Tony Whitehead’s Very Quiet Records lives up to its name with its latest release, a pair of unedited field recordings made in the Calakmul rainforest (Yucatán, Mexico) and in the Hverfjall crater (Iceland). The initial review files were silent; some humor soon ensued as I questioned whether this was intentional. (“I know that you are very quiet,” I wrote, “but I didn’t think you were that quiet.”) On the other hand, the label’s output does border on silence, a commentary on our entire practice of hearing. To many listeners, myself included, it’s nigh impossible to give these works a closer listen, as they are competing with other sounds: refrigerator hums, house creaks, wind and rain. This album would be impossible to hear in a car, and even when played on an iPod, it disappears into a mist of outside ambience.
The whole ethos of the label is to locate, in the words of Gordon Hempton, “one square inch of silence”. López seems to have found two. We expect a crater to be quiet, but not a rainforest. The (very) distant thumps and rumbles seem to be the product of a distant predator, one that has not yet noticed the intruder with the microphone. In mid-piece (20 minutes in), these sounds grow slightly louder, although in a house they can still be drowned out by an air conditioner. If this is the natural volume of the recording, it’s a shock; one would never expect one’s own home to be louder than the home of monkeys and macaws. And that’s the point. Quiet spaces still exist, although some may think them fables, invented to encourage children to fall asleep.
The marketability of this recording is another question. Most people tend to want a bit of peace and quiet, which this disc certainly offers. But it’s barely there. The lesson may be more important than the execution. While straining to hear the sound of the crater, I heard instead a distant lawnmower, an airplane, a group of children, a passing car and a kitchen motor, none of which were found in the recording. Press an ear to the speaker, and the wind can be clearly heard; otherwise, it seems but an extended version of “4:33”. The locations sound incredible in that their lack of sound is incredible, but in recorded form, they teach more than they entertain. We’re left to admire the soft revelation, even though we get the point long before the recording has ended. (Richard Allen)