“And when Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted,
he said unto Moses, There is a noise of war in the camp.”
Poor Phil Spector. He may be a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the producer of a string of hits from “Be My Baby” (The Ronettes) to “The Long and Winding Road” (The Beatles). But now, thanks to Court TV, it looks as if he will be remembered chiefly for owning the “castle” in which B-movie actress Lana Clarkson was found dead, with a bullet in her head. (That he had made a habit of making death threats, and that, around the time of the killing, he had told the Telegraph that he is “relatively insane,” and that, immediately after the killing, he reportedly told police, “I think I killed somebody” may not have helped his case.)
Before his arrest and trial, Spector was most famous for his production technique, the “Wall of Sound.” To achieve it, he piled layer upon layer of superfluous sound onto each recording, ornamenting lead vocals with near constant background vocals, choirs oohing and ahhing, strings, horns, two basses, several guitars, and a host of echo and doubling effects. His treatment of “Long and Winding Road” provided The Beatles with their last number-one single, but it so angered Paul McCartney, who had written—and, so far as he knew, recorded—a simple piano ballad, that Sir Paul cited it as one of his non-Yoko reasons for the band’s breakup.
Spector considers himself another Wagner, but he was more of a musical Hitler. For him, the Wall of Sound was about control. By eliminating any hint of silence in a recording, he forced the listener to be completely passive, free from that moment of anticipation that permits the mind to fill in the next blank. To listen to a Spector production is to be “immersed” in Phil. Of this sonic self-projection, one of his colleagues said, in an interview, “if you listen to [Spector’s] records in sequence, the lead goes further and further in[,] and to me what he is saying is, ‘It is not the song . . . just listen to those strings. I want more musicians; it’s me.”
Spector’s influence on American pop music has been significant. Brian Wilson was inspired by him (and by the coke that controlled his brain), and you can hear the Wall of Sound on Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys’ groundbreaking album. It’s there on countless other non-Spector-produced records as well, from ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” And even though funk, reggae, and the “unplugged” movement were something of a reaction against the Wall of Sound, today’s pop music is haunted by Phil Spector.
On a broader level, we live in Spector’s Wall of Sound. Not a single second of our lives is meant for silence. We have our iPods, cellphones, TVs, web browsers, and radios. And everyone else has his, too. The car in the next lane has its subwoofer, as does the kid down the street. Outside the window at work, the sound of RPMs rising and falling continues throughout the day. Inside the office, the hard drive spins and the cooling fan whirs, the landline rings and the copier turns. The mouse clicks, the keys click, and we click through the pages on the web browser, filled with embedded commercials, songs, audio clips from films. Then these sounds follow us home. And even at night, when the sound of passing engines and mufflers is less frequent, we can hear the click of the thermostat, the furnace lighting, the fan springing to life. Our Wall of Sound culture delivers noise at such a decibel level that, even in our few quiet moments, the reverberations of songs (“I can’t get that tune out of my head”) fill our quiet moments. Yet we crave sound so much that we purchase noise machines to help us sleep.
At the store, we hear Muzak, interrupted by the latest Blue Light Special, a celebrity reading copy for an as-seen-on-TV sale, a manager calling for more cashiers up front. At the ballpark, each inning has a musical segue—either bass-pounding hip-hop or heavy-metal guitar licks. At church, the liturgist or cantor or priest or pastor is armed with a lapel mic, which is necessary, since not everyone pays attention during announcements or sees the admonition in the bulletin:
Good morning! The deacons at PCPC would like to remind you that there is a cry-room for all mothers of small children. This room is equipped with a changing table and a speaker, so you can hear the service. Also, out of respect for our visitors, please turn off your cellphone or put it on “vibrate.”
A great deal of church music is designed to echo the Wall of Sound. In some places, this takes the form of a “praise band,” complete with drums, guitars, keyboards, and one each of the SATB singers—all of which (or whom) require amplification. (Even drums have to be flanked by screens or “shields” to keep the kick and the snare from interfering with everyone else’s mic and monitor, which means that, of course, the drums must have their own mics. This also helps with the mix for the radio broadcast.) While the ATB leads the congregation in a chorus, the S caterwauls, Mariah-style, over the ends of the measures.
Even for those of us in traditional churches, there is little space for quietness in our worship. We like a tight service that proceeds at a certain pace, with no excessive lingering during segues. We prefer the full orchestra. We want a lively sermon that keeps our attention, not a dogmatic exposition that requires us to pay attention. And, if nothing else, the organist should play something.
What we do not want is silence. Silence is awkward—makes for awkward pauses. And we are comfortable enough with our Wall of Sound that we assume this has no effect on our ability to hear.
