Sunday, 8 November 2015

Sound in a village church

The drone of the fly first caught my attention. Kamikaze like it flew back and forth across the leaded windows of St Lawrence church in Somerset. As I listened, my eyes closed, the remarkable fact was that I could hear the wing beats at all.
As humans we have evolved to be visual beings. That's a fact, according to the many scientists and neurobiologists who have accounted for many years of study into what makes humans human. By and large I'd agree. Our eyes face forward, they have binocular abilities to focus from pretty close to zero all the way to infinity and we compute colour in a way that is different to other species.  We're agreed here. But we also hear. Hearing is often overlooked in life, but our hearing is amazing.
There's a well used quote I like by the late business guru Peter Ducker
" The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said."
I like this because as someone who is enveloped by the world of sound through my daily life as a radio programme maker I often think, for the purposes of everyday life, his quote can be altered, just a little...
"The most important thing in hearing what isn't being said, is to stop communicating"
We communicate too much, predominantly by the visual senses, but let me put it this way - we could watch an image that isn't quite right technically, it may not be a great experience but its is possible; but who of us can listen to sound that is of poor quality? Hearing and sound are as important and seeing.
This is why I attend the Wick St Lawrence church's monthly Saturday sanctuary morning. It began over a year ago. On the first Saturday of each month between 10.00 and 12.30 the church is open for anyone to pop in and sit quietly. No religion, no preaching, no direction, simply come and sit and do whatever takes the mind out of modern life and into another realm, reading, writing, meditation, or just like me, sitting still. I'm not a religious person, yet in sympathy with the writer Thomas Hardy, I like the fabric of ecclesiastical buildings because they are steeped in history and yes, produce great sound.
I listened to that fly, a single wing beats in a vast religious silent void. Outside the remnants of the first wild autumnal spell of weather crashed around the stonework. I closed my eyes. A spectral howl of wind blowing under the tower door provided a pulse of ethereal music. Now here, now gone. The very inconsistency of the aerial notes provided a wonderful backdrop to the audio scene. A single page turned in a book.
Just half a dozen people today and in front a gentleman reading, The sound of that page turning was audible even 10 pews back where I sat. If we stop communicating, stop being visual, simple non-visual clues to everyday life become enhanced.  My eyes remained closed. To my left the fly continued, ahead the page of a book, and behind, the moan of wind. Rain. The whoosh of sudden rain. Rain began falling heavily on the chancel roof, like a roar from a shy lion cub, not quite wishing to make too much sound but wanting to make its presence felt. I looked over, pulsating bands of rain hit the slates, but that sound receded; reclosing my eyes modulation returned, whoosh......whoosh silence, whoosh, long silence whoosh and so on. A kettle switch.
As part of the sanctuary morning tea, coffee and cakes are provided. Self service. I love this soundscape. In the silence of the church I hear a rustle of clothing as an internee attempts to walk to the back of the church as quietly as possible. A scuffling movement as clothing brushes against the pew, a faint 'clop' as shoes meet the floor then a procession of slow-walk deadened footsteps moves from front to back past me. I wait in anticipation. There it is, the click. Silence for a few seconds. Almost inaudible a rumbling can be heard, the water begins to heat. A muffled plop as a tea bag or loose coffee is put into the cup, maybe a chink from a spoon. A cascade of sound now fills the air as the kettle warms the water to boiling point.... in everyday life this roar is hardly noticed, in a silent church it resembles the waterfall of angels. Filling the entire space in a wall of noise. And then the second click, deeper in tone than the first and just a half second longer.
My senses now heightened, I wait for the most delicious part of the process. Quickly the cacophony of watery boil dies away, there is silence before the pour. A mellifluent torrent of deep notes as the cup is filled, mixing liquid chocolate with gold in its richness. A sound which I find impossible to write as words. As the brewing level rises the pitch alters before the end, a final few hesitant notes as the level is adjusted and the milk added accompanied by a harsh call from a plastic lid returning to position. And then it is all over. I hear the fly again, wing-beats temporarily drowned in the hum of beverage making. The church falls silent once more.
I am refreshed.


  1. I love the silence of churches - although, as you describe, even the most silent-seeming ones aren't really silent at all. Sad that so many of them are closing and almost all seem to be locked these days. Our remaining church of Scotland ones here seem to have become brisk and busy community hubs, like our libraries. Not places for thought and meditation any more. I suppose that must be good for some - perhaps many - but I feel something major has been displaced - a formal, civic acknowledgment of the spiritual. I wonder if there will be any great cathedral-builders in the future. Or even anyone who will build a tiny stone chapel on a sea-bound island...

  2. An excellent point Sea Penguin - there is spirituality in nothingness. The clutter of modern life informs more than ever before, but fails to refresh, fails to dream of what might be. Empty churches and the passage of time are important I believe.