I live between a fire station and a church. My window opens onto a plaza filled with a skating rink, food trucks, and a couple dozen tourists. The bros upstairs throw a lot of parties, and the bros next door watch a lot of football. My life is not quiet—and in response, I’ve become a tuning-it-out guru. I narrow my eyes, pop in some headphones, and let all the sirens and bass and shouting teenage boys fade away into a mellow background hum.
Usually, I’m grateful for this skill. Harvard life is frenetic, and putting on acoustic blinders is much easier than going out and finding actual silence. It’s only latelythat I’ve started to wonder: Am I missing out? What’s underneath all the white noise? Does quiet have a sound?
I spent a day scouring campus for silence and answers. Here is what I found.
Fung Library – CGIS Knafel Building
I figure I’m obligated to start my search with a library or two, so I fortify myself with dubious California rolls at the CGIS Café and then descend down two flights of stairs to the Fung Library.
I feel sleepy as soon as I walk in. The room is built like a snug beige tube, and the doors are impressively soundproof. Best of all, I don’t sense even a trace of Lamontian despair. I drop my things on the beige carpet, sit on the beige couch, and close my eyes.
The people scattered around the room are typing spasmodically, creating an irregular pitter- patter that reminds me of rain. A professor in snow pants rustles across the room. The space is saturated with a lazy hum. After 10 minutes, I stop feeling the weight of my bag against my feet and the warm air against my skin.
I shake myself awake. The room is muted, but it isn’t silent.
Harvard-Yenching Reading Room At The Harvard-Yenching Library
The room is lined with leather-bound books and motionless grad students. My boots clatter thunderously against the floor and I feel like a delinquent. I continue to feel guilty until I sit down, stop moving, and hold my breath.
The acoustics here are delicate. There are no rattling heaters, no overly-active CD drives, no mouth-breathers. Instead, real silence graces the library in flashes. Real, because this silence is nearly pristine, untainted by street sounds or motion or visible signs of life. Flashes, because it is ephemeral, punctured every second by the ticking of a dainty silver clock.
I’m occupied by trying to hone in on those slices of quiet when chaos breaks into the room. It could be a new grad student, flushed and breathing hard from the cold. He thumps around looking for a seat, and I resent everything about him until he finally stops moving and lets the quiet heal. We’ve entered into a contract, these grad students and I, and it’s a pledge to preserve the silence. Anyone who breaks the contract is unwelcome; anyone who obeys is embraced.
But this is a fragile peace, and I’m unwilling to leave it in the hands of strangers. I gather my things.
Music Practice Room G35 In The Fanny Peabody Mason Music Building
The space itself is unremarkable. It’s a little cube, just big enough for two or three people yet dotted with about 15 music stands. The walls are bare.
As soon as I close the door, I feel like I am being suffocated by the inside of a shearling jacket. Those walls suck all sound from the room, leaving behind a dense, airless weight that presses itself against the inside of my skull. This is an iron curtain silence.
After a few minutes I start to make out some kind of texture within the oppressively textureless acoustics. My rushing blood makes ridges on the smooth surface; my twitching muscles dent it like clay; my warm skin melts it back from the edges. I sense my own desperation in these observations, and wonder if I’m imagining it all.
Complete silence is a cruel thing.
John Knowles Paine Concert Hall
Paine Hall is filled with light. It is pearly gray like the afternoon, spilling in through the colossal windows. It collects in the high graceful dome, eddying and drifting around. It steeps the room.
I’m the only person here, so I decide to sit two-thirds of the way back and in the middle. Someone once told me that’s the acoustic sweet spot. For the last time that day, I drop my bags and close my eyes.
I hear motion. Rationally, I know that’s unremarkable: It’s a windy day, and there’s no way that this dainty, luminous hall is airtight. Instinctively, I am certain that this concert hall is alive. I hear light, shining across the polished stage. I hear air, ambling through the gallery. I hear music, dormant but present after a century of operas and recitals and a capella jams.
This is a quiet that breathes.