Sally Longley on her encounters with silence.
Wild Tracks of Silence
By Sally Longley
The filming process was over, my friends who were being interviewed now relaxed, and the room seemed to sigh with relief. Then, not having ever witnessed such a recording process, I was puzzled when the producer asked us all to stay where we were, “with complete stillness.” The videographer then let the camera run, recording the ensuing silence for what seemed like a very long time. Then with a “Thanks everyone,” it was over. Being curious, I asked the person I was with what that was all about. And so I learned about ‘wild tracks’: a sound recording that is then used for aural patching in the final production, replacing unwanted sounds such as the sound of a dog barking in the distance. The wild track captures the sound of the silence of that particular context – that room, that landscape, that concert hall.
This experience seemed to give a name to the knowing that many of us are already aware of: that silences are contextual, have their own nuances, presences, textures, colours, shapes and movements. These are the Wild Tracks of Silence.
This then led me to engage more intentionally with the silence that is present in and through all we do each day. I always treasure the larger times of silence I put aside in which to be and to pray, the daily times as well as longer silent retreats. But I felt I was being invited to enter into the silences I hadn’t been paying attention to – the silences within and through music, in the midst of a table gathering, in the spaces of silence within nature.
I listen to a lot of music, and recently went to hear the “Twelve Hands, Six Grands” in the Town Hall: six grand pianos set out in a star shape with the six Australian women pianists playing sometimes together, sometimes solo, and sometimes in relay - passing the baton of notes on to the next player. I found myself leaning into all the levels of silences: beneath the notes, above the notes, between the notes, within the notes. And as I did so, I found myself encountering Presence in the wild tracks of silences, as music and silence danced with each other.
In a discussion with the contemporary Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, Bouteneff recounts a story told to him by Pärt, about a conductor who,
…was rushing through one of his works, trying to fill every gap with notes.
Pärt corrected him. “The silence must be longer. This music is about the silence. The sounds are there to surround the silence.”
The conductor was baffled, asking, “Exactly how many beats? What do you do during the silence?”
Pärt’s response: “You don’t do anything. You wait. God does it.”1
Pärt further describes how he had to “draw this music gently out of silence and emptiness.”2 His music “bears the promise of simplicity, purity and silence,” writes Bouteneff. “Such stillness is readily associated with a purgative if not a cathartic aspect of spirituality . . . a cleansing of all the noise that surrounds us as well as our own inner noise.”3 It is in the wild tracks of silence, that “God does it”!
One of my best-loved books is the memoir Piano Lessons, by the Australian pianist Anna Goldsworthy. Mrs. Sivan was Anna’s Russian-born piano teacher who, in her expressive Russian English, constantly urged Anna to take note of silences: “This is ¿rst arts of any music: learn to listen to silence, atmospheric silence. Only then can we understand future and perspective,” she said. “We must hear the sound before [the note].”4 And as Anne was guided to play into the depths of each note instead of just playing the surface of the keys, she describes being able to play a “joy into my sounds, which no longer crashed to the ground, self-defeated, but reached out into the audience in thanksgiving, saying things otherwise unavailable.”5 From wild tracks we encounter what might otherwise be unavailable.
And in a personal email exchange I had with a contemporary British composer Patrick Hawes, I asked about his sometimes very ethereal music. He replied,
Silence is to a musician what a blank canvas is to an artist or a block of stone to a sculptor. It is the starting point, the very beginning of a new creation. Therefore, it is always present—like the stone that is to be carved or the canvas which bears the paint. In other words, silence is the foundation of a piece of music and must be treated with the utmost respect . . . Silence is the carrier of music. It lovingly provides the yoke for music to travel to its listeners. It is omni-present yet only occasionally discerned. The more it is discerned, the more powerful its presence becomes to the point that it can speak more loudly than sound . . .Above all else, a composer must ensure that silence lives.6
In all contexts, such as during table gatherings around food and good conversation, I now find myself listening into the wild tracks: not just the silences within sentences, or when the conversation lulls as we hold gently or curiously what has been said, but the whole room’s wild tracks. What texture does this room have in which we are all gathered? What is its density, movement, colour, aroma? And what is this wild track of silence inviting me into?
In a similar way, I have come to see silence in nature around me, and not just hear it. I can enter the silence of a zen garden, and notice the dry river beds of white pebbles, and be slowed down by the intentionally placed stepping stones, and I begin to enter the wild tracks of silence of this crafted landscape. Such physical spaces the Japanese call Ma and is an aesthetic value found in many realms of Japanese life and culture. This anonymous traditional poem describes it well:
Thirty spokes meet in the hub,
though the space between them is the essence of the wheel.
Pots are formed from clay,
though the space inside them is the essence of the pot.
Walls with windows and doors form the house,
though the space within them is the essence of the house.7
And as we know, ‘essence’ is more that just a physical space. It is an experience which includes all our senses, including the wild tracks of silence. Just as spaces are never empty, so silences are never empty, but rather content-filled, and silences have no opposite.
This is just one of the many worlds of silence I look into in the book “Conversations with Silence: Rosetta Stone of the Soul.” I wonder if you too, have sensed some invitations through your encounters with the sound track of wild tracks of silence?
Perhaps Margaret Atwood has some wisdom we can end with: “What isn’t there has a presence, like the absence of light.”8
Dr Sally Longley began her career as a University lecturer in Urban Studies before studying theology in London, South Africa and USA. She is a spiritual director and retreat leader and a qualified Giver of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. She has also authored “Walking the Labyrinth as the Beloved in John’s Gospel” and a 3 set DVD/video on “5 Ways to Pray”.
For more information about Sally Longley’s book “Conversations with Silence: Rosetta Stone of the Soul.” Please see her website: https://www.longley.com.au/publications/conversations-with-silence/
Photos by Sally Longley
1 Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence, Kindle Location 19–20.
2 Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence, 19.
3 Bouteneff, Arvo Pärt: Out of Silence, 28.
4 Goldsworthy, Piano Lessons, 174.
5 Goldsworthy, Piano Lessons, 174.
6 Hawes, personal communication, April 25, 2019.
7 Traditional Japanese poem
8 Atwood, The Blind Assassin, 395.