Noise and silence

Optional: read this accompanied by sounds from an estuary from the brilliant Radio Lento podcast.

There is, I have realised, no such thing as absolute silence. There is always sound. In an enclosed space with thick walls, there is still noise. As Suzanne Vega sang, Blood Makes Noise.

I seem to have become much more aware of life’s noisiness recently. Something has been up with one of my ears. Occasionally sat watching TV, a change of pressure, a popping feeling, and tinnitus rising to a crescendo before fading away. But even then, and especially at night, I can hear the blood in my ears.

I’ve recently become aware of hyperacusis, abnormal sensitivity to sound. A dog barking. A car engine. Or, as I’ve been particularly aware of thanks to building work opposite my mother’s house, the reversing warning tone of a telehandler. Sudden sounds, bangs, the bit in a movie when explosions happen out of the blue or when the adverts come on during a TV show at twice the volume; I’m much more aware of them.

But whatever, the noise in my ears is always there.

I was thinking about that constant sound on Tuesday while I was walking around Fingringhoe Wick Nature Reserve in Essex, down by the Colne Estuary. Oystercatchers were noisily peep-peeping out on the new salt marsh forming since they breached the medieval wall there. A cuckoo called from a tree nearby. Building work and the clatter of scaffolding somewhere further away. Road noise just perceptible. A gentle breeze through the grass. And then I realised I couldn’t hear the sound of the blood in my ears. And it felt like silence even though it was noise. It was blissful.

Even now I still get reminded of how good it is for me to be outside, in nature. I have come to love soundscapes, recordings of the natural world, as a backup for when I can’t be in those places as I was at Fingringhoe. They calm me down, help me sleep, and often help me focus. The best flow state, fully immersed in work or study, seems to happen when there’s enough sound to keep my mind passively engaged, without distracting it, and natural soundscapes do that brilliantly.

The first recorded natural soundscape I remember hearing was Andrew Flintham’s recording of the Brecklands dawn chorus. It’s a magical recording. In the early 1990s before the launch of Classic FM, they played birdsong recorded in Wiltshire as a test transmission. It’s still the best thing they ever played and went on to have its own radio station in the early days of digital radio broadcasting.

I discovered the Radio Lento podcast a few years ago, and have loved it since. Hi-fidelity recordings of the natural world, no adverts, no talking, no nothing but the sound. From an estuary like the one I was sat next to on Tuesday to nighttime in a Suffolk woodland, Dartmoor, the mouth of a sea cave, even under the M6 at Spaghetti Junction. I have fallen asleep to the series of recordings of the Suffolk woodland many times. Radio Lento is special.

I have tried to emulate Radio Lento by recording in a few different places, like an early morning in San Gimignano with starlings and jackdaws chattering away as the town wakes up. No amount of photographs take me back somewhere as much as the sounds. Maybe it’s an underrated experience for too many of us.

Here’s to all the good noise and finding something like silence, even though there’s no such thing.

Special mentions:

  • Sound generators mostly just aren’t as good as the real thing, but is incredible, allowing filtering and tweaking of real-world mastered recordings.
  • Sublime Frequencies has a huge back-catalogue of music from around the world, much recorded on streets and in villages, and much intercut with sounds from those places. The album I Remember Syria is an elegiac documentary, a mish-mash of radio recordings, street music, conversation and noise.
  • Simon Prebble’s voice narrating this Headspace Sleepcast (and others) is one of the most effective things I’ve ever found at sending me to sleep. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the end.

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