In the hazy first weeks after my daughter’s birth, the only song I could think to sing was the simplest. At just two lines long and repeated for almost three minutes, it’s the first song on Bob Dylan’s unpopular 1970 album, Self Portrait, and the song my husband and I got married to the summer before. By the time she was a few months old, my daughter would bury her just-washed head into my shoulder as she heard the first words, the two of us swaying around the artificially darkened room. When I reached the second and last verse, which culminates in a hum that is half meditation, half question, her eyes were often heavy, her hypnosis near complete.
The first person to watch me perform this sleep routine made a Pavlovian remark. “You sure have her trained,” they said in a tone filled with equal parts wonder and worry. Pavlov’s classical conditioning works, of course, though that wasn’t what this was. Perhaps even more than my daughter needed her sleep, I needed this simple, albeit puzzling, incantation to mark the time.
All the tired horses in the sun
How am I supposed to get any ridin’ done? Hmmmm.
To listen to the song is to not know exactly what’s being asked. Riding or writing? The words are nearly indistinguishable. The horses are too tired to ride. The horses are so exquisitely tired, how could you possibly write a word. Depending on the day, I hear the line differently. My daughter has never heard the original version, Bob Dylan’s voice absent, a choir of three women enveloped in a room of sweeping instrumentals. Their version is quicker and harmonized, obviously produced. For me and my husband, it had always been in our background, a dramatic chant for a life that builds but feels familiar, its looping violins an obvious choice for walking down the aisle. To my daughter, my version is soft and fatigued, the register of my voice barely topping a whisper.
There is a cloudy line between noise and sound, routine and ritual. Most of our early days seemed to walk it. My daughter’s particular cry when I put her down before she felt the song was done. The blissful and anxiety-pocked silence when she’d sleep for hours longer than I imagined she could. Around this time, too, I hallucinated what I thought was the Muslim call to prayer imbedded in the looped white noise of my daughter’s sound machine. When I asked my husband if he’d heard anything, he was fast asleep, the sound from the little white box having done its trick.
When John Cage entered the anechoic chamber at Harvard in 1951, he didn’t hear silence. The room, designed to absorb all sounds and provide perfect, otherwise unattainable noiselessness, instead filled the composer with two notes, one high pitched and one low. Upon leaving, he was reportedly told the high note was the sound of his nervous system in operation, the low sound that of his own blood in circulation. Neither, we now know, make audible sounds. What Cage likely heard was his own undiagnosed tinnitus, the buzzing of his ears amplified once he stepped out of his normally noisy world.
That same year, Cage composed his most famous work, 4’33”, otherwise known as his silent score, otherwise known as a four minute and thirty-three second tribute to silence that can be performed by a piano, a tuba, a washing machine, or a cat. Also in that year, he gave his famous lecture at Juilliard where he said, “No silence exists that is not pregnant with sound,” a line I used to like for its poetry but which I now feverishly underline as a kind of gospel.
In the years before my daughter was born, I devoured Cage’s lectures, interviews, and performances. I couldn’t tell you why, but it lies somewhere in his demeanor—longwinded but calm as a field, confrontational in his curiosity. He wanted to open something, and I wanted to see what it was. While 4’33” was the outlier in his oeuvre, it of course became what he was most known for, and what I thought of when my own time for silence became a blink, a mere four minutes and thirty-three seconds spent looking out a window. In my own abbreviated silence, I hear the following: a car alarm sounding when nothing is wrong, my neighbor dragging his empty trashcans up his driveway, the monthly tornado siren test in the part of the country where I live.
To escape the noises of modern life, you’d have to travel far, say to the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington or the most northern parts of Sweden or Norway. I find myself now googling the quietest places I could visit, the improbability of such a trip oddly comforting. When I look, I find I’m not the only one looking. Silence retreats, monasteries, and civilian trips to Antarctica are a booming business. In 2017, the performance artist Marina Abramovic invited celebrities to sit in silence for seventy minutes as a lead-up to her seventieth birthday party held at the Guggenheim. Centers across the country are popping up where a twenty-minute dose of absolute silence will cost you only fifteen dollars. Finland has a silent Burger King. Britain a chitchat-free hair salon. Such places don’t exist where I live, but I have no doubt the need is there. There’s some small solace in this quiet demand, this shared desire. Even in my search for silence, I’m never alone, the toddler at my feet banging a wooden spoon on a metal bowl to a rhythm only she knows.
