Silence in the World of Data
There is so much noise around us. We are filled with a world that is competing for your attention. Talking heads on TV. Pop-up ads. Construction. Traffic. People arguing over who should be president is just a bunch of noise. Adding silence to the conversation allow both voices to be heard, to be interpreted, to be understood. This reminds me the Simon and Garfunkel song, Sound of Silence.
“And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dare
Disturb the sound of silence”
Silence helps to make sense of the noise around us. It helps to reduce the clutter between sounds and accentuate patterns in the world around us.
Data can have lots of noise. Too much background information can drown out the signal you are trying to measure. The term signal-to-noise ratio is the relative contribution of the information that you want to measure and the amount of background noise that is also recording
For example, radio frequencies can interfere with radar sensors. To deal with that noise, we can apply various smoothing and filtering techniques to reduce the effects of the noise leaving a much stronger signal that can be recognized and interpreted.
Music uses silence is similar ways. The absence of sound removes the clutter of the notes to reveal the melody, harmony, and rhythm. Silence is the pause for communication, interpretation, fear, excitement, or enlightenment.
In my exploration of the translating satellite imagery and spatial data into music, I have left out the silence. There are many examples of the sonification of data where musical silence represents the absence of a data point. However, in gridded data, like that from satellite imagery, there can be data in every pixel. In order to make the silence a meaningful representation (not an accurate representation), I will have play around with other map layers. These layers could be stress indices, rainfall/temperature patterns, or signal-to-noise values as measured from the satellites.
Trying to represent silence in a world of data can be difficult. As Christina and I move forward with our project, I think we will have to figure out what the right combination of sound and silence.
Silence in the World of Dance
I’ve reflected before on the almost inextricable relationship of dance to music, but silence also has deep importance.
Some of the most powerful dance works I’ve seen have been performed in either partial or complete silence. I think this power comes from the fact that the dance has to stand fully on its own without a powerful piece of music to back it up. Stripping away the atmosphere that music provides allows the movement itself to have more power.
As a performer, dancing in silence is very different from dancing to music. Instead of needing to stay on the music, a dancer has to cultivate an internal rhythm and timing, and if it’s a group piece, we have to have strategies for all the dancers to stay coordinated and together.
Something I also love about silence is that it allows the sounds of the dancer and the dance itself - you hear the brushing of arms, the clasping of hands, the friction of feet on the ground, and (my favorite) the breathing of the dancers. We have a notion that some dance, particularly ballet, must have an illusion of being effortless and perfect. Silence allows us to pull back that curtain of ease and not just see but hear the work and the physicality behind the dance.
In developing choreography, the use of stillness can be understood as a kind of dance silence. It’s always a balance of using movement and stillness. Sometimes, the tendency can be to pack a ton of movement into a piece, but even when the movement is compelling, it can be tiring as a viewer (not to mention a dancer) to watch a piece that is densely packed with movement and no breaks. Like David wrote, stillness helps us to make sense of of the movement we’ve seen, as it stands in such stark contrast with motion. The space between movements is important as the movement itself.
David noted that his Ecoorchestra pieces have not included silence to date - as he considers how to incorporate that meaningfully into his compositions, I too will be considering the balance of stillness and movement in my choreographic response, and how dance can respond to both silence and noise.
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David Lagomasino is an award-winning research scientist in Biospheric Sciences at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and co-founder of EcoOrchestra.
Christina Catanese is a New Jersey-based environmental scientist, modern dancer, and director of Environmental Art at Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education.