival resounds from the silence. There is no silence; in the quiet of a study after midnight, the entire street asleep, there is the murmur of the computer, the click of the keys.

There is no silence in the city and no silence outside it either. No aural privacy in any shared space. In the sense that you are always attuned to your soundscape, you are always absorbing the noise of the world. It penetrates your body and changes you.

Our fifth chapter invited submissions on silences and noise, and all their private and public resonances. When we chose this as our subject, we were thinking in particular about silences, erasures and gaps in the soundsphere: ideas suffocated before they can be spoken, voices that go unheard – and what happens when the volume is turned up and they cannot be ignored. We wanted to think about hearing beyond the heard, and the kinds of attention that might be shaped around listening, together.

We were thinking, initially, of the people raising their voices to say #metoo, the silence that had shrouded them, and the violence that had made possible. In We All Knew, Maddy Costa reflects on the networks of gossip, listening and secrecy that fizz at the intersection of personal and professional lives: simultaneously offering support, and unable to change the conditions that make support necessary. For Caridad Svich, this silence is enforced by a conservative – neoliberal even – ideology that denies all the poetry and mythic mystery of life; and so she writes towards melodrama and wildness, while questioning what it means to write at all.

What of the materiality of language? How is language itself both silent and noisy, both here and there, both full of potential and always out of reach? For Diana Damian Martin, noise arises from the impossibility of translation, and the landscapes it leaves behind. Helena Hunter’s poetry is a record of her encounter with the atomic structure of minerals, a delicate visual poetics that crystallises into substances both known to and beyond the human eye. Kate Paul fuses together two languages with questionable moral codes – the pro forma emotion of past life regression therapy, versus the cold and corporate communications of private companies employed to carry out duties for the state, in this case, the management of the controversial Yarl’s Wood detention centre.

Inevitably, this is a chapter attentive to music. For Lewis Church, noise punches through the cultural fabric of his upbringing and introduces him to punk, experimental performance and a sense of self, while Phil Owen’s evocation of old English folk song leaves him wondering who we become when we listen. Mary Price O’Connor, meanwhile, performs the music of the body in a soundless dance.

The mode of attention for both silences and noise is, of course, listening. In an extract from their Stolen Voices project, Johanna Linsley and Rebecca Collins perform listening, both as a result of and in response to the politics of public space. While in hearing voices, an extract from a text for performance, Ash Rowbin listens attentively to the cacophony inside someone’s head.

In many ways, sound and landscape are inextricable: one summoning the other in consciousness or in the real world. Zac Kline’s Everest uses grand landscapes to measure the silences between two people, while Bones writes a set of instructions that conjure a landscape out of thin air. For Tiffany Charrington, it is silence that creates a material presence, sculpting distance between people as well as words on the screen; and for Jessica Worden, silence is also what keeps us together.

Two of our contributions explore the silences and noise of illness or death. Eddy Dreadnought’s The Silence of Cooling wanders through the aftermath of a death, floating between the spiritual and the practical in the minds of the people whose lives continue. Mary Paterson explores the experience and perception of degenerative conditions against the backdrop of the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America.

Finally, in Liliana Gelman‘s photographs, old letters from friends and family are transformed into paper boats, asemic manuscripts whose meaning is forgotten, private or washed away.


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