by Cory Fehlberg
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
Her mind moves upon silence.
—William Butler Yeats
I live in a house where the walls are thin and the floors are thin and I wait for quiet. I wish to fall asleep in the expectation of stillness; to lie for an hour in silence that reveals small aberrations—the end of a record, insects, intermittent rain on leaves; to watch the moths in the porch light, flecks on the screen when the film is over. Outside my window, thought winds darkly through the lattice and flowers undisturbed before I sleep. I wake in the morning to the stillest surface.
When I was younger, there were nights when, as Wallace Stevens says, “the house was quiet and the world was calm” and “the reader became the book.” When I was a child, we had only one stereo in the living room. I remember the fabric of the console and the little diamond-shaped light that came on when the record was playing. It must be a result of my fascination with the light and the records that no other way of playing music moves me as much. Tapes and compact discs seem to be merely utilitarian. But I still remember the covers of the old records—a jewelled egg, a blue and mauve lady with a bouquet of flowers. And the end of a record is still, to me, touching. The point when the music stops and the quiet begins with a faint static reminds me always of rain falling. Every record ending is like evening coming on, like the last of Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring,” where the strings play the quiet dark descending, the leaves stirring, the sharp sweet air.
For many years, there was only my mother’s radio, which was always tuned to a classical station. I don’t remember that it was noisy then. Perhaps in recent years, my concentration has shattered, but the radios have also multiplied. There was Katherine’s radio, and now there is Kristin’s—constant and loud, playing KJQ early in the morning. In my irritable way I ask her to turn it down, to turn if off. We have reached a sort of compromise now. She can listen to KJQ on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings; Tuesday and Thursday mornings are KJQ-free.
Quiet is unequal to the force of noise. The influence of quiet is so small, so easily canceled. Someone sitting in the room upstairs fingering the pages of a book does not disrupt the noise-making downstairs. But one radio fractures the stillness of the upstairs room.
It is simpler to preserve space than it is to preserve quiet, easier to find an empty room than a quiet room. Walls and doors guarantee some choice of vision, some solitude. I can shut the door, close the blinds, and to some degree ensure privacy. No matter what clutter hangs on the other side of the wall, this side can be bare. But I cannot preserve silence. Even now the Top Forty station in the next room bores through the wall. It makes all barriers, all solitudes, insubstantial.
Once in France I walked through a forest, followed paths under light, arching branches. I felt that I was entering a place of infinite green, that the forest went on without disruption, stiller and more still until near the center the smallest sounds would become audible; birds and insects and grass would be magnified in the silence. But down the slope, the forest ran into a chain link fence and a highway of cars passing.
In my garden, hidden behind the iris, I have the sense that I am surrounded by leaves, a privacy deepened when the grape vines grow thick along the back fence. When I am kneeling among the green stocks, I might be in a field of flowers, acres of hollyhocks and poppies. But the neighbors’ radio is the end of the illusion.
I must go far, very far away, for absolute quiet. Even then I may hear, in some primeval space, under aspens that barely alter the air, the grinding of gears and someone’s car stereo.
Even natural sounds can be irritating. Wind and rain continue sometimes with maddening incessance. But in time the wind stops and the rain is no more than a quiet dripping from the eaves. Human sounds (voices in the living room, the slamming of the screen door) subside. Everyone has to sleep. Most mechanical noises—lawn mowers and drills and chain saws—finally cease. But radio and television do not cease. Once in a while a tube may go out; once in a while one may quit. But in any ordinary house, there is another radio, another television. The cheapness of manufacturing them means that they can be everywhere. They are omnipresent by mere multiplication. And they can be on all the time. While people dream and snore and turn over in their sleep, the radio in the next room plays on. And while they mutter their last words and expire, the radio in the next room plays on. Even when it is unplugged in the next room, the radio will be playing in the car, in the grocery store half-a-mile away.
I used to look over at my neighbors’ house, where in the master bedroom the blue light of the television stayed on all night. Perhaps they slept with it on or comforted themselves during hours of insomnia. Perpetual torment, I thought, to never rest. The fuzzy striations on the television screen, the blank buzz that used to come on some radio and TV stations late at night are, in comparison, 4 positive relief.
