In The Soundscape: Our Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977, 1994), R. Murray Schafer devotes a chapter to Silence

At a previous post I have discussed silence and frame analysis; the current post  focuses on silence.

Chapter Nineteen in The Soundscape: Our Environment and the Tuning of the World (1977, 1994) by R. Murray Schafer is entitled: “Silence.”

By way of a few preliminary comments, I can say that when we speak of what silence signifies, it’s easy to make things up. However, that fact is no big deal; we are much of the time engaged in the social construction of reality; we are, in a manner of speaking, engaged in making things up as a matter of course.

We can look at this topic from another angle, as well. Namely, we can ask: How can we say something definitive about something that is unheard?

It also happens, it occurs to me, that we can readily engage in tautologies, where we think we are explaining things, when what we are doing, instead, is talking in circles. Proponents of functionalism and structuralism, by way of example, have been criticized in the past for talking in circles. As a result, such approaches to explaining things don’t appear to have a lot of traction.

These points aside, I much enjoy thinking about what silence means, implies, and communicates. I see it as an essential element in pragmatics, including in the component of pragmatics known as social pragmatics.

Chapter 19: Silence

Murray Schafer speaks about silence throughout his 1977 study and also devotes a chapter to it which opens with a quote:

A sound of silence on the startled ear … Edgar Allan Poe, “Al Aaraaf”

Schafer notes that in “quiet groves and times'” of the past, “there were muted sanc­tuaries where anyone suffering from sound fatigue could go into retire­ment for recomposure of the psyche. It might be in the woods, or out at sea, or on a snowy mountainside in winter. One would look up at the stars or the soundless soaring of the birds and be at peace.”

Next Schafer describes a sublime scene of nature featuring two friends on a hike:

I turned to my friend; I wanted to break the silence which had begun to weigh upon me. “Why don’t we talk a little?” I suggested. “We are,” answered my friend, touching my shoulder lightly. “We are, but with silence, the tongue of angels.” Then he suddenly ap­peared to grow angry. “What do you expect us to say? That it’s beautiful, that our hearts have sprouted wings and want to fly away, that we’ve started along a road leading to Paradise? Words, words, words. Keep quiet!”

The silent message here, in my view, is that in the midst of the sublime some people get vehement. The author continues:

At one time stillness was a precious article in an unwritten code of human rights.

To which I can add that the talk here is of the form of civilization associated with European history. It’s a great history but it’s not the only history. And: “unwritten code of human rights”? That was something that, I would say, was easier to refer to in the 1970s than it is now.  With regard to human rights, the question is: Who is included in such a statement, and who has been historically excluded? What is the silence, that is, which hovers within such a statement?

Murray Schafer next address Ceremonies of Silence. He notes that in a park near the Botanic Gardens in Melbourne a sign reads:

A Melbourne journalist, who, while
living in London, first suggested the solemn ceremony of
now observed in all British countries in remembrance of those who died in the War.

An excerpt from the paragraph that follows the above quotation reads:

The fact is that as the memory of the world wars has receded, the observance of silence at 11 a.m. on November 11 has each year become more straggled. It will be the responsibility of the acoustic designers to work not only for the repatriation of quiet groves, but also to lobby for the reintroduction of quiet times. As a matter of fact, Yehudi Menuhin, President of the International Music Council of UNESCO, proposed at the 1975 congress that World Music Day should in the future be celebrated by a minute of silence. We are discussing here something much more important than setting time limits on noisy sounds; we are discussing the deliberate celebration of stillness, which, when observed by an entire society together, is breathtakingly magnificent.

This is an interesting book. I recommend it highly. I have an interest in Murray Schafer’s work because he was teaching at Simon Fraser University in the early 1970s when I was a student there. When I was a teacher in Mississauga decades later, I found the Remembrance Day ceremony, with students gathered together in a school auditorium each year, very moving. [1, 2, 3]

3 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 1

    An article entitled “In the Spotlight: R. Murray Schafer” is featured in the September 2022 Toronto Region Newsletter of CANMAC.

    An excerpt reads:

    In the summer of 1985, I accompanied Murray to the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, there to sing the part of the Princess in the Patria Prologue. This piece takes place at dawn on and around a lake, Two Jack Lake, in this case. The cast had to be up and at their positions before the sun rose. As the voice of The Princess, I was an invisible performer, situated at least one kilometre away on the far side of the lake. I had to dress in yellow rain gear, with scarf, hat, gloves and a cardboard megaphone, a thermos of hot tea and honey at the ready to keep me warm and my voice lubricated. The Princess’s Aria is extremely challenging – a 12-tone work that sounds like the call of the iconic Canadian Loon – the forlorn, haunting sound that describes two separated souls calling to one another over a great distance. In Banff, the effect was spectacular because the echoes off the woods and mountains resounded up to four times. The first time I experienced this echo effect I understood Murray’s genius in collaborating with Nature. As Robert Everett-Green wrote for the Toronto newspaper, The Globe and Mail, “Very few people do theatre the way R. Murray Schafer does, with God as co-designer of stage and lighting…” (And, I would add, sound). “The risks are high with such a fickle collaborator, but when it works, the effect is beyond description.”

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 2

    A TNQ article (I do not know the date) by Rae Crossman with participants of the Wold Project is entitled: “Notes From the Wild: An Account in Words and Music of R. Murray Schafer’s And Wolf Shall Inherit the Moon.

    An excerpt reads:


    I once heard Murray say that the children were the barometers by which to measure the imaginative success of the Wolf Project. As long as they remained immersed in the mythic story, singing the chants and telling the tales, there was real vitality to what we were creating. But if the kids started singing pop songs around the fire or discussing TV shows, that meant there was no sustaining lifeblood to the mythic drama. Did I say lifeblood? Okay, how about the leech chant!

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Note 3

    With regard to the “unwritten code of human rights” alluded to above, a Nov. 21, 2022 BBC article brings attention to what has in the past as in the 1970s, along with many other topics as a matter of course, been addressed with silence. The article is entitled: “When the International African American Museum opens in January in Charleston, South Carolina, it will tell the story of slavery in the US – going all the way back to 300 BCE.”

    An excerpt (I have omitted an embedded link and capitalized “Black”) reads:

    “[The mission] is to create an experience that will be historically and emotionally important for all, but to particularly inspire those young people who may have never seen someone on the walls of a museum that looks like them, and who, as a result of seeing many, many examples of [B]lack achievement, will be inspired to think more expansively about the arc of their aspirations,” he said.

    According to Tonya Mathews, who succeeded Moore as president and CEO in 2021, the museum provides a broad context for the African American experience, a narrative that starts with ancient African civilisations and goes through modern times.

    “Slavery is not the beginning or the end of the African American journey,” Mathews said. “It’s in the middle. The museum goes back to 300 BCE, the earliest documentation of rice cultivation on the African continent. Africans were enslaved specifically for that knowledge.”


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