At the start of it, this is what I feared most, more than some abstract insecurity about not being up to the job, more than the physical pain of birth itself. I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle the noise of my baby, was what I never said when no one ever asked. I rolled the fear over and back on itself as I lay large and pregnant in my bed, the only sound then my breath, the air conditioning kicking on, some unknown bird in the street. I knew to say it aloud would sound trivial and bizarre, a petty and privileged fear to have. To me, the concern felt central to my mental wellbeing. Babies, I knew from the ones I’d met, were not quiet. They simply weren’t built to be. My friends’ babies weren’t quiet. The babies in the grocery store weren’t quiet. I saw my future, and it was no longer one where I could control my largest trigger by shutting the window.
“Take it down a notch,” I say now to my daughter, lowering my hand like the treble bar on a stereo when her screams cut through the day. She is feeling the joy of filling her throat, lungs, and tongue with noise. She is vibrating off the walls of our house, traveling through the doors and filling the air outside. I am desperate not to squash this, but also desperate to save myself. “Let’s use our quiet voices,” I whisper, trying to convince her to whisper back.
Cage’s encounter with the anechoic chamber was brief. It took only one afternoon to imagine a score that would further ignite the debate between what was sound and what was silence, what we are really hearing when we allow ourselves to listen. After his 4’33” debuted in a barn outside Woodstock, NY, in the summer of 1952, Cage weighed in on his audience’s reaction. “What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
A barn of accidental sounds is the silent retreat I envision after a day of gas pumps blasting commercials, construction vehicles removing the brick of my street to replace it with tar, passersby talking into phones which appear to operate only on speaker setting. In her stroller as we walk, legs bare and out wide, my daughter squeals in delight at something I don’t know but pretend to. “The wind! It’s such a windy day!” I respond, though I’m unsure she’s asked anything. She squeals louder at the sound of my voice as if she’s forgotten I’m the one behind her, guiding her along as the trees blow seedpods to the curb, the wind part of the shared buzz in our ears.
In the early-2000s I went to noise concerts in small rooms, the distortion so loud it seemed to pass through the floor, into my chest, and out the window into the evening air. I listened to Psychic TV, Steve Reich, and Rhys Chatham with his repetitive guitar solos. At the time, I was dating a film composer who recorded faint field sounds in the woods outside his family’s cabin—tree frogs, winter wind, woodpeckers—and then layered those sounds beneath a heavily synthesized score so they were barely there at all. When we attended the premier of a non-subtitled Swedish film he’d composed the score for, I didn’t mind that I couldn’t understand the dialogue, though I might have enjoyed it more. The conversations were sound, the people sound, the setting a sound. I didn’t understand anything, but of course I did.
A dozen years later, sometime during the first day of my daughter’s birth, I developed a kind of language. I remember it as an unexpectedly delicate motion, a hand gesture that resembled a paintbrush, my fingers serving to wipe the pain away or spread it to the far corner of the room where it couldn’t get me. With the low rumble of each contraction, I softly brushed the air, my leg, a blanket, sweeping the sensation to the place I put all bothersome things.
I was able to speak but didn’t want to. I wanted everyone else quiet as well. The machines beeped. The nurses talked. My husband stayed mostly silent, stroking my arm, helping me move from one position to the next. A television played in the room next door. I understood everything, and none of it made sense. I wore headphones playing one meditative track after the next, the drone low, the binaural beats meant to create a calming effect on the brain by playing a different frequency in each ear, which then creates the illusion of a third, hypnotic sound. I don’t remember what I heard or if it worked, and I don’t know now if it mattered.
Only after, I realized I’d made my own score to my daughter’s birth. It was muffled, calm, indecipherable at times. It was largely annoyed by the world around it. The voices of midwives blotted out by headphones. The mechanical noise of the bed declining down. The alarm that sounded when my blood pressure dropped to dangerous levels. My layered breathing as one day became the next.
On the second day of my labor, I was wheeled into an operating room and heard little, just the medical play by play I’d requested from the surgeon, the unfolding of the blue sheet pinned up as a wall in front of me, then the cry of my daughter as she was lifted into this world.