When my mother was young, her family had one radio and there were only two classical programs-the Carnegie Hall Broadcast on Sundays and a program from 8:00 to 3:00 on weekdays, whose theme song was Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. (It was not until years later that my mother knew the name of the piece.) During the school year, she could not listen to the weekday program. But in the summer, she planned her whole life around it. I think of the young girl in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, roaming the streets on summer nights to the houses that played Mozart and Beethoven, lying in the dark bushes, saving the beautiful fragments in her mind, waiting ever after that to hear the music again. When my mother graduated from junior high, she was given a 45-speed record player. The first record she bought was “The Nutcracker Suite” conducted by Toscanini, not because she wanted it so much then, but because she had heard it as a child on “Fantasia” and had promised herself all her life that it would be her first record. I can imagine my mother lifting the needle, turning the record over to hear the end. My mother’s memory is from a time that seems to me almost virginal now when my youngest sister plays The Cure CD at near full volume.
If radio and television were human, they would tire. But they are not human. Though they are made of living sounds, they are not alive. They lack the characteristics of natural sound, the fluctuations and arrests. Classical radio stations may retain some signs of life: noticeable variations, ranges in tempo and volume, passages of quiet. Occasionally the announcer falters. But most stations are characterized by uniformity, a repetition of sound in which inflections and pauses are lost. Human voices jammed into an electrical circuit, programmed to go on without cessation. They could conceivably go on forever, blotting out all lighter sounds, filling all future silences.
To hear leaves moving together and insects humming, quiet is essential. Without quiet, I cannot hear the soprano’s aria. I imagine her voice as a line with great variance: here it drops and tapers, here it ascends, all against transparent space. Then an alto enters, and the two voices trace together a pattern on a white ground. The sounds of evening filter through the open work. But they are obliterated by mechanized noise—entire bars, great rectangles blocked out. Even a symphony cannot triumph over Top Forty played back to back.
It is not so much a question of pitch as it is of rhythmic frequency—repetition so insistent, intervals so compressed, that they black out existing space. There is no hedging against mechanical noise. It penetrates ordinary barriers, it levels walls by sheer rhythmic persistence. By sheer rhythmic persistence it establishes a density that obstructs other sounds. The only sound with mass enough to obliterate mechanized noise is a louder mechanized noise.
Listening to it is like riding in an old car down a bad road. The head bumps against the door with a frequency that becomes offensive. The neck aches. The view outside becomes meaningless from monotonous, repetitive jolting. Space and thought are broken by the rhythm, fragments ground to dust.
Houses and gardens are intended as places of seclusion. Their physical barriers provide a refuge for quiet. And quiet is itself a refuge, a sanctuary for rest and thought and solitude. To admit continual noise is to rupture the structure of quiet, to fracture the intervals of stillness necessary for rest and thought. It is impossible to keep up the illusion of solitude when somewhere else a radio is playing. The sound distracts all the senses. Radio and television have a far greater potential than other mechanized noises for disrupting quiet because they are part of the twentieth-century interior, part of the house and garden.
For some, quiet is nothingness. For them, radio and television are the sounds of life. They cover the surface of the void. They fill the absence. But their noise is an illusion. They create, by constant rhythm, the appearance of something permanent something solid and present. But it is only the solidity of dense, obliterating lines.
It is in quiet that life emerges, irregular and beautiful. Voices rise and fall in the kitchen. Katherine laughs. Someone runs water for a bath. The piano comes out unexpectedly upon the evening. Sounds are scattered, in the still lengths of early morning, unpredictable, errant.
Though quiet appears void, its emptiness is the emptiness of a cathedral. Its nothingness is a dome, vaulted by the resonance of voices singing four hundred years ago. Against the mass of this century’s noise, quiet is insubstantial, yet in my mind it has the form of something enduring, something centuries old. I think of sitting on smooth steps in the evening. I think of a stone balcony, of the sounds that emerge when louder sounds subside, the fall of water in motionless pools. Quiet cannot impose. Yet it remains. It endures. Like a stone, it is soundless and immense.
When finally the last motors are shut off and the perpetual agitations cease, the receding quiet will cover the earth. On its clear surface Yeats’s fly will rest, and the stillness will vibrate with sounds of living things.
Cory Fehlberg recently finished her master’s degree in English at BYU. She lives in Orem.