Where Silence Lives
The documentary In Pursuit of Silence creates a space for a long overdue conversation about the nuanced subject of silence.
By Timothy L. Gallati
One reason I became librarian, after working in the tech industry for eight years, was the allure of spending my days in a quiet place. My decision to take the initial steps to become a monk also arose from a deeper call to silence.1 This call led to my graduate research on silence, including long-term residencies at two Trappist monasteries; a five-week backpacking trip for extended periods of listening in One Square Inch of Silence, a sanctuary for silence in Olympic National Park; and a thesis-driven sound recording project in Haleakala, a volcano on the eastern side of Maui where sound levels average 5 to 10 dB, just above the threshold of human hearing. Pursuing silence has become a north star in my life.
Lately, it seems I’m not alone in this quest for quiet. There’s been much attention given to the topic of silence, including articles in Vogue, Vice, The Guardian, The Atlantic, and other popular publications. Steven Zeitchik recently wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times, “Silence Is Golden? In the Age of Noise, Filmmakers Are Suddenly Embracing the Quiet,” pointing to an emerging trend in movies toward a more “silent” experience—i.e., less dialogue and score.2 This topical affinity for silence is seen both as an artistic reaction to the wordy styles of Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino and a pushback to our social and political landscapes, dominated as they are by talking heads and newsfeeds. As Zeitchik’s piece suggests, “Movie theaters are now a refuge from the yammering.” Patrick Shen’s documentary film In Pursuit of Silence steps into this space. By combining dialogue-free meditative sequences and interviews, the film offers moments of experiential reflection on the nature of silence in the twenty-first century.
This topical affinity for silence is seen as an artistic reaction to the wordy styles of Aaron Sorkin and Quentin Tarantino, as well as a pushback to our social and political landscapes, dominated as they are by talking heads and newsfeeds.
What is silence? Definitions frequently begin in the negative. They are, in their most basic forms, more often corrective than instructive. For Gordon Hempton, an acoustic ecologist and founder of One Square Inch of Silence, “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything.”3 Similarly, Benedictine nun Elisabeth-Paule Labat wrote: “At first sight, silence appears to be characterized by the absence of sound and thus to be something negative. Yet on a higher level we sense that there is a positive silence, a silence which indicates not absence but presence, not emptiness but fullness.”4 And sound artist and theorist Salomé Voegelin suggests: “When there is nothing to hear, so much starts to sound. Silence is not the absence of sound but the beginning of listening.”5
The opening sequence of In Pursuit of Silence speaks to this approach. The film begins with a blank screen accompanied by the sound of wind and crickets. This is soon joined by visuals of a cornfield, and a lone tree shimmering in the distance. A series of beautifully composed vignettes of quiet places, all with sounds, follows suit. We hear: Wind rustling through cornstalks in an open field; water trickling down a stream cast against reflections of a tree; crickets creaking all around a small gas station in the dead of night; steel groaning to support hundreds of people during a moment of silence in a stock exchange. We quickly begin to sense that silence is not a vacuum. Silence is a listener’s experience of sound in a place. But how are these sounds and places experienced as silence? As such questions arise, a contrast is immediately drawn to the problem of “noise.”
In Pursuit Of Silence is not set to define silence—especially in the face of its many idioms, some being several millennia in the making.
A bell sounds, ushering in frenetic movement in a stock exchange, followed by commuting automobiles, and airplanes flying disturbingly low overhead. This transition sounds a key point: silence is usually understood in relation to something. In this case, it is noise, or, more broadly, noise writ large as the experience of too much: too much volume, too much movement, too many people. And here lies the heart of the project: In Pursuit of Silence is not set to define silence—especially in the face of its many idioms, some several millennia in the making. Rather, this documentary aims to explore a relational experience between silence and noise in our current milieu. And so the film begins with audiovisual sound- and landscapes, walking us into this relationship of an experiential discourse between the two.
Following the opening sequences, Shen brings in human voices to talk about silence and noise. Through a series of interviews and archival footage, a set of fascinating dialectic juxtapositions occurs. The film moves across space and time, curating conversations between multiple idioms of silence. We listen to Roshi Gensho Hozumi talk about silence in Zen, followed by John Cage speaking of his experiences in the anechoic chamber, followed by a quiet exterior of Tallman State Park in New York.
