On December 9, 2019, there was a concert at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires in aid of the British Hospital, starring violin soloist Priya Mitchell and the Camerata de Bariloche music ensemble. It was at that concert that I first became aware of the sound of silence.
The programme for the first half of the concert was Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Priya gave a stellar performance. She is a very expressive person and puts her whole self into her playing. As the concert was a charity event, the audience featured many local stars, as well as nurses and doctors from the hospital. So it was not the usual audience for a Colón concert. Consequently, when it came to the pauses between movements, the audience clapped.
Priya was taken by surprise and could not hide her consternation. She didn’t realise that it was just a typical Argentine audience demonstrating their enthusiasm and enjoyment of such a special occasion. Local audiences are famous for participating, and many rock stars film their performances in Buenos Aires precisely because of the great audiences.
But this audience was not as familiar with classical music and did not know that the silence between movements should be respected as it is also part of the music, the punctuation as it were. The silence adds meaning and allows the audience to absorb what they have just listened to and prepare for what is forthcoming. This was the first time that I realised that silence is also a sound.
Buenos Aires is a city renowned for its high noise level; in fact, noise pollution is a major urban blight. Screeching traffic, blaring horns, loud music and raucous restaurant-goers are part and parcel of everyday life.
That is, until March 19, 2020. On that day an eerie silence descended on the city as we went into total lockdown. Very few vehicles were on the road, the odd police or ambulance siren wailed, no planes flew overhead, only a daily helicopter: for the first time in many years we could hear the birds, even in central Buenos Aires.
Every crisis in Argentina has its own soundtrack. And I don’t mean the jangle of pot bashing or cacerolazos that is a classic protest noise in this country. No, I am referring to the background noise, the noise that you hear coming in from an open window on an ordinary day in the street in any neighbourhood.
Argentina has had many crises, and I’ve lived through quite a few of them. In 1989, with 200 percent inflation a year, I can’t recall a particular sound, but the default in 2001-2002 had a very distinctive one, indeed a soundtrack: it was the sound of a readapted supermarket trolley dragged by a cartonero or waste-picker along the streets to load up with recyclables or food, whatever could be found in the rubbish. Sometimes these supermarket trolleys were adapted Mad Max style, with wheels replaced by old tyres and a big bag of the sort used to carry material for road surfacing attached to them.
There were no cartoneros on the street before that crisis, but since then they have become a permanent fixture, some are even provided with reflective safety wear by Buenos Aires’ mayor. The very distinctive stop-start noise of those wheels as the cartonero would go through each house’s dustbin in search of something to recycle is for me the soundtrack of that crisis.
But in March this year even the cartoneros were on lockdown, not allowed out to roam the streets. All but the largest avenues of Buenos Aires were silent, and the only noise which could be heard along the pavement was the wheels of shopping trolleys, the go-to item for surviving the pandemic. Why shopping trolleys? Because we were only supposed to go out, once a week, to a local supermarket so we needed something that we could load up and still drag home. And a sturdy shopping trolley, or changuito as they are called locally, was an essential.
The other noise of the pandemic was the sound of the bicycles and motorbikes of the delivery couriers who had the city basically to themselves. They were allowed out to roam, while we were locked down at home. And for many people they provided one of the few connections with the outside world, even if those connections were socially distanced and through masks. The city was theirs to discover in its altered state. Of course, despite the return of their rivals for the road, they continue to go the wrong way down a one-way street or even to ride the pavement with total impunity.
When measures eased up a month or so into the lockdown our local mechanic opened up; as did the carpentry which backs onto a nearby square. With silent skies and all but empty roads, all sounds were magnified. I had never thought of the hammer on a metal chassis or the chainsaw on wood as sweet sounds, but as the sounds of human industry, they were remarkably welcome. They are the sounds of people working and a functioning economy, the sounds of getting back to normal, and as such, were reassuring.
Six months into lockdown, on Phase 3, the city has almost returned to its normal noise level, although planes are still a rarity. Construction work came back fairly early on, kids are playing and laughing in the parks and squares, and for the last month or so restaurants and bars have been able to open outside, so that the party scene Buenos Aires is famous for is pretty much back to normal.
While happy that businesses are able to open, when I hear the drunken revellers out in the wee hours I do miss the sound of silence. That sound that dominated the cityscape for many months and was only punctuated by the rattle of heavily-loaded shopping trolleys manoeuvred along Buenos Aires’ uneven pavements: the soundtrack of the world’s longest lockdown.