Magazine | October 14, 2013, Issue

The Rest Is Silence

I was meeting a colleague for dinner at a restaurant I had never been to. As soon as I walked in, I hit the wall of sound. The street door opened into the bar area. Patrons sat at round tables on high chairs with low sacroiliac-smacking backs. There was music of some sort, cranked up, but I could not distinguish anything because the roar of voices overwhelmed it. I did what I always do in the presence of the wall of sound—my face winced, and the muscles of my neck and shoulders contracted, as if I could thereby shrink the portals of hearing. It actually works to some extent, though not nearly enough to silence the din. I moved quickly to the reservation desk, reckoning that the dining area would be quieter.

It was, some—though hazards remained. The first table I was taken to (I was first to arrive) was next to a party of six suits. They were well into their meal, cocktail or wine glasses stood at every place. The business bellow is only slightly less bad than the barroom shout, so I asked for another table. The maîtresse d’, knowing her business, showed me to the back of the room. An old couple, slightly befuddled—tourists who had missed some date with destiny—lay ahead of me. A banquette for three—more suits, but quieter, made shy not boisterous by strangeness—sat to one side. A large ugly pillar spoiled the view, but blocked the wall of sound. When my colleague came we would be able to eat our tiny tarted-up portions and drink our unfamiliar-for-a-reason wines in something like peace.

It was a victory, but a fleeting one, for every day the wall of sound reappears. Who built it? Cities, of course—those million-footed centipedes—mass, motion, work and play. They are as restless in their noisemaking as breakers or trade winds. But the wall of sound seems to have gotten louder in my lifetime. Why would that be?

Is music to blame? Electrification was a big step. With amps three kids in a garage could summon as many decibels as Furtwängler leading the “Ode to Joy.” Some of the crazy decadents—Ives, Scriabin—dreamed of monster symphonies performed on hilltops. That never happened, but a handful of yobs, and their road crew, can fill an arena.

But the leap to electro-din was taken when I was a babe. This too, then, cannot be the reason the racket has gotten worse. The villain must be the earpiece.

It looked like a blessing at first, for before the earpiece was the boom box. Even now, every so often, some pimped-up Escalade rolls up the avenue, 13 floors down, with a speaker the size of Mt. Marcy, pumping out its groinal rhythms. Before the earpiece, that seemed to be an hourly occurrence. The youths humping boom boxes on city streets were the auditory equivalent of squeegee men, making the lives of everyone but themselves nasty and brutish. The earpiece turned their noise inward.

#page#But consider the damage it did there. Imagine the leperous distilment, pouring into the porches of their ears, and the ears of every kid who joined them in listening to music the newfangled way. The first result was hearing loss. The second result, which followed inevitably, was to turn the volume up.

You hear it now, in elevators, subways, and other confined spaces, with people using earpieces: a tinny rustling sound, like scraping fingernails over a hi-hat cymbal. Every time I take the bus between the city and the country the driver in his opening announcement reminds wearers of “portable listening devices” to turn them down “so that only you can hear.” Do you realize how loud a portable listening device has to be before anyone besides you can hear? If prisoners were subjected to such a thing, their jailers would be arrested.

When the music lover removes his earpiece to communicate with his fellow man, what can he do but shout? If he speaks normally he will not be heard, if his friends speak so to him he will not heed them. Drunks talk loudly because they are disinhibited; earpiece users talk loudly because they are damaged. Next, public places—bars and restaurants most obviously, but also stores with piped-in music and waiting rooms with televisions—turn the volume up, because that is what their patrons expect.

My years of compulsive music listening ended just before the earpiece revolution, yet I am a secondary sufferer. There are certain frequencies I have trouble with: If I am near a running faucet, I can hear speech in the next room, but I cannot understand it.

I retain my sensitivity to other frequencies, however, and I would like to keep it that way. Most compelling to me are the voices of owls. In the country, with doors and windows closed, I can hear them, faintly, through the walls. I step out onto the deck. I do the opposite of what I do before the wall of sound: relax my jaw, try to open up to everything. Our neighborhood owl is the barred owl, and he has four cries. The first is often a single, descending hoot. Then will come the eight- or nine-note call: “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you [all]?” Sometimes you can distinguish individuals. Two owls were trading calls the other night; one was blunt and emphatic, the other ended with a glissando. The first was a cop, the second a gentleman or an Italian. There are two other calls, less common: a muffled complaint, perhaps a curse: huff-huff-huff-huff-huff-whoahhh; and demented cackles, impossible to reduce to human speech. That they are communicating is obvious: to each other, perhaps also to the scurrying creatures they mean to terrorize, then eat.

They stop, then resume, then stop again. In between there are bugs; a car coming up the road; a plane overhead; and nothing.

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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