When I was a little girl, I wanted to hear the silence. Not just any silence, but the silence of the world. I had heard a legend that said there was a moment in the day when the whole world –all the people in all the towns in all the countries– went silent at the same time. At the same time. Every day. I was fascinated by that idea, so sometimes, especially at night –because, of course, that had to happen at night– I would stand still, silent, and try to grasp that moment. I never got to hear it, but I think I was close.
Later, as an adult, I learned that this thing of silence in several places at the same time is not just a legend. In 1924, for example, the United States declared a “National Radio Silence Day”. They did this in order to listen to aliens. Many astronomers thought that Martians were trying to communicate with our world through sound signals. And that, if we didn’t receive them, it was because we didn’t stop to listen to them. So, taking advantage that Mars would be passing very close to Earth, on August, 1924, the US government asked all the radios in the country to be turned off every hour, for five minutes: from one to five past one, from two, to five past two, and so on for 36 hours. The astronomers were unable to detect any signal from the Martians, but the term remained: today, in English, we say “radio silence” when communications are cut off: when one sends a message, but on the other side nothing is heard.
Not all radio silences are that spectacular. Until recently, at sea, for example, that silence happened every day: for six minutes every hour, ship radio stations had to be silent in order to hear distress calls. The clocks on the ships even show these minutes in red. They are called “periods of silence”.
I know these things because I was working on a podcast on silences when the coronavirus came, and suddenly everything was going to change. I thought that, if everything changed, so would the sound of our surroundings. And that perhaps then I would be able to hear, not the silence of the world, but a more modest one, a neighbourhood silence.
On March 14, the day the state of alarm was declared, I started recording what I heard from my balcony. And I’ve done it every day since then.
At the time I wasn’t aware of this, but now I think I started recording to preserve exceptionality.
And that exceptionality was already there in the days before the lockdown was decreed; we were still living as before, but there was something strange in the air, the streets were just a little emptier, the press conferences piled up, a couple of friends of friends had fallen ill and maybe, maybe, it was that virus that seemed neither dangerous nor important to us. In those days everything was kind of suspended. We went out to the streets but we didn’t know if it was the last time, we greeted each other and laughed nervously but we still hugged each other and at the end we kissed on the cheeks. (We kissed; it gives me the creeps to say this now).
In those days when we still didn’t know that our lives were going to change, everything was at a standstill. Plans, relationships, the direction our routines would take depended on the decisions of a council of ministers.
There was something about that suspended time that I liked. Like when we were little and the lights went out, and then a father or mother would go to the farthest drawer of the kitchen cabinet and take out a long candle, and when they lit it we entered another kind of temporality: a time that could fit more things, a time that was dimly lit, a time in which we were together, and thus to me, a little girl, nothing bad could happen. It is very paradoxical to say this, but it’s even more paradoxical to feel it: I was brought up to be independent and to be alone –and that’s how I live, really. And yet those moments of feeling protected from the exceptionality of what was happening out there are probably the happiest of my childhood.
That’s why I started recording. To preserve that suspended time. To turn on a recorder like those who lit one of the candles from the kitchen drawer.
The first few days the tourists passed under my house, laughing, as if this wasn’t also about them and they could finally enjoy the city center without the annoyance of having to encounter those of us who lived there.
(Tourists speaking, suitcase wheels)
One is also the direction in which she decides to point her recorder, and during those first days I was focusing especially on new, eventful things: the applause at 8 o’clock, of course, the “I will survive” chants, the cries for public health in the background.
Sometimes I forgot that I had left the recorder in a planter and I only remembered it the next day, when the batteries had run out. The life of my recorder has suffered greatly during the confinement.
(Wind, rain, storm)
In Madrid it rained a lot during those days.
(These, for example, are raindrops falling on the buttons of my recorder.)
(Raindrops falling on the recorder)
On TV we saw that animals had begun to take over the cities and here, in the center of Madrid, the wildest animals we heard –apart from those chirps you hear at night– were birds and dogs.
At the beginning of April the swallows arrived.
At the end, a lady began to pass under my house. She looked disoriented, she said she hadn’t seen her family, she talked to the people she crossed, but no one talked to her. The police passed by her a couple of times, and didn’t stop to ask her if she needed anything, if she was okay. Nobody saw her. When I started to check my recordings, I realized that this woman had been there, already, since March 15, the second day I recorded. I hadn’t heard her either.
Beyond the tourists of the first days, beyond the talks with the neighbors as discoveries, beyond nature making its way in the city, what I heard in my street were the sounds of those who did not fit #IStayHome
(Voices, construction noise, cars and motorbikes, music, voices)
(You aren’t helping me at all.)
(I am asking for help, I am on the street)
(and you want to hit me, you have taken out your baton)
(and I haven’t intimidated you at all)
Noise has always been related to power. Noise provokes fear, and it provokes respect. The Canadian Murray Schaffer, who invented the concept of “soundscape”, says that in every society there is a noise that is louder than the rest, a noise that stands out, and that that noise is the expression of power. He calls it Sacred Noise, in capital letters. In ancient times, that noise came from nature: it was the volcanoes, the storms. In the Middle Ages, that noise passed into the hands of the church–with its bells, with its organs–until, with the industrial revolution, the Sacred Noise became profane: the whistling of factories, the trains carrying economic activity from one place to another. Schaffer says that “to have the Sacred Noise is not merely to make the biggest noise; rather it is a matter of having the authority to make it without censure”. During the days of confinement, listening to what was going on under my balcony, I realized that he who possesses the Sacred Noise can also turn it into silence: make their activity, and especially the bodies that have to execute it, go unnoticed, no matter how noisy they are, no matter how much we hear them. Their activity, and what is left out of it, becomes part of the landscape. Also of the soundscape.
Sacred Noise is not as metaphorical as it seems. In Spain, the law of noise, which limits noise pollution, presents three exceptions, three kinds of noises that it doesn’t limit because they have their own norms: one is domestic activities–one’s own noise, that of one’s neighbors. The other two exceptions are labor activities and military activities.
But the law of noise is not unique. In our country there are other laws -tacit laws, explicit laws- that continue to regulate our silences.
In the face of these laws, in the face of this Sacred Noise that wants to pretend it’s silence, I think of a little girl who is quiet, still, in the darkness of her room, trying to hear beyond. She is not a silent child. I think now, seeing her like that, with her eyes closed, concentrated, that if she wants to hear the world’s silence, it is not to hear nothing, because somehow she senses that, if that moment comes, it will mean that all the people in all the neighborhoods in all the countries will be doing the same thing at the same time. And that it is in those moments when we stop and look at each other. Moments of exception. Like when we lit a candle.
It’s in those moments that we start to tell our stories.
I am Isabel Cadenas Cañón and this fall we will launch De eso no se habla [We Don’t Talk About That].
A podcast that connects the dots between individual and collective silences. A podcast about silences. And about how we break them.