The Sound of Silence
If you happen to pass Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park late one evening this summer, you may witness a vision softly creeping. Beneath the halo of a street lamp, in the naked light you would see one thousand people, maybe more, shaking their groove things, apparently to nothing in particular. They may be throwing their hands in the air, but there's a kind of a hush all over the dance floor tonight, punctuated by periodic laughter. Otherwise, the only audio accompaniment is the sound of silence.
What gives? Is this a performance-art happening? The latest in European experimental street theater? A mime convention? Welcome to the wacky world of the "silent disco," a dance party where the crowd hears the music only through wireless headphones. Out on the floor, revelers can crank the volume on their earpieces as loud as they want, but for onlookers, it's as if someone pressed the mute button. It's like a club night as remixed by John Cage.
However, Lincoln Center isn't the only silent disco in town. From the South Street Seaport to an Astoria beer garden, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Governors Ball Festival on Randall's Island, silent disco events have exploded—albeit quietly—over the last few years. The producers of the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tennessee have been staging a silent disco since 2005, after festival producers experienced one at Holland's Lowlands Festival the previous year. Bonnaroo's silent disco is epic, with an estimated 10,000 dancers over the course of a day. "People can't stop smiling because of the unique premise," says Kerry Black, a co-founder of Superfly Presents, the company that produces Bonnaroo. "It's an amazing sight when you are walking up and see 500 people dancing like crazy and singing along, but there is no sound. It puts people in a different frame of mind that allows them to be a little bit more free and surrender to the moment."
"You lose abandon very, very quickly, and that's so joyful. It's a beautiful thing to watch people lose abandon."
The Lincoln Center silent disco isn't just about freedom and release. "We have a very strict 10:00 pm noise ordinance," says Lincoln Center Public Programming Department's Jill Sternheimer, "so we have to stop all amplified sound at 10:00 pm, but when you're producing a fun, high-energy dance event, people often don't want to stop dancing."
Trying to figure out a workaround, Sternheimer and her colleagues read about silent discos catching on at festivals in Europe, and after experiencing Bonnaroo's firsthand, they decided to try it out in 2012 as part of that summer's outdoor program. "Necessity is the mother of invention," says Sternheimer of the silent disco solution, "and from the very first time we did one at Midsummer Night Swing, it went over like gangbusters." No surprise, considering it allowed revelers to keep the party going later into the evening. "I love anything that makes you feel the power of music and makes you see it in a different light," she says, "and with silent disco that's 100 percent straight up the middle what it does. You're listening in your headphones so you're loving your music, but it's a personal and communal experience at the same time. Going to a concert is always sort of personal and communal, but the headphones make that an even more meta experience."
It's not simply the addition of headphones that distinguishes the typical silent disco. According to Will Petz, the CEO of Astoria-based Quiet Events, which provides the equipment and technology for Lincoln Center's silent series, the key ingredient in a successful night of what he prefers to call "quiet clubbing" is the multiple channel function of his company's headphones. This gives listeners "the ability to switch between three different DJ sets, always hearing something that you like." While most nightclubs currently offer consumers multiple rooms, each with their own music, enjoying such options might require friends to separate. With the multi-channel headphones, says Petz, "you don't have to leave, and you all party together."
"It's a very joyous atmosphere," says April Palmieri, a graphic designer and self-described "amateur dancer" who has yet to miss one of Lincoln Center's silent disco nights. "You can have two people dancing together, and they're listening to different music but somehow their rhythm is the same."
While even folks who dance to the beat of a different drum can get along swimmingly, this freedom of choice presents a potentially lethal combination for a DJ, unless they rise to the challenge. "The patrons can choose which DJ to listen to, so it totally taps into my competitive spirit," says Bill Coleman, a New York–based DJ who has played Lincoln Center's silent disco previously (and will return to Damrosch Park for another go-round on July 2). "You can see with the different colored LED lights on the headphones which DJ the crowd is listening to, so if I have green and the other DJ has blue, and I see that everybody has a blue light, it makes me want to get them all green." The silent disco, in essence, offers real-time audience analytics to the dance floor beyond how many people are actually on the dance floor, allowing the DJ to play the music that people want to hear. "I can have a desired set list that I want to play, but if I see that I'm losing the crowd, I can switch it up," he says. "It's not like DJing at a regular club venue where the patrons have to listen to the music that I play, or leave."
The headphones offer other advantages. They sound the same all around the dance floor, sparing club-goers from having to find the "sweet spots" where the speakers are perfectly calibrated. Listeners can also adjust their individual volume and protect their ears from being assaulted by typical nightclub decibel levels. And while you might think that wearing headphones would be as antisocial as the proliferation of earbuds on the subway, Petz argues that his earphones actually benefit social interaction. "When you take the headphones off," says Petz, "you can have a normal conversation and actually meet that person and know what they're saying without screaming 'What's your name?!'"
That's not all you might hear without your earphones on. "One of the beautiful things for me is to drop in songs that I know that people will sing along to," says Coleman, "because then you can get people singing, and they don't realize that if they take their headphones off, it's literally just them singing, so that's kind of awesome, too."
"We liken it to singing in the shower," says Sternheimer. "You lose abandon very, very quickly, and that's so joyful. It's a beautiful thing to watch people lose abandon."