Murdering Silence

Murdering Silence

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2004 Mike Zwerin

In his novel Victory, Joseph Conrad's hero hears a sad female orchestra in a dour hotel on a remote south sea island. "The Zangiacomo band was not making music," Conrad wrote: "It was simply murdering silence with a vulgar, ferocious energy. One felt as if witnessing a deed of violence."

The murder of silence has become a massacre on the mainland since then. The vulgarity and the ferocity of the music have been increased many times over through expanding greed and cutting-edge technology. More music than ever is being produced today, most of it owned and distributed by large corporations that control the media, the concert venues and the major distribution channels. Violence sells. Music that violates our sensibility has become big business.

Walk into just about any public urban space — supermarkets, restaurants, sporting events, airports — and you will hear the aggressive sonic wallpaper known as background music; the increasingly inescapable soundtrack of our lives. It is branding more than music; an assault, an insult, a total lack of respect for human dignity. Since bad music is so omnipresent, people must work harder and harder to make believe it's not there. And so music becomes something to escape.

Boarding an Air France flight not long ago, I heard, in addition to the usual aural soup pumped in to calm pre-takeoff anxiety, that one track of the pop playlist intended for the earphones (Enrique Iglesias, as it happened) had somehow escaped and was running wild in the cabin. Two different tunes in two keys — one major, one minor — at the same time. You don't want to make trouble on airplanes these days, so I waited for somebody else to say something. But nobody was listening. So I finally told the stewardess that I was sorry to bother her but I was a musician and it was driving me batty. She listened, heard it, and said: "Oh, you poor dear," and went to shut off Iglesias. One small victory. Later, she asked me if I thought it would be better for her daughter to study the flute or the violin. How quaint. I almost said to her that it did not make much difference because just about nobody listens to music any more anyway.

Mostly, people do not listen to music because they are too busy multi-tasking. Distraction is the order of the day. We are monitoring too many screens. There is no time for concentrating on music all by itself. Listening to music has become something to do while we are doing something else: reading the paper, driving, vacuuming, text-messaging. An adult doing nothing but listening to music is considered to be not doing anything. With music becoming more childish, it is mostly children who concentrate on music now.

Since less and less people are really listening, more and more anti-music is made specifically to be not listened to in the first place. It's a kind of a catch-22. Why bother to try and make subtle music if nobody is going to listen to it? (Listenable popular music is still being made in Africa and Brazil, but it is not popular in the first world.)

People of all ages still listen during concerts. Looking at the musicians, you're more or less forced to listen to them. So it is just possible that all the new concert DVDs being marketed will get listeners listening again — though there will certainly be somebody with a ball game muted on television while keeping track of a roast in the oven at the same time. It is, by the way, possible to eat and listen to music full-time at the same time. For a guaranteed undivided-attention listening experience, read Bob Dylan's Lyrics, 1962-2001 while he sings the songs. (Press the pause button if your cell phone rings.)

According to The Guardian newspaper, Tony Blair, an amateur rock guitarist, voted for Lynyrd Skynyrd's anthem "Free Bird" as his favorite guitar solo. Not that there's anything wrong with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their simple-minded, redneck, three-guitar rock 'n' roll was made for dancing, and dancing is a dandy homage to music. But it would have been a nice surprise if Blair had chosen a guitar player with a bit more, well, culture. Tony Blair does not appear to be such a serious listener.

Are there any serious listeners among today's national leaders? It would be nice to think that a politician who takes some time out to listen to music seriously would make a good leader. During World War II, jazz fans in Occupied Europe said that anybody who liked jazz could not be a Nazi. People listened seriously in those days. They could go to jail for listening to music. Adolph Hitler, remember, loved to listen to Richard Wagner. Speaking of which, to conclude, Mark Twain, a serious listener indeed, said: "Richard Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds."

C o m m e n t s

Murdering silence 1 of 2
David W.
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January 06, 05

This essay addresses an issue that's been a major bugaboo of mine for years. I've gotten to the point where I dread grocery shopping, stopping off in a restaurant for a cup of coffee, or even riding in most people's cars -- the aural onslaught is merciless and almost physcially abusive. (And if it's coming from a commercial radio station, you also have to contend with screaming commercials and inane deejays and/or commentators.)

I don't know of any research that's been done on this, but I'm absolutely willing to postulate that one of the primary reasons behind the much-commented-upon "decline in civility" in American public life --road rage, outbursts of anger and hostility, the overall feel of hyper-adrenaline stress and hair-trigger angst that seems to permeate the public sphere-- is due largely to the constant overstimulation (aural and otherwise) to which most people are exposed, virtually every waking hour of every day.

I honestly believe most folks don't even realize that they notice it; if you mention it to them, they'll usually say, "Well, I'm not listening." But if you're not listening, then why do you have it on -- and why do you get twitchy and irritable if you have to be surrounded by actual silence for more than a few minutes at a time? Like any other form of pollution, it can become such an accepted component of the ambient environment that it does its damage clandestinely -- but it's still there, and the damage is still done.

David W.

p.s. I believe there must be a special cubicle in the innermost circle of hell for club owners who actually hire good musicians to play in their establishments, then assault their patrons' ears with abrasive and raucous aural onslaughts --tapes, CDs, ill-conceived jukebox offerings-- during the breaks or between shows.

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