Urban Noise, Rescuing Noise, Life Sounds and Fierce Silence


As the familiar urban noise of loud traffic retook the whole of the city, intensified by the general chaos, the collapsed buildings and their vicinities were also filled with new, unusual noises, creating a completely new layer of loudness within multiple areas of the city: hundreds of people climbing on fallen walls, pulling and moving cement and iron, screaming instructions to each other; the drone of construction machinery removing heavy rubble; the buzz of electric generators, jackhammers, sledgehammers; cars taking away the debris; sirens coming and going. There seemed to emerge an incapability of remaining silent amidst the constant movement, the coming and going of people, and the desperate urge to communicate. But eliminating noise was as crucial as the inevitability of producing it in the process of reaching those in need; the priority was to find people alive among the ruins, and the way to find them was through hearing their sounds, the sole indicator of life and location. Very few situations could exemplify in such an extreme way the weakness of sound to which LaBelle refers as well as how this weakness can make the listener “slow down and attune to vulnerable figures and the precariousness defining the human condition” (LaBelle 2018: 20). How do we slow down and attune so we can hear these sounds, a hearing upon which lives depend? This slowing down and attuning had to take place in the middle of necessary noise-producing actions that could only be momentarily interrupted. How do you achieve silence in the midst of this chaos, where bodies are driven by the urge to act, knowing that their noisy actions, performed quickly, will reveal those alive under the debris, yet also aware that listening is the only key to locating them?

As the rescue activity intensified, people involved in it looked for a way to communicate the need for silence. One of the phrases that began to pop up on Twitter and Facebook again and again was, “We need silence in this area, there are still people alive calling for help.” A silent way to call for silence was needed; it couldn’t be someone on a megaphone. The word “Silencio” began appearing on big cardboard signs among the rescuers as well as on social networks.

Rescuers display a placard reading "Silence" as they hurry to free possible victims out of the rubble of a collapsed building after a quake rattled Mexico City on September 19. Pedro Pardo—AFP/Getty Images (https://time.com/earthquake-mexico-city-photos/

Three days after the earthquake Univision Noticias compiled many images of the fists up in a note called “The Silence Fist: the Gesture that Makes Mexico Fall Silent After the Earthquake.”

Raising one’s fists up in the air became the generalized call for silence, a way to communicate attention and temporarily halt the activity around a specific place, a command to listen carefully and to suspend noise production. It also became a collective act, since all the rescuers involved, and many witnesses, would all stop their activities to join in the gesture and, thus, the silence. Within the loudness of the rescuing areas, the fists-up gesture accomplished the creation of a partial, momentary silence that would last a few seconds, sometimes minutes; the loudness would decrease, sounds would become quieter or stop completely, and silence could claim the space for a few moments. Some witnesses described it as “a fierce silence,” a silence completely dedicated to locating survivors, to attuning one’s ears to weak sounds of life among the ruins. 

Those vital, tiny, weak, willful sounds of life under the rubble will remain at the center of my reflections on what might constitute sound, noise, and silence in a specific acoustic territory. These sounds of life presented themselves stripped of any complexity, their audibility – for human, animal and technological ears[4] – among chaos being their only important characteristic. Everything beyond this primordial sound became noise, which I conceptualize as two kinds of noise: the usual, everyday urban noise that characterizes Mexico City and the noise emanating specifically from the rescuing areas, from the activity necessary to find survivors. Once people understood the vital need for silence and listening to find life signals, the noise of rescuing came to be heard as interference – involuntary and disruptive, unnecessary on its own, an unwanted signal, but inevitable as the result of necessary movement to modify the space and reach life – something to be aware of and to control as much as possible within the rescuing space. Silence, in its always partial, relative nature, became a crucial, willful force in opposition to the haze of urban and rescuing noise that made it difficult for life sounds to encounter the listeners.