“Leisure is a form of silence,” wrote Josef Pieper, “of that silence which is the prerequisite of the apprehension of reality . . . ” Today, we think of leisure as the time we spend away from work seeking sensate pleasure, escaping reality. (A Google image search for “leisure” yields lots of pictures of people on beaches, or on jet skis, or at resorts, or wearing a certain type of suit while worshiping the Golden Calf at Studio 54.) But neither that fantasy nor the plainness of everyday life is the reality of which Pieper speaks—namely, the reality created and sustained by the living Word of God, which is often contrary to sight. To listen—and, thus, to “apprehend reality”—we have to close our eyes and our mouths. Thus, true leisure, in a Christian sense, is “the time in which only the silent hear and those who do not remain silent do not hear.”
The mere absence of sound is not enough.
Silence, as it is used in this context, does not mean “dumbness” or “noiselessness”; it means more nearly that the soul’s power to “answer” to the reality of the world is left undisturbed. For leisure is a receptive attitude of mind, a contemplative attitude, and it is not only the occasion but the capacity for steeping oneself in the whole of creation.
Thus, the goal of silence is not merely to eliminate noise: It is to hear the voice of God. And in order to hear, we have to have “ears to hear.” After slaughtering the prophets of Baal by calling down fire from Heaven, the prophet Elijah fled from Ahab and Jezebel. Gripped by fear, he tried to find God in noise and chaos:
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
God was not in the spectacle, nor was He in the noise: His voice was heard in the stillness.
The culture of Christendom was a culture of leisure, because Christianity is a religion first of sound, and then of sight—of word before image. This is no iconoclasm: It is only to say that, in the economy of grace, the image serves the word. For all of their splendor and majesty, the great cathedrals of the West are designed chiefly to evoke silence and, thus, focus the attention of the hearer on the Gospel. (Visit Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, then compare the noise level with that of a megachurch, or even a church-in-the-round.) Silence is at the heart of Christian worship, for “faith cometh by hearing,” and “blessed are they who hear the word of God and keep it,” and “blessed are they who have not seen and yet believe.” In his commentary on Saint Luke’s Gospel, Saint Ambrose writes that “Sight is often deceived; hearing serves as guarantee.” In this fallen world, what we see—the shadows of the world spoken into existence by the Logos—is often deceiving. Can this bread that we bless really be the Body of Christ? Is this Church, so rocked by scandal, really His spotless Bride? Is this crucified Man “truly the son of God”? The “King of the Jews”? Well, “he said . . . ”
Yes, He said. But are we listening? Or are we conforming reality to what we see, or think we see, or want to see?
Oral traditions are bound by place, an incarnational quality that demands a certain level of silence. (“Hush, I can’t hear.”) Our media culture, flanked on all sides by the Wall of Sound, is only bound by the limits of its own technology and the perversity of those who use it. And our noisy technology has gone to great lengths to eliminate the natural barriers of place from every aspect of life. It allows Western man to be the naked individual, alone in his chamber with his television, his eyes trained on the screen, his ears listening to something (Geraldo Rivera, Bill O’Reilly) other than the still small voice.
The naked individual lives in a fantasy world in which he is free from all outside influence. Our noisy machines make us independent of others by doing their work. And we assert our own individuality, our “creativity,” through our little blogs and by consuming the noisome individuality of others:
RIVERA: It’s not an illegal alien story, Bill. It’s a drunk driving story.
O’REILLY: Here’s why you’re wrong.
RIVERA: And I think you owe that poor lady mayor an apology.
O’REILLY: No. No.
RIVERA: She doesn’t enforce immigration policy.
O’REILLY: She has set up a system in her city knowingly . . .
RIVERA: No, she hasn’t, Bill.
Of course, asserting one’s independence today means wearing the same jeans that Paris Hilton and (thus) a million others are wearing, speaking the same ebonics (“Dog, that Fred Thompson is dope!”) as every other white middle-class gangsta wannabe, and believing the same lies (“We can all at least agree that it’s good that the Iraqis are now able to have democratic elections”) as everyone else in the empire.
Yet that independence remains a mere illusion. For with the loss of “oral culture” (please refrain from googling that) came the loss of memory, of place, of identity. We exchanged mediators for media. We must now trust people whom we will never see, whose real voices we will never hear, to tell us what’s important; they discern for us the signs of the times. They fill our ears with words, which only adds to the noise.
Silence shatters the illusion of independence, breaking down our Wall of Sound that protects us from Reality. When our souls are still, we can no longer drown out the voice of conscience or, more importantly, of the Logos. Yes, grace is required for us to answer the call of God; but we have to turn down the TV to hear the telephone ringing.
I do wonder, though: If our culture is surrounded by a Wall of Sound, who is our Phil Spector? Who are we taking our cues from? Surely, it must be someone who is desperate for us not to hear, or believe, the voice of God. Someone who wishes to immerse us in himself. Someone who wants us to be altogether passive, easier to control. Someone who would say, “It’s not about the Song, it’s about me.” That sounds like the one who said in the beginning, “Did God really say?” and “You will not surely die” and “Your eyes will be opened” and “I think I killed somebody.”
Aaron D. Wolf is the associate editor of Chronicles.
This article first appeared in the August 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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