Sssh! Why quiet is the new luxury.
I’m sitting near a fountain in the Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York with George Prochnik, author of In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, straining to hear his soft-spoken voice against a backdrop of two of the purest sounds in our natural world: serenading birds and splashing water. “These are peaceful, positive noises,” he says. “If we don’t hear birds, or if we hear them screeching, we know that something is wrong.”
And something may well be wrong. These days, songbirds are having a hard time being heard. Forced to compete with the overhead roar of planes and the drone of vehicle traffic, song sparrows, among other species, might be changing the way they communicate by altering the pitch of their mating calls. According to experts at Bishop’s University in Sherbrooke, Que., and Reed College in Portland, Ore., who study the effects of urban noise on birds, this could lead to dire reproductive consequences, which means that one of the rare sounds associated with peace and quiet could be silenced.
But noise pollution doesn’t only affect birds; there is a deficit of silence in our overstimulated world, and Prochnik says that it’s influencing us in more ways than we think—from our romantic relationships to our health. Like the turn-of-the-century anti-noise activist Theodor Lessing, who advocated “Non clamor sed amor” (which means “Make love, not noise”), Prochnik is on a quest to change our “aural diets,” which he believes are stuffed with super-rich, nonnutritious sounds.
Prochnik may be leading the charge, but he is not alone. There is a growing interest in the quest for silence in everything from fashion to music to science. Today, the proverbial saying “Silence is golden” has added meaning: The new precious commodity isn’t a designer bag; it’s quiet. And, if necessary, we are willing to pay for it by going on silent retreats and replacing our iPod earbuds with noise-cancelling headphones.
“Experiencing silence isn’t just about turning the noise down,” explains Prochnik. “For me, it’s about finding a sonic or visual space where I don’t feel like I have to close myself off and I can be porous to the world. It’s about maximizing perception, not minimizing it.”
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