This is another that was originally published in the Read & Trust magazine last summer. If you enjoy it please consider a subscription. Enjoy!
As I write this, I’m sitting in a book store. It is my favorite bookstore. It has recently moved to this new location. The old location was in my neighborhood, on a quiet corner, in the basement of an old building, with a coffee shop above. The new location is at a busy major intersection a few miles away. The old location was small and intimate if not a bit cramped. The new location is in a space three times the size of the old and far more room to move. Despite these differences, there is one change between the two spaces that stands out the most to me â€” the music.
Not that there is recorded music being played in either location. There is not. A bookstore, and all spaces for that matter, have an inherent music all their own. For example, here is the music I hear right now…
The hushed voices of a man and a woman having a conversation about their shelf-searching discoveries. In good bookstores, as in libraries, people tend to whisper. Her’s is a singsong of a classic Northern Minnesota tone. Scandinavian influenced with an upward lilt at the end. The spaces between her sentences are punctuated with the man’s lower pitched "Yep" and "Uh-huh". Like an orchestral strike at the end of each measure.
The typing on the computer keyboards at the counter. Those of cashiers searching for books, or entering them into the system, or chatting with friends on Facebook, or… I have no idea what all the typing is about but it has a rhythm to it. A percussion I know I sensed less in the old location due to the trampling of caffeine drenched feet overhead which had their own much louder beat. These are their tap dance to the other’s kick drum.
I still hear footsteps but these are slower ones. Some are heel-to-toe, others more a shuffle, coming from patrons as they slowly browse along the shelves.
I hear the shuffle of the turning of pages. And, if I listen closely, the blowing of the HVAC system.
On the busy street outside, I hear cars and trucks as they wiz by. Likely going faster than the posted limit. Then, the occasional dump truck or bulldozer rumbles past. Folks here say Minnesota has but two seasons â€” Winter and "Road Construction". This music is a good indication of which one we are currently in the midst of.
There is plenty of music here. All around me. It is different than it was before in the old location. Yet, in some ways, much the same as any bookstore anywhere. Were one who had bothered to hear it before be blindfolded, put into anyplace with books, and asked to guess where they were, this is the music they would use to deduce the correct answer.
This is all to say that music is constant and all around us. All the time. We but need to pay attention to it. We hear it but we don’t often listen. And, if we listen to these sounds close enough, they have tonality and rhythm and measure as true as anything else we might call music. We need it to orient us. To define our place and time. In a way, even those places we might think of as silent are not so at all.
Minnesota is home to a special place. It is, literally, the quietest place on earth â€” Orfield Labs. It is a sound lab specially designed to be completely devoid of noise. It manages to block out 99% of it. It is commonly used for product testing. So that manufacturers can test to see how loud (the music of) their washing machines, pacemakers, etc. are. But, the longest any human has been able to spend inside is 45 minutes. Most can’t last even a fraction as long. Any longer and they begin to go insane. They begin to hallucinate, are disoriented, or are driven mad by hearing the sound of their heartbeat and the blood moving through their veins. Turns out, we need the music that exists all around us just to keep from hearing that which is inside of us.
French composer Claude Debussy said, "Music is the space between the notes.". Perhaps he was speaking of more than the pauses, stops, and breaks that provide the drama in any composition. Perhaps, instead, he was speaking of the music we hear when the other music stops. Maybe, he was speaking of something much deeper and more broad. Perhaps, he was speaking of the sounds that represent and ground us to life itself. Not to mention, those that keep us sane.