Who wouldn’t cry when taken from a warm, hushed chamber to a blinding room of noise? Who wouldn’t brush all the world into a corner if they could?
An entire branch of research exists because we can’t ask a child what they remember hearing as a baby. Until as recently as the 1980s, it was thought babies in utero were unaffected by acoustic stimuli occurring outside the womb. Later that same decade, in a famous study dubbed “Fetal Soap,” newborns were hooked to electrodes shortly after birth and played the theme song of the soap operas their mothers watched the most while pregnant. The newborn’s brains illuminated, a patchwork alight in the areas of memory, even though the ability to remember is a skill still years off.
In 1993, a study published in Nature, “Musical and Spatial Task Performance,” sparked the fire that would become known as “the Mozart effect.” Soon, parents were racing to music stores to play their unborn children symphonies in an effort to boost their IQ.
By the late-1990s, the state of Georgia mandated that all pregnant mothers be given classical music CDs to play to their bellies. Florida followed suit by requiring daycare centers to play Bach and Beethoven to enrich toddlers’ minds. Twenty years later, we know the Mozart effect is a myth. If classical music does have an effect on the brain, it’s only to calm nerves before a test, which tends to result in higher scores.
I didn’t sing to my daughter in the womb. I didn’t read her books or introduce her to features of the home she’d soon live in. In utero, my daughter heard me call the dog from across the park. She heard storms, Van Morrison, a boat motor, sex. She never heard Mozart. I know none of this makes any difference. When I was seven months pregnant, I saw a movie filled with deep synth sounds, my daughter frantically turning as the drama ascended. At the time, I remember placing my hands over my stomach as though it made any difference. Closer to full term, I saw a film that was almost entirely silent, my daughter still as I watched a family escape unseen monsters that hunt only by sound.
Inside these muffled uterine walls, science tells us that the fetus hears the low-pitched tones best. Vowels, bass notes, a revved engine. In studies, when researchers play a fetus a recording of 250 Hz from outside the womb, or the equivalent to the sound of a tuba or thunder, the fetus responds with movement. When the recording is set to a higher frequency, anywhere between 1000-2500 Hz, similar to the sound the “s” makes in the word “sun,” the fetus responds by doing nothing. The abdominal wall of the mother acts as a filter. Only the low-frequency sounds make their way in. Everything else is silence.
For most of my early childhood, my mother watched All My Children while I did whatever young children do. Her main lullaby to me was an adaptation of “Hush, Little Baby,” her couplets promising the gifts and perils of porcupines and toothpicks. My mother-in-law sang my husband lullabies about cowboys and a 1940s campfire song popularized in the early 1980s by Pat Benetar. He claims he remembers hearing her sing, the lyrics rolling over oceans, stars, the color blue. I only know my mother’s lullaby because she later told me she sang it. “You loved your song,” my mother insists, though whatever words she sang belong to her memory and not mine.
Episodic memory—the thing that allows us to remember an experience that’s happened to us before—develops in children between the ages of two and three. The memories formed then are mostly forgotten by age eight. When the hippocampus and medial temporal lobes lit up in the Fetal Soap babies, they were not remembering so much as showing familiarity. I think I know this one, they might have said, if they could.
Within John Cage’s seminal lecture, “Silence,” he poses a series of questions:
Is what’s clear to me clear to you?
Is music just sounds?
Then what does it communicate?
Is a truck passing by music?
If I can see it, do I have to hear it too?
If I don’t hear it, does it still communicate?
Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?
Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?
What if the ones inside can’t hear very well, would that change my question?
Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?
People aren’t sounds, are they?
Is there such a thing as silence?
Even if I get away from people, do I still have to listen to something?
In my copy, I’ve underlined the last three lines. There’s an old Post-it on this page with a question mark, which feels like an annotation to everything lately, and certainly most moments spent with a child.
On the way to a summer party an ambulance passes, our dog in the far back of the car letting out a wolf howl. Domesticated, he still thinks he hears his pack somewhere close, and he can’t help but call back. In the backseat, my daughter shrieks at the dog and claps her hands at his show. My husband, driving, finishes whatever he was saying. A radio jingle blasts “WE BUY ANY CAR” at too fast a clip. In the passenger seat, I’ve got my head bowed with my face fixed in a wince as I move to shut off the radio but find the problem isn’t fixed. My daughter drops her cracker over the side of the car seat, pleads “Help me,” over and over and over, though the cracker is beyond anyone’s reach. We keep driving, go to the party, listen to children scream as they run laps through the yard.