In Pursuit of Silence also shows practices that depict ways in which silence is alive in the world, and how it may be cultivated and appreciated. We listen to the chanting of a Zen community in Kameoka, Japan, and watch a monk wash dishes in the quiet of the kitchen. In the Urasenke “Toin-Seki” Tea House in Kyoto, Sokyu Narai (deputy tea master) describes the relationship the tea ceremony has to silence: “The participants concentrate on the moment, finding awareness of how each of them is contributing to this singular, living experience. That is what’s being experienced amidst the silence of the tea ceremony.” In Iowa, an anonymous Trappist monk listens to the natural quiet landscape of New Melleray Abbey; as he walks through the open fields, we detect the faint sound of the monks singing the Psalms.
These people live in traditional religious communities, yet the film is also keen to trace certain historical roots of silence and to bring them into dialogue with present-day practices and understandings. There are fascinating juxtapositions here, but there is a danger of muddling the discourse. I detected a note of self-awareness of this in the film. After all, the very first voice we hear is that of author and educator Helen Lees, who asks, “So how do you talk coherently about silence?” It’s a good, and perhaps paradoxical, question, especially as we come across a variety of understandings that become more specialized:
Pico Iyer (author): “Silence is where we hear something deeper than our chatter. And silence is where we speak something deeper than our words. . . . Silence is the resting place of everything essential.”
Roshi Gensho Hozumi (Zen monk): “Through Zen, you need to feel the silence with your body, experience it every day, and then it becomes part of you.”
George Prochnik (author, on two etymological roots of “silence”): “One has to do with wind dying down. And the other has to do with a kind of stopping of motion. Both are to do with an interruption not just of sound . . . with the imposition of our own egos on the world.”
Davyd Betchkal (soundscape technician, Denali National Park): “As the background [decibel] level decreases, your listening area increases . . . [In] a really still environment you’ve got this situation where you are very large acoustically, you can detect these very minute sounds from far away and it gives you an incredible sense of space. This openness.”
How are we to take these impassioned descriptions of silence? Are they all talking about the same thing? Is it a disservice to bring in such “experts” and expect a coherent conversation? And is this a popularization of silence, wrapping it up in a neat package for a consumer culture?
Writing for a monastic audience, Michael Casey of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO) warns that silence “is not a commodity to be admired with a view to easy acquisition. . . . Silence is a quality to be acquired by personal discipline, not an external asset whose absence is bewailed and blamed on others.”6 Critics may fixate on certain contradictions between these “experts” and their depictions of silence. At the end of the film we hear a voiceover comment that silence is not “a rich man’s plaything.” We also hear about the idea of purchasing soundscapes to improve the experience of our modern environment. One can certainly question to what degree these ideas belong together.
Any event that publicly brings together educators, monks, researchers, scientists, sound artists, designers, and others to talk about silence as they do in this film is another step toward greater engagement.
Yet I am inclined to argue that these critiques—all with valid concerns—miss a more important point: rarely are such varied expressions of silence integrated in one place. Any event that publicly brings together educators, monks, researchers, scientists, sound artists, designers, and others to talk about silence as they do in this film is another step toward greater engagement. Yes, everyone in the film is responding to a particular set of concerns echoed in their respective fields, and all have their own approach to and understanding of silence. And yes, there are organizations that address specific concerns related to silence and noise.7 Some who are passionate about silence may find their sensibilities put off by a film that combines such diversities of experience. I would reply that In Pursuit of Silence is an important step toward creating a space for a long overdue larger conversation about silence. And for those new to silence, it is a superb introduction to a highly nuanced subject.
The stylistic approach that weaves these voices and experiences together includes a number of mini-arcs within the film; interviews are juxtaposed with cinematic moments curating experiences of silence or noise, all taking place within the framework of one large narrative arc that begins and ends the film in the quiet of a cornfield. So we begin with silence, in a series of experiences and conversations, and then we move into noise. This transition is well played. Following the soft touch of intimate sounds in quiet places, In Pursuit of Silence throws us into the grip of cable news talking heads, thunderous jet engines, squealing and screeching subway cars, Mumbai’s decibel-breaking festivals, and so forth.
We don’t just listen with our ears, we listen with our whole bodies.
In this transition from silence to noise another key point emerges: We don’t just listen with our ears, we listen with our whole bodies. Our very bones are rattled by these sounds. It’s no wonder that educators, public health researchers, activists, and others are investigating the effects of noise. A 2014 meta-review of epidemiologic studies on the effects of noise published in the European Heart Journal concluded: “environmental noise is associated with an increased incidence of arterial hypertension, myocardial infarction, and stroke.”8 Individual studies bear this out with specifics. One study of 4,861 adults concluded that: “A 10 dB increase in the continuous night-time noise level was found to be significantly associated with a 14% increase in the probability of being diagnosed with hypertension.”9 Recently, a joint study between Harvard Medical School and University of California, Berkeley, demonstrated the social dimensions to noise and found that, “like air pollution, noise exposure may follow a similar social gradient,” with noise pollution being the worst in poor and minority neighborhoods.10 Erica Walker of Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health produced the website Noise and the City, which identifies noise as an “overlooked community health issue,” and researches the issue through surveys, sound mapping, and soundscape recordings, even providing report cards of noise in Boston.
