BY Juha Torvinen
Western urban culture is a noise culture. Despite all futurist manifestos, the urban soundscape cannot be approached as only an aesthetic and musical phenomenon. The noise in our environment is also and primarily a result of the power that the technological, industrial, and commercial world has over us. Silence too has become a desired rarity and luxury that is bought and sold.
Whoever controls noise, controls life. This is because something primitive in us experiences sound as a sign of life, and soundlessness as a sign of death. Ubiquitous noise is a kind of superlife, blurring the contours of individuality. Businesses know that suitable background music – in fact a form of urban noise – increases sales and consumption, making people function as a crowd, not as individuals. This background music includes soothing music in department stores as well as the deafening soundscape of many bars. Loud music prevents conversation and – paradoxically – the attentive listening of the music. So the barkeeper can be pleased since people are not able to talk or listen to the music, so they have nothing else to do than buy more and more drinks.
Western society’s widespread noise harassment causes a great craving for silence, which manifests itself in increased striving for the peace provided by religions, art, concerts, or nature. However, as John Cage already perceived, complete silence is an impossibility (except perhaps in death). Silence is actually a kind of sound too, and silence is, finally, the right to decide for oneself what one wants to hear and what not.
Unfortunately, Western urban and commercialised culture does not ask whether people want to hear the noise or not. As the cultural researcher Stuart Sim has suggested, silence should be made into a political question – everyone’s right to demand freedom from noise. Silence is namely not only the absence of annoying sounds but also a guarantee of individuality.
Concerts are a silence ritual, one way of silencing unwanted sounds. I claim this is especially true of kantele concerts. The kantele brings out the humanity of the player and – due to its playing technique – her or his corporeality (and to an exceptional degree). The kantele’s sound remains intimate even when amplified, and emphasises the individual, not the other way around.
To hear these kinds of silences, one can lend an ear to kantele and its music. Highly recommended for today’s urbanites.
Translation: Ekhart Georgi