David Sylvian — Approaching Silence

David Sylvian, "Approaching Silence"

David Sylvian, Approaching Silence

I think about silence all the time these days, perhaps an odd admission from a site devoted to sound. I'm not sure whence my fascination with the concept comes from, but it probably sits in the sweet spot of various topics that intrigue me like retreat, utopia, acoustics, architecture, sound and music. Or perhaps more importantly, my own increasing sensitivity to noise and its deleterious effects as a pollutant has provided the impetus to seek it out. I hope to delve deeper into the concept in the coming months, in conjunction with an increasing look at its complement, noise. For now though, I want to highlight one idea that has become clearer by thinking through the concept of silence.

It begins, as most of my thinking does these days, with John Cage. While Cage is synonymous with silence through his book of that name and his infamous 4'33" piece, he is actually the one who made clear its non-existence, its impossibility, with his anechoic chamber story. As he wrote in one of his Indeterminacy stories, "It was after I got to Boston that I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. Anybody who knows me knows this story. I am constantly telling it. Anyway, in that silent room, I heard two sounds, one high and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said, 'Describe them.' I did. He said, 'The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.'" Even in a space designed to eliminate noise, one cannot find silence. Yet, despite this condition of impossibility, the concept itself serves as an inspiration, a goal, a vision to move towards. It is this abstract goal that mirrors Eduardo Galeano's definition of utopia as a "the horizon.When I draw nearer by two steps, it retreats two steps. If I proceed ten steps forward, it swiftly slips ten steps ahead. No matter how far I go, I can never reach it.What, then, is the purpose of utopia? It is to cause us to advance."

There's something about that sense of movement that resonates with me right now. I think its appeal lies in the inherent necessity for action that underlies motion, which runs counter to the traditional notion of utopia. When one thinks back to the classical utopias from Thomas More on, there is a stasis to them, a lifelessness of laws and rules and pre-existing plans; it seems to me that we need a more active, dynamic, bottom-down approach to utopia, one which emerges from the movement of groups of people who come together. That feeling of action feels particularly important right now, as we all struggle with feelings of being overwhelmed and paralyzed by the sheer horrors of our country. Or perhaps this sense of movement draws our attention to that border region between the real and the imagined, the status quo and utopia, that messy space-between that is under-explored but utterly essential.

I don't think it is a coincidence that this sense of movement is essential to sound and music. When one thinks about the power of sound, one of its essential aspects is its ability to move, to leak out from its immediate environment. As Steven Connor writes, "Rather than moving from source to destination like a letter or a missile, sound diffuses in all directions, like a gas. Unlike light, sound goes round corners. Sound work makes us aware of the continuing emphasis upon division and partition that continues to exist even in the most radically revisable or polymorphous gallery space, because sound spreads and leaks, like odour." ['Ears Have Walls: On Hearing Art'] I love this idea, of the elusiveness of sound, of its ability to bring the inside outside and vice versa, its existence in a sense in that liminal space we were just referring to. 

All of this also put me in mind of music that refers to this sense of approaching an ideal state, whether Mist Connection's wonderful "approaching stillness" mix for us or the album above, another classic ambient work from David Sylvian, Approaching Silence. Released in 1999, it is a unique work in Sylvian's discography, as it is actually a compilation featuring works he made for two separate art installations. The first two tracks, "The Beekeeper's Apprentice" and Epiphany," accompanied the 'Ember Glance' installation, a multi-media work made in collaboration with the artists Russell Mills and Ian Walton; the work was exhibited at the Temporary Museum in Tokyo Bay, back in September of 1990. Amazingly, someone has put together a website that gives us background and images of the installation, reminding us of the beauty of the Internet. The third and final track, "Approaching Silence," accompanied the multi-media work 'Redemption, which was' installed at the P3 Gallery, Tokyo in August of 1994. 

Naturally, we are going to highlight the latter because, well, I mean, look at that title! It's a 38+ minute piece that features two surprises: one, it doesn't approach silence that closely and two, it seems to work quite well as a work outside of the gallery context. What it does give you is a lovely piece featuring Sylvian's synths and the guitar loops and delays of King Crimson's Robert Fripp. The duo create an oceanic track that builds and recedes, moving skillfully between moments of crackling quiet and dissonant noise. It fits perfectly in line with so much of the stuff we share here, with its epic length, its penchant for texture and drift, its purposelessness. My favorite moment(s) emerge intermittently throughout the piece, when a faint vocal recording of Fripp breaks out of the background drone, sounding almost like wires got crossed and we are suddenly picking up someone else's phone conversation. They are these soft, crackly reminders of the potential that lies behind and within silence—the ability for new and other voices to be heard.