There, my friend and I discuss how a local museum is offering a day aimed at children with SPD, or sensory processing disorder. Lights are lowered, exhibits with extreme stimuli tucked away, sounds muted. My friend and I wonder, our daughters playing nearby, how many children are truly afflicted with the condition versus simply being sensitive to our loud modern life, and is there really a difference? Research suggests that roughly fifteen percent of the population has SPD, with many citing noise as their primary trigger. Had the condition been recognized in the 1980s, I suspect I might have been a child invited to the museum’s special day, the lights lowered for me, the normal loudspeaker announcements turned off. Still, I’m tempted to write “fifteen percent of the population now has SPD” since our world is loud and growing louder by the day. We still have birds, of course, but they’re drowned out by interstates, commercials, and server farms with their low and constant din. If it was important for our ancestors to hear as much as possible for their safety, and hearing anything requires an element of silence, then where does that leave us? If, biologically, loud sounds are interpreted as potential threats, then perhaps the children with SPD are simply more in tune with their human nature than the rest of us.
I think a lot these days about the tune of the world, as well as the tone I use to confront it. Normally, it feels impossible to hold two sounds in my head at once, and I question what this says about me. If music with lyrics is playing, I cannot hear a conversation. If the dog is whining to be let outside, my daughter cannot be whining for chocolate milk. Now, I realize the fear I had while pregnant was misnamed; it wasn’t a fear of my daughter or her particular brand of sound, but that it would be one more sound to contend with, one more sound that would mount in my ear as a thing I couldn’t control. Does silence exist, I underlined in Cage’s lecture. Now, my daughter’s sounds have grown into a sentence only I can understand. It’s nothing I could have underlined before. I couldn’t have predicted, though I’d been warned, that to parent is to forfeit control, and maybe silence, for a time.
At some point, the sound of the party reaches critical mass. Children yell, babies cry, a big-screen television blasts a baseball game, music is played in another room, toys talk, a buzzer for something in the kitchen goes off. Everyone’s phone dings with notifications. All of this is normal and there is nothing normal about it. I look around and see no one else bothered, but I think this can’t possibly be true. Thunder sounds somewhere close by, and I watch my daughter look up from what she’s doing, a fleeting memory of her time in utero perhaps, or simply a recognition of a tune that’s meant to be.
Bob Dylan’s “All the Tired Horses in the Sun” was recorded in a single take in the early spring of 1970 in Woodstock, New York. A few weeks later, the song was sent to Nashville where it was overdubbed with the music of more than a dozen musicians. Hilda Harris, Albertine Robinson, and Maeretha Stewart sing. There is a rumor that Dylan’s vocals also appear on the track, but are faded, hidden by layer upon layer of production.
The lyrics make for an ideal lullaby. Nature, fatigue, curiosity, resignation. It’s simple. It doesn’t demand our attention be in five places in once. While the music celebrates the quiet, it doesn’t make it a commodity. After a while, my daughter begins to cry when she hears me begin to sing because she realizes it’s a precursor to sleep. “No, why,” she pleads, and I understand. I can’t carry a tune. She’s entering the stage where she wants to be awake for everything—the car alarms, conversations, birds doing whatever they’re doing in the park—and I’m keeping her from it. There’s a soundtrack to the day, she’s realizing, and it’s more interesting than the night’s.
One day, I forget to turn on her white noise machine as I leave the room, and I watch her on the baby monitor survey the silent space. She looks around for a minute, surprised by the quiet, and then settles into it. I hear her talking to herself, naming her dolls, having them name each other. She’s done this before, I’m sure, but I couldn’t hear it, the buzz of the machine designed to dull everything in its path.
“Cindy and horse and the ball and moon,” I hear her say. Maybe it’s a list or a song or story she’s just begun. It’s the soundtrack to our life now, I think, the fatigue lifted some, the world a bit quieter now that everyone is staying home. “Where are you?” I hear her ask, and I nearly go to answer, but don’t. I have no idea if she’s speaking to me, the room, or just listening to the shape of her own voice. Maybe, and I hope, she’s simply asking after the sound.
Rumpus original art by Ciera Dudley.