Imagine floating through the vacuum of space untethered, removing your pressurized helmet, and, with the remaining air in your lungs, summoning a blood-curdling wail. Say, hypothetically, you could briefly stay the specific, rapid biological degradation and aphasia from exposure to the breach. Would the nothingness prove impenetrable? Was the Alien marketing team posing a dreadful existential quandary or flatly stating a physical certainty? With no molecules between the source of the sound and the ear-drum, no vibration; but, the lungful of air could conceivably relay the wave through the skull producing a faint, muffled yawp before the lights go out. Point being: for all intents and purposes, in that final moment, the sound wave, articulating the last circuit through the coils of the brain, only exists between the ears, but otherwise yields to total silence.
This lunatic babbling only makes sense now, at this current moment, as the page turns on a stomach-churning year, during this merciful holding pattern, the last glimmer of optimism before the abyss of 2017. I’ve found profundity in the annals of silence and ambience and arrhythmia and half-thoughts the past week or so. In the last week of each year, and the first week of each new year, light pokes through the density and the snug softness of the digital environment. The clouds dissipate just a bit and the world takes a deep breath before another tidal wave. It’s the eye of the storm and it’s defined by pause, stasis, deceleration, and, in this combination, some approximation of silence. In absence, or relative absence, the abundance that was, and will soon be, is accentuated. The routine breaks and the human element keeping beloved sites afloat comes clear.
The turnover of new material keeping the information streams fresh and interesting slows to a trickle. For, large swathes of the internet, portions at least, are as yet not fully automated; they still have the fingerprints of people putting the pieces in place, and in this window, the larger cultural seasonal cycle gums the works. It’s a chance to catch up on all the films unseen, the countless records that slipped through the cracks, to binge TV shows between obligatory engagements, to fill in all the media rubbernecking with lived experience; it’s nowhere near enough time. It’s a period of self-induced inundation, working from the fresh best-of templates and gathering momentum for another year of media saturation leading to another period of lagging and catching up. With each pass, the hole gets deeper and deeper.
Since we started threading electric wires through our abodes and public spaces around the turn of the 20th century, and populating interior spaces with appliances and convenience-machines and buzzes and pops and whirrs and infrasound, and, inevitably, constant media background noise, we’ve been living in a world with an incessant drone. I’d equate this inescapable, consuming reality to Loveless—what with its so-called “womb-like” embrace, a chrysalis wound from and destabilized by throbbing waves of feedback, and the buried, haunted voices behind the shroud, under the surface of the mix—but I don’t have that kind of time. This would lead me to digressions about heartbeats, rhythm fixation, biology and brain chemistry disallowing the extremes of pure silence, and the innumerable YouTube vids that feature hours and hours of just steady “ambient heartbeats” for newborns. Then, meandering aimlessly through tales of Dave Fridmann’s urban legend spawning Tarbox Road studio deep in rural Cassadaga, western NY, birthplace of isolation anxiety, vacuum-induced dementia modern masterworks like The Woods, Deserter’s Songs, and The Soft Bulletin (plus the mixing for Lonerism), cavernous works filled with reverb and infinite biomechanical, signal noise echoes.
Oh, and, among the innovations of the original Star Trek series, Roddenberry’s demand for wall-to-wall sonic detail seems most apt today—an ever-present bed of ambience was stitched together, highlighting the veil of sound that accompanies day-to-day life, light-psychedelia-kissed to mark its presence, giving it a futurist mystique, without accentuating the design. The myriad acoustic signatures in the sound design are iconic, giving the 23rd century an intoxicating musicality. Every button, lever, and switch made a musical sound, giving the universe an enlivening melodicism, importing near-past antiquity centuries into the future with shortwave radio recordings and transmissions sounds and Morse code synthesized and remixed. The pings of the bridge, like sonar striking a source and transmitting back, are first intriguing then receding. Familiar sounds are buried deep—electric storms, James Brown, Taz, air guns, piano wires, birdsong, envelopes, etc.—to color and subconsciously engender an uncanny future, to give the machinery and technology a mysterious organic essence.
Suitably, The Next Generation’s USS Enterprise-D, upgraded a century down the diegetic timeline, has a cool, consistent, diffuse drone, the psych-tinged tones of yore turned to white noise—the omnipresent sounds of the life-support system and the warp-core pitch-shifted throughout the environment. This atmosphere (created from the combined pulse of a white noise generator, an exhaust fan, and the air conditioner at Paramount Studios) is subtler yet more massive. The low-frequency rumble, with some interspersed mid-range elements, subliminally maps the setting through near-imperceptible variations and sonic queues. As filtered through and reconstructed by a Synclavier, Tascam DA-88s, a mixer, and a patchbay, mechanical sounds become cool and nonthreatening, drawing the viewer into the space; it’s faint and lulling and enveloping and calming, but never entirely obscures, the cold, unforgiving vacuum of deep space just outside the hull.
Calm and panic coexist in negative space. From the first moments of consciousness and precociousness, there’s never a truly silent moment. Total silence, absolute absence, is sought in dark, uninhabited corners of the earth by spiritual wanderers and thrill-seekers alike. No one has lasted more than 45 seconds in the anechoic chamber at Orfield Laboratories in Minnesota—a room massively insulated with concrete and steel and crosshatched buffers, and lined with cutting-edge isolation engineering and sound absorption properties. They say that this “quietest place on Earth” can dislodge your mind, causing extreme distress and hallucinations rapidly. This lab makes meditation a challenge; it amplifies the undefined visceral thrill and unease of the vacuum. In the sensory deprivation chamber, you can hear nothing but your own organs working, your own heartbeat keeping time. Harmoniously, at the extremes of the other end, obsessives hold annual international “dB drag race” competitions in strip-mall parking lots where participants try to manufacture and conjure world record volume. They say between 185 and 200 dB can kill, a nuclear blast can hit 275 dB, and the ceiling for man-made, non-bang sound production is 194 dB, given atmospheric pressure limitations. So the story goes: On 9/11, people in remote locations, unaware of the unfolding events, disoriented by the eerily quiet sky, instinctively returned to civilization.
A few brave artists have ventured into the December/January nebula this past week, releasing inquisitive works meant to rattle and reverberate through this undefined cultural place and time. Run the Jewels jumped the gun and shot a blast over the bow with RTJ3, an opening salvo purposefully dropped in this hungover calendar-flip dead zone before the tide official, resolutely, bleakly changes in a couple weeks’ time. Likewise, Brian Eno threw a new multimedia experiment into the echoing murk with the ethereal, mutating, iterative/generative composition contours of Reflection, probing the contours of this period of stasis and silence and media open-endedness. Scorsese’s long-gestating Silence was also fittingly, intriguingly released into this void, a personal epic of spiritual searching dropped in this nether-region just beyond the tail-end of the prestige deluge. And, Dirty Projectors returned with a track that, by early accounts, “sounds like time collapsing.”
It’s a lovely thought to have so much backlogged, but there’s a terrifying suppressed thought behind it all: The deep knowledge that there is no hope of completion within this lifetime; and it will never stop. The digital universe is baiting and taunting your lifespan with the density of recommendations and canons. This pause humanizes the impenetrable wall of information and your engagement with it; it gives form to infinity, and it reflects other cultural cycles that exist in lame-duck liminality right now. It’s fitting that at the close of the year in which we first heard gravity, this elliptical flux phase feels heavier and more dread-soaked than ever.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.