“When I fall silent, I fall into a place where everything is music.”
These words, written in the thirteenth century by the Sufi poet Mevlana, or Rumi, far predate environmentalism as we typically understand it. And yet, they express something profound about the paradoxical place that silence has in the worlds of both music and climate activism today.
On the one hand, silence in the nonhuman world — the quiet of plant life, for instance, or of mountain faces, or of the sun’s movements across the sky — is music unto itself. It serves as the inspiration for diverse musical traditions worldwide, particularly among indigenous peoples, and is also an important cornerstone in our understanding of how the natural world works, and what it needs from us in order to thrive. This is a transcendent sort of silence, a fundamental one, and it serves as the gateway to all sorts of music, and understanding.
Silence, however, exists not only in deep Earth and open skies. It is not always a portal to education and art, though of course we climate activists do our best to regard and apply it that way. Silence can also be evidence of complex webs of political repression and withheld information. It can signify histories that are being ignored, languages that are being discredited, and causes deemed unimportant (or inconvenient) by those in power.
When it comes to the topic of music and climate change, both forms of silence are involved. The silence of nature is often ignored, and instead replaced by forms of political silence that make both music and environmentalism far more challenging.
The task of a musical environmental activist, especially one with feminist or postcolonial concerns, is to engage in diverse forms of silence, in the service of acoustic beauty and environmental awareness. To honor nonhuman silence — and in the process, perhaps call into question the hegemonic power of political silence. What can be learned about the musics and ecologies of the world, if we heed nature’s quieter voices? What form of social change and political emancipation can be ushered in by what ensues from such listening? And how can we support a form of silence with the mystical and contemplative properties described by Mevlana? What sort of silence allows not for alienation, but rather, for music?