QUITEINTERESTING

A qui­etly in­trigu­ing col­umn. This week: QI keeps quiet

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Living -

He can keep si­lence well. That man’s si­lence is won­der­ful to lis­ten to.

The tower of si­lence

Silent singers

Silent speech

THOMAS HARDY

The power of si­lence

Si­lence is noisy; it’s just that hu­mans can’t hear it. The same is true of still­ness: it is not re­ally still. Even a per­fect vac­uum has a con­stant move­ment of vir­tual par­ti­cles com­ing in and out of ex­is­tence in par­ti­cle and an­tipar­ti­cle pairs that an­ni­hi­late each other al­most in­stan­ta­neously. Science has dis­cov­ered that the amount of en­ergy in “empty” space (the space left af­ter all the mat­ter is re­moved) is up to 40 times that of the en­ergy in mat­ter. Ac­cord­ing to Richard Feyn­man, the great Amer­i­can physi­cist: “The en­ergy in a sin­gle cu­bic me­tre of empty space is enough to boil all the oceans of the world.” Par­sis be­lieve the el­e­ments of earth and fire should not be pol­luted by hu­man flesh, so they “bury” their dead in the sky, plac­ing them on the roof of a Tower of Si­lence to be de­voured by vul­tures. In 1897, Mark Twain de­scribed a Parsi funeral in Bom­bay: “It dis­sem­i­nates no cor­rup­tion, no im­pu­ri­ties of any sort, no dis­ease-germs… from the Tow­ers of Si­lence noth­ing pro­ceeds which can carry harm to the out­side world.” The Par­sis in Bom­bay re­cently had to ex­per­i­ment with so­lar pan­els to de­com­pose their dead be­cause a drug used to treat do­mes­tic cat­tle has dec­i­mated In­dia’s vul­tures. Only sin­gle male nightin­gales sing at night; once they find a part­ner they be­come silent. This si­lence con­tin­ues un­til the fe­male is about to lay her eggs, when the male sings again — most likely to main­tain his hold over his mate and keep ri­val song­sters as bay. As soon as the eggs hatch, the melo­di­ous singing ceases and both par­ents feed the chicks, com­mu­ni­cat­ing only through harsh, shrill calls. Nasa has de­vel­oped a sys­tem of read­ing un­spo­ken words, by In 2002, Mike Batt, most fa­mous for his mu­sic for The Wombles (be­low), set­tled out of court with the es­tate of John Cage, the Amer­i­can avant-garde com­poser. He was sued for in­clud­ing a track called AMinute’s Si­lence on his 2001 album, Classical Graf­fiti. Cage “com­posed” his fa­mous silent piece 4’33’’ in 1952 and, al­though Batt’s homage was “per­formed” by a clar­inet, rather than the orig­i­nal pi­ano, he reck­lessly co-cred­ited his piece to Mike Batt/Cage.

Cage’s 4’33’’ caused a riot of abuse when it was first per­formed in Wood­stock, New York. A pi­anist, with blank score and stop­watch, sig­nalled the start of the four move­ments by clos­ing the pi­ano’s lid and us­ing the watch to “play” for the cor­rect time. It had been in­spired by Cage’s visit to an ane­choic cham­ber. “I lit­er­ally ex­pected to hear noth­ing,” he said. In­stead, he heard his ner­vous sys­tem and his blood cir­cu­lat­ing. This changed his whole approach to com­po­si­tion. “Try as we may to make a si­lence, we can­not,” he wrote. “One need not fear for the fu­ture of mu­sic.”

Strictly Come Dunc­ing, QI’s new interactive DVD game, is re­leased by Warner Mu­sic En­ter­tain­ment at £17.99. To or­der The QI An­nual, edited by John Lloyd (Faber & Faber), for £11.99 plus £1.25 p&p, call Tele­graph Books on 0870 428 4112, or see books.tele­graph. co.uk. analysing the elec­tri­cal nerve com­mands to the throat. Peo­ple of­ten silently talk to them­selves: the sig­nals are sent to the vo­cal chords, but not phys­i­cally spo­ken. This “sub­vo­cal speech” may one day be able to be used for “silent” mo­bile phone calls and voice­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion in very noisy places, be­tween fire­men in a burn­ing build­ing, say, or un­der­wa­ter be­tween divers. Charles Jor­gensen, leader of the Nasa re­search team, got the idea from his an­noy­ance at peo­ple jab­ber­ing into their mo­biles at lunch.

Silent cel­e­bra­tion

In Bali, peo­ple re­main quiet when eat­ing: they like to savour their food in peace. The Ba­li­nese also cel­e­brate New Year in si­lence. The fes­ti­val of Nyepi is a day for si­lence and med­i­ta­tion. No fires are lit or lights switched on, no work is done and the in­ter­na­tional air­port is closed.

The sound of si­lence

Next week: QI catches spring fever

Liffs will re­turn next week.

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