Strangely Silent Years

March on Media: Part II in an Ongoing Series on the  Place of Technology in Our Lives

Once upon a time, when a mariachi band or barbershop quartet or stray female vocalist stepped into the subway car, we passengers had strong, palpable reactions to the sounds that were about to come streaming into our midst, the positive as well as the negative variety included. No longer. Nowadays, nearly everybody is wearing headphones as they ride the rails. The equanimity commuters seem to display in the face of such performers is just them failing to notice the music spilling out into the tight spaces we’re all traveling through. New Yorkers already have the soundtracks set to their days; they’ve got their own private playlists on a perpetual loop. Isn’t that the way to keep pace with progress?

In theory, yes. But in practice? Maybe not. When I got an Ipod as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago, I was delirious about the development. Far too much of my time was spent commuting with New York City Transit; some days, I would travel from a consulting room in the Bronx to a church out in Brooklyn, with maybe a Manhattan stop in between. Obviously, music is a wonderful way to manage mood. But my mood did become a bit foul, and consequently difficult to manage, when I missed important service-change announcements, or more rarely, mention of my stop, because I was bobbing my head to the beat of The Radio’s “Whatever Gets You Though Today.”

Then the Metro article brought me to my senses. In the free tabloid distributed at the subway stop, they published a startling, sobering report about the significant hearing loss associated with the regular use of headphones and MP3 players, especially at the volume levels that would be necessary to drown out ambient noise one hears during an ordinary train ride (and by this, I mean a train ride without a loud mariachi band playing). I retired my Ipod almost immediately, but not without pangs of regret.

Lately, the soundtrack of my workday is usually a shared one. The barbershop quartet you’re listening to on the A train is likely the same what that I am; we can look across the aisle and exchange looks of pained embarrassment or surprised delight, depending upon how well-rehearsed the foursome is. But those quartets come around much less frequently than they used to, now that the jangling of coins is seldom heard. What we usually hear instead is people’s music playing so loudly they might as well not be wearing half an headphone set. It’s not quite quiet.

One of my oldest friends still recalls fondly the quiet of the Quaker meetings held at the high school he attended just outside Philadelphia. All these years later, he’ll occasionally slip in into a Quaker meetinghouse on a Sunday and sit. Since he’s Jewish, though, his grandmother finds this inclination disconcerting. She does not want him to lose his faith. Taking a conspiratorial tack, she told him that she understood why he might want to attend these sorts of worship services, since some churches have such great old hymns and majestic organ pieces.

When my friend explained that the Quakers had no music in their meetinghouses, his grandmother was flabbergasted. She asked him, “Why bother? What’s the point of being Christian if you can’t sing?”

Excellent question indeed. What is the point?

Like most religious traditions, Christian types make space for both song and silence. Ultimately, what matters for the purposes of any given faith community is not which occupies a given moment – song or silence – but that the song or silence be held in common, that it be part of a some larger shared experience. So when I see teenagers or kids or worse, adults, sitting in the pews, riveted to their electronic devices, particularly if they are seated by the aisle, it makes me absolutely batty. I am sorely tempted to usher them right out the door.

Recently, increased public attention has been paid to noise pollution and its effects on our overall well-being. While I find that increased attention promising, I am gravely concerned about the kinds of noise pollution that pollute in a murmur. These are the sounds that are almost constantly competing with one another. Taken together, they wouldn’t quite qualify as a cacophony, but we cannot help but notice them. We may sense how effectively it drives people — ourselves included — to distraction. Are we truly travelling companions to one another if we are each going our own way with every upward tick of the volume bar?

Our ability to hear one another gets seriously compromised if we fall out of the habit of regularly listening to each other, in casual contexts as well as intimate ones, in public settings as well as private ones. These days, the first thing I do when I get into a taxicab is mute the jangling broadcast blaring from the backseat screen. I like being able to hear myself think, as they say, but I am not continually thinking deep thoughts. Sometimes I enjoy at times tuning into my cab driver, to what he’s saying, or more commonly, to what he’s listening to himself, be it the traffic report or latest sports scores or politically abhorrent talk radio or foreign-language broadcasts. It no longer matters much to me, honestly, as long as we can hear one another across the divide.

I assume it’s not accidental that worship services across religious traditions regularly employ call and response. Passages of scripture are read responsively and also in unison. People listen closely to one another and then take and provide each other cues. At some point, provided they are not Quakers, those in the congregation might break into chant or song. My husband occasionally says that our houses of worship were built primarily so that we could have a spot where we could get together and sing songs we all know. Occasionally I believe him.

Our own house has been too hushed in recent years. Part of this is a gross overcorrection for the noise pollution that accompanies city living – on the subway lines, on the streets, in office and apartment buildings. But part of it I attribute to my own stupidity. It took me forever to realize that I could plug my Ipod into something besides earphones, like say, a stereo with speakers. Recently, during a day at home, as I danced from room to room, I wondered how I had managed to deprive myself of tunes I loved for several strangely silent years. It seemed so senseless, in retrospect. I had almost forgotten how lavish songs sounded when they burst forth, back when I let my ears be opened, before my ears had been sealed shut.

© 2012

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