"Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly such a thing has never happened, still it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never."Franz Kafka, The Silence of the Sirens
With beeswax in their ears, the song of the Sirens died unheard by Ulysses’s men, like sonic waves reflecting off a rock without resonance. But if their songs are waves, what is their silence? It is perhaps the very vibrations that move through the air as winds and travel through the seas as waves, and conducted through the rock. The Silence of the Sirens is not the tranquil absence of sound; it is the trembling that resonates through all matter, shivering with potentiality and always on the verge of erupting into sound. We may buffer the sonic waves of the Sirens’ song but against their vibrant silence, there is no rebuff.
The chambers of our minds are the very conductors of this resounding silence. We cannot still this silence, just as we cannot still the beating of our hearts, or the pulsing of blood. Even as we quiet the sounds around us, we continue to hear the echoes reverberating within—the spectral echoes from the world, the whispers of our thoughts, and the murmurs of our body. These sonic ghosts linger even when sounds that produced them have long disappeared. They dance in the silence, ampliﬁed and diminished in our interior of dim mirrors, but the chamber of our minds is never void and never still: “Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening.”
In 1951, the composer John Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. He entered this acoustic vacuum expecting to hear total silence, and yet he heard sound: “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage realised that no amount of padding in any soundproof room can still the trembling cacophony that ripples through us: silence was a state which was physically impossible to achieve. This epiphany led him to compose 4’33”, infamously known as the ‘silent’ piece. During a performance on 29 August, 1952, David Tudor satdown at the piano and made no sound for four and a half minutes. However, ‘silent’ was a misnomer. Cage protested, “What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the ﬁrst movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” The purported ‘silence’ of the piece was, in fact, a sonic fallowing that allowed for a sensitivity to a different kind of sound to grow and therefore, for the commencement of listening.
The seductive appeal of the Sirens’ song lies not in their vocal timbre, described as shrill and high-pitched, but in their Cagean silence. The Sirens never performed their own repertoire - only the music of those who pass by. By keeping silent, they tease out an irresistible song composed of the listener’s own melliﬂuous desires. Therein lies the fatal trap of listening, for what beeswax can one use to resist yielding to the song issuing from one’s own interior? In the analysis of German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, this singing listener has been deceived, through this intimate hearing, by the illusion that his constitutive wish has been fulﬁlled: “As our reﬂections on the effects of the Siren’s recitation about Odysseus have shown, the irresistibility of song rests not on a sweetness particular to music, but rather the alliance of the sound with the subject’s most discreet listening expectations.” In other words, the ear comes with its own selectivity. This is why Cage laments that what the audience construed as ‘silence’ was not the absence of sound, but the failure to recognise sound. Such is the burden of the ear which listens only for the note that it anticipates, and thus falls prey to the silence of the Sirens.
If sound and vibration are always immanent in our auditory experience, how might we imagine a state of ‘pure’ silence? It is no coincident that we ﬁnd this transcendental state alluded to in various religious traditions alluding to this transcendental state. One of the central tenets of Buddhism is Sunyata, the Sanskrit term that is broadly translated as emptiness and it can be characterised as the silence of ontological being. The commitment to monastic silence is also highly regarded in the tradition of Trappist monks. In religious contexts, silence is cultivated to transcend the rational processes of the mind, and thus the mind can access an exalted state of being that is open to communion with higher powers. In these circumstances, silence is not an absence but a substantive reality. The cultivation of silence, whether through meditation or wordless prayer, centrifugalises the noise from one’s interiority so that we may listen to the divine. The seventh century bishop and theologian Isaac of Nineveh writes, “Silence is the mystery of the world to come... In the beginning we have to force ourselves to be silent. But then from our very silence is born something that draws us into deeper silence. May God give you an experience of this ‘something’ that is born of silence.”
Silence is never the sterile absence of sound; it is the fecund ground upon which new ways of listening emerge. It is always vibrating energetically in the sonorous plasma that envelops us all. We may never escape the silence of the Sirens but if we listen carefully enough, we might hear a deeper silence that delivers us from the shipwreck.