I have two piles of books beside my bed. On top of one is A Book of Silence. On top of the other is The Big Music. I’m reading the first, the second has just arrived. Their juxtaposition is serendipitous, perhaps …
A Book of Silence is writer Sara Maitland’s account of her search for silence and understanding of what it means in the modern world – a search that culminates in the remote shepherd’s cottage on the Galloway moors where she has lived alone for the last dozen years.
The Big Music is novelist Kirsty Gunn’s magnum opus about the piobaireachd, the music of the bagpipes. Her story is also set around a lonely house in a remote and beautiful part of Scotland, the hills of Sutherland, at the opposite extremity of the country from Galloway.
Two writers, both concerned with deep connections to Scottish landscape, history and culture, one through sound, one through the absence of it.
And then there’s the programme I happened to watch earlier this week on BBC Four. It included an excerpt from John Cage’s notorious 4’33”, first performed in 1952, when his musicians sat silently at their instruments for four minutes and 33 seconds. The point was not to recast music as silence, but to encourage the audience to absorb whatever ambient sound was there to be heard.
I believe we surround ourselves with the symbols we need to make sense of our lives. So what do these particular symbols offer me? My bedside table brings music and silence into close focus; so, in a different way, does the John Cage piece. All require listening. Am I telling myself, then, that I need to listen more, or perhaps listen for something in particular?
Ten years ago I spent an extraordinary week learning Mongolian overtone chanting. It’s a meditative technique that involves forming vocal sounds in such a way as to release natural harmonics. The effect, when a hundred or more overtoners are gathered together, is of the droning of a vast swarm of bees, overlaid by a high ethereal ringing, a kind of music of the spheres.
The week also included a 24-hour period of silence. In the company of so many other people this was a masterclass in the power of non-verbal communication. Look and touch became lightning rods for emotion, which the silence seemed to draw out in abundance.
That experience made me listen to myself in a way that proved life-changing. Through the overtoning and the silence I heard my own big music – for the very first time, it seemed. I came away with a deeper awareness of everything, a greater sense of connectedness to everything.
Since then the small music has gradually re-asserted itself and the silence has become increasingly, well – silent. My life feels noisy, cacophonous even. But our youngest will soon have left home. A new chapter of our life is starting. And it’s time for some more big music. First, though, I need the silence in which to hear it. That is what I’m listening for. Music and silence.
Thank you, Kirsty Gunn. Thank you, Sara Maitland.