Music, Claude Debussy once famously remarked, is the stuff between the notes, an observation that resonates, pardon the pun, from the flawless spacing of a Billie Holiday tune to the deletions—whether generous or cruel—in our daily lives. Essentially neuter, neither balm nor curse, silence, like light or love, requires a medium to give it meaning, takes on the color of its host, adapts easily to our fears and needs. Quite apart from whether we seek or shun it, silence orchestrates the music of our days. – Mark Slouka

I was recently reminded that doing nothing is ok sometimes. I was reading Mark Slouka’s Essays from the Nick of Time, and Jennifer Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad.  Then I was sitting in a courtyard watching the sea make diamonds with the sky.  Anything seemed possible.


…if it’s true that all symphonies end in silence, it’s equally true that they begin there as well.
– Mark Slouka

What comes from reading in a park, diving into art, or pondering the hard verses below a lyrical high note? Story. Dissonance. Possibility. Understanding. Plots untangle and coalesce to the pat pat of an isolated redwood run. Questions formulate in the pause between sentences; they are nourished in contemplation.

In “Listening for Silence: Notes on an Aural Life,” Slouka asks how we make room to dream amidst the cacophony of modern life:

As silence disappears, the world draws tighter, borders collapse, the public and the private bleed and intermix. Victim to the centripetal pull, the imagination crackles with the static of outside frequencies, while somewhere in the soul-listen!-a cell phone is chirping. Answer it quickly, before someone else does.

For Slouka, it’s not just creativity that’s at stake; civil society depends upon the ability and willingness of people to think critically, and to do this, we need quiet. But we are rarely quiet these days. A screen constantly flashes messages of varied import. We follow threads and answer calls. Perpetually distracted, we seem to be, more and more, living in a state of response.

Much of cable news depends upon this state of response, or worse (though directly related): the passive intake of noise by uncritical minds. As a result, fact and science are rendered elusive. Monolithic messaging abounds. True dialogue fights for a place. Will democracy too?

Back to art and happier things

I almost didn’t read A Visit from the Goon Squad. It starts with a seemingly vapid millennial character who shoplifts out of anxiety or boredom.  But Egan’s San Francisco punk scene dangled a clove above my 80’s neon head and I found myself running with her characters through time and space, landing, finally, in New York sometime in the future.

Egan devotes a chapter (actually a PowerPoint) to “Great Rock and Roll Pauses,” delivered by twelve-year-old Sasha. Her brother, Lincoln, is autistic (I’m assuming) and obsessed with pauses in songs. He likes “Bernadette” by the Four Tops and “Foxy Lady” by Jimi Hendrix.

The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, AND. THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL

Lincoln talks about pauses in songs because in them he finds meaning. He does not know how else to communicate. As the family spins around him, their record skips, scratches and warps, but it also fills the desert night with hope. In trying to understand the pauses, they create narratives for the songs and their family.

There are also slides devoted to:

The Relationship of Pause Length to Haunting Power
Proof of the Necessity of Pauses
Discoveries about Pause Timing (In Bubble Form)
The Persistence of Pauses over Time
(from 1960 to 2010)

“Great Rock and Roll Pauses” comes at physical place in the book where the storyline typically peaks, and I’m usually snapping through the pages in anticipation. But I found myself pausing on the Squad, (experiential mimesis!) wondering what was going on. What’s Egan doing? What’s this all about?

Anything is possible

Then I was at the Salk Institute studying immunobiology and microbial pathogenesis.

Fine, I was on a tour. If you’ve been to the Salk you know how this place is like a house of religion that lifts your eyes in reverence or a hidden mountain lake with the sun on your neck.

I peeled off from the tour group when they decided to walk through the plenum (I’m not an architect and the geekery was reaching a crescendo). On the travertine interstice, I walked toward the ocean and down the steps to the falling terminus of that magical courtyard water-streak. My bag was heavy and I set it down. I stared at the sea and the sky. There were other people around and we were, all of us, silent.

I felt first of all joyous…it was the essence of creativity, the force of creativity.  I realized that if I were a painter about to paint a great catastrophe, I could not put the first stroke on canvas without thinking of Joy in doing it.  You cannot make a building unless you are joyously engaged. – Louis I Kahn

Or write a novel or compose a song or discover a cure.

Sitting there I felt the force of the possible. There are other emotions in creating, but I like Kahn’s Joy. It gets lost in the process of making things that you care about, but it’s always there in the silence. Waiting for you to find it. Pause. There it is. You.