Thursday, April 15, 2010
Q is for Quiet
When I was 18 years old I went to a U2 concert. After camping out for approximately 24 hours before the show, my friends and I secured a spot in the front row, right in between Bono and The Edge. There I was, just feet away from the favorite band of my youth.
U2 have been renowned as arguably the best live band in the world, and as far I was concerned, they were. Not only did my throat become hoarse with the screaming, but so did my ears and eyes. I was thoroughly over-hoarsed and over stimulated by the visual and audio bonanza. Picture Kevin from Home Alone screaming in the mirror for three straight hours—that was me. I had seen some good shows before, and I have seen some great shows since, but nothing has ever come close to my front row experience with U2 in their prime.
My favorite moment from the concert came during the song “One.” The song was especially poignant at the time since the concert was not even two months removed from 9-11. During a brief moment of quiet in the song, I realized that I couldn’t here a single peep from the crowd. In an arena jam-packed with people who had been acting like a particularly excited brand of Pentecostals all night, there was absolute silence. The calm of the moment completely overwhelmed me, shooting goose bumps through my whole body.
Somehow, amid the smorgasbord of sound and revelry that I had enjoyed all night, the one moment that left me completely in awe was one of silence.
Since that time I have come to appreciate the quiet more and more. I have come to love art that captures the sounds of silence (to steal a line from Paul Simon). A good artist can use a lot of words or images to create a vivid picture, one that is easily comprehended. But a great artist can do the same with far less; they can say a ton without seeming to say anything at all. Because once you can connect the dots on your own . . . well, good things happen.
About a month ago I was at a music festival in California. A man who is highly esteemed in musical education was there as a clinician, and he made two points that stuck with me. The first was that here in America we tend to celebrate the beats in our music. We love repetitive beats that are predictable and obvious. He then pointed out that in places such as Africa, they tend to celebrate everything in between the beats. We’re so caught up in getting to the next link in a chain of sound that we fail to appreciate the silence in between.
The second thing he talked about is how moments of silence in music are often times as powerful, or even more powerful, than the music itself. He implored his pupils to embrace the silence, and not be afraid of it. In these moments, he explained, we allow for the music to move in us, for our thoughts to form and comprehension set in. In a subtle way, these two connected thoughts were very profound to me.
I think this idea can be applied to literature and film as well. Art moves in us, and comprehension sets in, best when our thoughts have space to move around. And this occurs in the quiet. Many call this type of art boring. Sometimes it is. However, perhaps it is only boring because it requires something of us: our minds. And if we’re not willing to give the effort, it seems lacking.
But it’s not just art, it’s everything. It’s those moments during a deep conversation when nobody says anything for long stretches of time, seemingly letting it all sink in. It’s those moments when you find yourself in a grove of trees, and all you can hear is the breeze moving in and out of the wood. And it’s those moments when the soft breathing of a sleeping loved one inexplicably reminds you how much you love them.
It’s even in the scriptures. Scriptures teach us to “be still.” I think we are told to be still because there is something significant in the quiet waiting for us, something profound. And you don’t have to go to a concert to find it.
Today’s recommendation: One song that I think captures silence beautifully is “All the Wild Horses” by Ray Lamontagne. Try it at least a couple times, preferably when you are in a place where you can listen to it without distraction. My wife admitted to me that at first she thought it was just boring. Now, it’s one of her favorite songs. She loves it so much that she made an arrangement of it on the piano.