It’s not uncommon to hear people bemoan that information and communications technology, the great liberator of our age, has trapped them. Commuters previously happy to watch the scenery rush past, or be absorbed by a book or newspaper, now find themselves glued to screen or headphone, flicking between apps and skipping tracks. I lately observed a man on the train juggle laptop, personal phone and work phone, his attention to any one task likely hovering below absolute throughout. Our relationships with the devices that save us so much time with their instant access to people and information are now so consuming, they in fact cost us time – they fill our heads with digital noise that sidetracks us from purer pursuits. As Thoreau put it, ‘Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.’
On top of this, US composer and sound designer Kyle Preston found himself having to suddenly cope with another type of distraction: the noise of a city. After moving to Seattle, he soon developed a craving for silence, and was inspired to compose a record on his quest for it. From the record’s title alone, one might interpret that quest to have been a doomed one; silence, after all, should be something that endures, not fragments. And yet, any spaces carved out of a clamourous and dense cityscape will be precious, no matter how small, how isolated. Recognising this, Preston has produced a set a short ambient pieces each deliberately removed from the rest, together attempting to convey a sense of disarray. In this he succeeds – to an extent. There are no melodic themes that recur or develop across Scattered Silence, so no sense of familiarity in its later stages. The tracks’ inconsistent durations also create a sense of disturbance, heightened by virtue of none reaching five minutes – unexpected in this aural context.
That context is a sumptuous and languid ballet of synths, piano and strings, through which wordless female vocals occasionally glissade. It is something borne of the Adam Wiltzie school of orchestral ambience, but with a more focused range of timbres and greater emphasis on the orchestration. Tasteful use of sound design is apparent in several tracks, including opener “With Reticence”, whose background rumble evokes the frenzy of a city hard at work, of digital signals in constant passage between us. The melodious, sweeping strings that rise above it seem to signify an individual’s escape from this, in mind at least if not in body. That escape, however, cannot last long, the piece quickly fading soon after the strings crescendo. It is an unexpectedly early finish that becomes a theme of the whole record, reflecting moments of silence transient and sacrosanct.
Different instrumentation is emphasised across the set, from the distinguishing cello in “A Scarlett Secrecy” to the piano that speaks softly and alone in “ex silentio”. Preston makes effective use of layers and dynamics, the ebbs and flows of the strings in “Isolation” evoking a wavering, fragile peace. While the voices and volumes are in constant flux, however, the overall tone remains fairly constant: these are sombre pieces that straddle the gossamer boundary between wistful and mournful. The composer attempts to convey disarray, but the mood of the set is certainly cohesive.
While scoring these eight vignettes, Preston considered the reasons that people seek silence, such as to hide, commemorate, or make a statement more profound than anything voiced. Perhaps for many city dwellers, deflecting the everyday noise that assails both physically and digitally, silence is simply an opportunity to cleanse. For in order to feel fulfilled, we sometimes have to empty ourselves. And by the time we reach the frail finale of “Staying In the Moment”, the sound is calm, the whispered melody almost hopeful. (Chris Redfearn-Murray)