The flight from silence

SUMMER is the time when you discover your neighbor has been secretly practicing the clarinet. Not practicing enough perhaps. But there you are. Along with reed-splitting falsettos in the clarinet's upper register, the open windows of summer bring in nicely rounded and on-key bird calls. Real stereo stuff. Never, it seems have birds been singing more lyrically than this June, as if they knew the world needed a few extra warbles, the news being what it is.

Even the cicadas are trying to keep our minds off what is happening - jamming the airwaves, as it were, with their minimalist vibrations.

There was a time when all the sounds of June served as prelude to human speech. Dramatists liked to open their plays with voices hallooing from fire escape to fire escape on the first really hot night in the city, celebrating the emergence of the species from winter caves to turn the universe into a round table.

Summer meant the sound of outdoor talk.

Those opening scenes would never work today. The people on fire escapes and front stoops are all wearing headphones, enclosed in private worlds between their electronic parentheses.

Besides, to speak or to be spoken to in the city is a suspicious act, if not a threat.

Meanwhile, in the suburbs, more fences seem to go up every day. It is as if we of the fortress-mentality age greet the social invitation of summer with a barricade.

A lot of the sounds of summer appear designed to make it impossible to talk.

Has there ever been such a cacophony of power tools and helicopters and grinding truck transmissions in the summer air?

Everybody, one swears, has acquired a new puppy to make June the ferocious barking month.

It's a conspiracy, or so you could imagine.

Invisible signs seem to be posted: ``No dead air allowed for thought or quiet conversation.''

Everybody's avoiding the sun under layers of sun screen. Everybody's avoiding silence under volumes of sound screen.

The social - or rather antisocial - use of noise occurs all year around. It becomes conspicuous in the summer when we perversely rush indoors to jam the hushed June air with television - the low-level hum that serves as sound track to the uninspired moments of life. Even Lady Di is said to use television as white noise while she irons.

The burble and blink of a television set through an open June window tells us more than we want to know about our uses, and misuses, of sound.

Why do we get this strange comfort from having our ears occupied with sound - any sound - like an infant filling its mouth with a pacifier?

Writing in Harper's, the music critic Bernard Holland contemplates with horror how even ``good'' sound, like classical music, takes on the nature of an addiction. He worries about the walls of recordings, the speakers as huge as a refrigerator with which music lovers barricade their lives, as if they were hoarding three versions of Beethoven's Ninth against the terrors of silence.

When one eats out, could one chew, could one swallow without Mozart or jazz or soft rock drifting out of the sound system like cooking aromas from the kitchen?

Does nobody, Holland asks, want to carry music around in the imagination, in the memory, as everybody had to do before technology wired us up?

Vacation arrives, and the approved ritual is to retreat from the centers of civilization to repair oneself in the woods or by the shore - to have a week or two in Walden with all the sound systems turned off except for those birds.

The information advisory from the owners of the cottage one is renting comes in the mail. They feel compelled to confess that television reception is poor, that power boats are forbidden on the lake - that everything is very, very quiet.

Silence is affixed as a kind of warning on the package.

All year long we talk, like poets, about peace that comes dripping slow. Summer calls our bluff.

To be alone, in silence - is this a modern person's ultimate nightmare, surpassing even the Big Bang of World War III? You have to be either very mad or very sane to enjoy solitude and quiet. Every summer we all take the test.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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