The Outer Edge of Silence

0110131650aaaaIn small town Vermont during witching hour of a still night you can hear certain quiet sounds happening just outside silence. You will expect that the open windows of town would coarsen the near-silence with yelling, sex or T.V.s; the quiet would seem delicate and immediate like a lamprey ashore. But you will hear only silence, and then the abstract sibilant hush of the river. When there is wind you will hear leaves brush on leaves.

Night after night of these quiet noises near the edge of silence and it becomes routine. You hear it better as you continue to listen to it. When it goes especially quiet your ear will lean out to listen.

The windows of town open to bring the silence in. The people of town, frowning and isolated, share the silence like a stranger’s towel. They listen to the subtle ambient sound above the silence, a quiet guardian levying back true silence (like the black silhouette of the mountain, a presence passing for an absence). Church bells toll hourly through the night, protecting people from silence, the tonal vibrations peeling miles off through the sleeping land.

The Secret Spot. West River, Vermont

Chicago, of course, does not enjoy charming provincial silence. The banshee white noise waves of the El, which physically shiver the buildings along the tracks, afford a broad berth of public noise. People of the city understand that other people must break off their piece of the common silence to curate with their important select noises. Civilization demands incidental noise.

A block south of Humboldt Park and two stories up: my old bedroom, painted with stripes. I had leaned a microphone out the window, cranked up the signal, and listened eyes-closed on headphones to Chicago MUCH LOUDER. The bark of squirrel, a plane, cars, distant Spanish, a percussive churn of weather. Much was going down in the din. Listening to and recording the din of the city briefly became my main hobbyhorse.

One godforsaken night I was listening out the window to the sound shortly before dawn. Here was the city as near to the outer edge of silence as it gets: to my naked ear, it sounded like silence. I immensely amplified the silence and heard the noise next to it, roaring into the headphone speaker right beside my ear.

The sound: a nasty low polytonal HUMMMMMM, a synthesizer patch of the composite sound of millions of people asleep.

After listening a moment to this outrageous noise revealed at the edge of silence, I slipped off the headphones. Now I could hear it– in what had seemed like silence to me a moment before, I could now hear how loud this noise was, this noise which screams out to Chicago in its quietest moments. Chicago silence is actually the sound of this weird loud noise.

This quiet local noise is always audible and distinct but generally loses out on our attention to louder, more prominent sounds and sensations. It is camouflaged by its monotony, relentlessness and subtlety, normalized like a color filter on a camera lens. The noise at the edge of Chicago silence is blasting an entire band of the sound spectrum out of our ears; it probably alters the way that music itself sounds inside Chicago city limits.

The banks of the Chicago River