Silence is golden


It’s no contradiction anymore to go looking for silence in a bustling city like Brussels, though silence for many is more than just the absence of noise. It’s a way of life. A new project called bessst helps people discover silence in the city; music venue Ancienne Belgique is one of its partners and presses home the message with the concert series Silence is Sexy.

Bessst is promoting the art of silence in Brussels, while the Ancienne Belgique is applying it

It’s no contradiction anymore to go looking for silence in a bustling city like Brussels, though silence for many is more than just the absence of noise. It’s a way of life. A new project called bessst helps people discover silence in the city; music venue Ancienne Belgique is one of its partners and presses home the message with the concert series Silence is Sexy.

The rector of Saint Peter’s parish in East Blatchington, a coastal village in England, must have been surprised earlier this year when he heard that the first release of the CD The Sound of Silence had quickly sold out. After a short introduction, the album is filled with 30 minutes of ambient sounds, recorded in the 12th-century church.

Recording silence might seem like the equivalent of bottling fresh air, but silence is hot. Seven years ago, Thom Breukel wrote a silent guide to Amsterdam, several cities now offer “silence walks” and, closer to home, there’s Waerbeke, a socio-cultural organisation promoting silence and quality of life in Flanders and Brussels. Together with Brussels secretary of state Bruno De Lille, it created bessst, which stands for: Brussel, erfgoed en stilte (Brussels, heritage and silence).

“Waerbeke has been operating mostly in the Flemish rural areas, but thanks to bessst, we can develop initiatives in the capital,” explains bessst project leader Christel Dusoleil. “The countryside looks like the natural environment to work on silence and quietness. Implementing the same in a bustling city like Brussels is a whole different challenge. On the other hand, the need for tranquillity might be more urgent there. Academic studies confirm that quiet is highly important for people’s well-being.”

Attitude shift

Traffic, construction sites, blasting music and people shouting: For some it might be difficult to see Brussels as a place of silence. Dusoleil doesn’t agree: “I live in the city, and I’ve discovered loads of spaces where it’s really quiet. I agree you have to take some detours to discover them, they’re probably not on your usual route, but it’s worthwhile looking for them.”

Bessst helps find them. With two partners – Brukselbinnenstebuiten, which offers alternative guided tours of Brussels, and Trage Wegen, which protects and maintains footpaths – it has mapped out some routes that allow you to discover quiet spots: Through small, almost unnoticeable, alleyways via squares where the only sound is a flag flapping in the wind, to oases of green where you can still enjoy the singing of the birds. Dusoleil: “At some places it’s as quiet as in the country.”

Sure, absolute silence is a fantasy (and maybe even a curse), but bessst is looking for more than just acoustic silence, Dusoleil explains. “Our project is about tranquillity, too: silence as an attitude. It’s a philosophical question. That’s why we also stress the poetry or the beauty of silence.”

Quitting life in the fast lane, albeit only temporarily, is also a form of silence. “It can be about simple things. Why not try walking instead of using your car when you move through the city?”

Bessst doesn’t have the financial means to set up new projects, though they hope that in the future it will be possible. But it’s not a handicap, since they are collaborating with a number of organisations. “We’re linking up organisations or even individual artists, and we’re giving them a platform,” explains Dusoleil.

“It might help them to reach a wider audience or even make their projects stronger. For instance, for the bessst routes, we worked with Brukselbinnenstebuiten and Trage Wegen, two organisations that probably wouldn’t otherwise work together. We’re the hyphen.”

Joyful silence

Bessst is clearly promoting a positive view of silence. And that might be necessary, since silence is still too often conceived as something negative. How often has a silence been described as painful? A quick internet search for “painful silence” and “joyful silence” shows that the former has 20 times more links than the latter.

Dusoleil, after a moment of silence (really): “Of course, painful silences exist – after an argument, for instance. That doesn’t take anything away from silence also being joyful or touching. A minute of silence to commemorate an event or someone’s passing can be very connecting. But it’s true, we’re so used to having a continuous input of sounds and impulses in our daily lives that we don’t realise it anymore. So it takes an active decision to shut it down and search for silence.”

I don’t want to sound cynical, but if bessst becomes a success it might undermine its own goals. If suddenly a whole mass of people start looking for silent spots in the city, the silence might be drowned in sound. “We have thought of that,” smiles Dusoleil. “But we’re still a young project, and it’s one of our challenges to not let that happen. I think it must be possible to keep quiet places quiet, regardless of the number of people visiting them. And I don’t think we have to be afraid of noise; it’s inherent to a city.”

Whispering, she adds: “It’s not like we can’t raise our voices anymore. What we want is to influence people’s attitudes.”

Silence is Sexy

One of bessst’s partners is the Brussels concert hall Ancienne Belgique (AB). Two years ago, it launched the concert series Silence Is Sexy, which focuses on musicians who blur the borders between pop, electronic and contemporary classical music. “From the start, Silence Is Sexy was successful, with 500 to 700 people per show,” says Kurt Overbergh, the AB’s artistic director.

How does he explain silence at a largely rock concert hall being so successful? “I always find it difficult to answer those questions, but I see one element that certainly plays a role. In this day and age, you constantly need to be online: Twittering, Instagramming, Facebooking. And I’m guilty as charged, too. But this has led to a desire for tranquillity, and the success of Silence Is Sexy is a reaction against that continuous stream of impulses.”

At the moment, the collaboration with bessst is small scale, but they have a bigger plan for the autumn. Overbergh: “The last weekend of October, we move the clock backwards an hour for daylight savings: 3.00 becomes 2.00. During that dead, non-existing hour we want to put on a project about silence. It’s not 100% sure yet what it’ll be, but we’ll do something in the AB during that hour. It’s an idea from bessst that I immediately dove into.”

Continuous music

But first, there is Silence Is Sexy, featuring as its most famous performer the German Nils Frahm. “He’s a pianist and composer who plays very emotional music,” says Overbergh. “He also has an important recording studio. I think in a few years we will really realise how important he is for the music of this decade.”

But Silence is Sexy is also an opportunity to discover new names, like Lubomyr Melnyk. Never heard of him? You’re not alone. “Until a few months ago, I didn’t know the guy either,” smiles Overbergh. “He’s a Ukrainian piano player aged 65 who, in the 1970s, wrote a manifesto about continuous piano music: He keeps on playing and doesn’t want silence between the notes. I know, this seems to contradict our silence is sexy idea, but believe me, it doesn’t. His work is very relaxing.”

Another recent discovery for Overbergh is the German Denovali label. “I’m very impressed by their releases: I received a whole pile of CDs and literally all of them were interesting and inspiring. So we attributed two nights of Silence Is Sexy to them.”

To end, a personal question: How does the artistic director of the AB himself deal with his desire for silence? “I don’t walk through the city anymore with earphones: I want to hear the sound of the city. I commute from Antwerp, and the train ride is the only moment of the day when I can peacefully listen to music, since my days are filled with meetings, answering emails and so on. At home, I have the time to listen to music, too, but the bedroom is a no-go zone for music, and I’ll never take music with me when I go on holiday.”

Silence is golden

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