In Pursuit of Silence introduces a child who tells us about a New York City subway train that rockets past her elementary school classroom every few minutes. A woman bemoans a life lived directly underneath an airplane flight path. An activist shares a tragic story of a ten-year-old girl who was raped during a festival in Mumbai because her screams could not be heard above the noise, which reached over 100 dB. We feel these assaults to our sensibilities, in our bodies and in our hearts.
Are these extreme cases? Perhaps. But such examples in the discussion of noise are easier for us to grasp, compared with abstract descriptions of silence. Noise is more immediate: a neighbor’s loud music, a police car siren, an airplane, a concert, even a page turning in the library. At varying decibels, noise instantly holds our attention captive. As George Prochnik suggests:
I came to feel that one way of articulating the presence of noise is to think about sound that gets inside of you and for the time it’s there it dominates all of your perceptual apparata. It might be bad or it might be good, you might be in the mood for it or not, it might be taking over your heartbeat or at least taking over your attention.
Silence takes time to descend upon us, to enfold in and through our being. We are reminded of the need for silence after experiencing a certain amount of noise. The film introduces the work of Yoshifumi Miyazaki and a study he undertook of seven hundred urban dwellers who were brought to forests for walks, which found that “after the second day walk in the local forest, NK [anti-cancer cell activity] was enhanced by 56%.” Daniel Gross recently published a terrific piece in Nautilus, “This Is Your Brain on Silence,” highlighting studies from 2006 to 2013. One study focused on the effects of music on participants. It was found that the music had a direct impact on the bloodstream, based on recorded changes in “blood pressure, carbon dioxide, and circulation in the brain,” but with the surprising finding that randomly inserted silence between the songs produced a more relaxed state in the listener than did “relaxing” music, or the long silences before the experiment. Another study conducted at Duke University involved playing a variety of sounds for mice, with the expectation that the sound of baby mouse calls would increase the development of new brain cells. Silence was introduced as a control, but it turned out that the absence of sound stimuli led to greater cell development.11
The striking parallel in these cases is that silence was a control, not the original object of study. Silence is a very difficult variable to isolate. But these studies tell us something of the benefits of rest and restoration, measured in minute and hour-long intervals. In this respect, silence could be respites from a culture that incessantly sounds for our attention.
I remember arriving at St. Joseph’s Abbey for a three-month residency. The monk directing the program took me on a tour that concluded in his office. He offered a seat beside his desk, we sat down, and he gestured to two large framed pictures on his wall. One he described as an image of consolation, a painting of St. Bernard of Clairvaux resting his head on the lap of Jesus in spiritual solace. The second was an image of trial, with St. Antony motionless while being torn apart by demons. The monk gestured to these images, and said that they are dual aspects of monastic life, and that I should expect to encounter them both during an extended stay. “Residents are here just long enough to get a taste of the night,” he said, referring to St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. And over the course of the summer, I experienced such consolation and trial, in the quiet of the monastery.
Praying in chapel, walking in the forest, reading in the Scriptorium, all in the quiet, I never knew what to expect.
The quiet of the monastery was quieting. Somewhere in the first month, the monk directing the program noticed signs of change in me. “You’re no longer Tim Gallati running all around here,” he told me. “No, you’re here now.” The exterior silence of the monastery was settling in me. The mornings were the times of greatest quiet. Waking up at 3 AM and attending vigils before dawn, the abiding silence became the locus of my experience, home to deep inner solace and conflicts—and periods of boredom, too. Praying in chapel, walking in the forest, reading in the scriptorium, all in the quiet, I never knew what to expect. I saw things in myself that I didn’t like, and I was gifted with moments of peace. The spiritual life became less about certitudes of what to expect in prayer, meditation, and daily life and more about living relationships with God, community, family, friends, myself, and everything.
Over time, as the noise I still held from Cambridge subsided, and the silence of the monastery pervaded my being, I was opened to graces I could never have imagined looking for—especially the little things, which echoed in these halls of shared silence, those tiny traces of events that noise covers over and hides from view. And in this moment, as I write about that summer, I recall something Roshi Gensho Hozumi said in the documentary: “Modern people don’t feel moved or impressed just by living. In order to do so, we need to keep the silence and examine ourselves.”
All this brings me to a deeper question. “What is it that we want to hear?” Listening, in its most material sense, is a process of objectification, wherein we classify (a priori) the sounds we hear in an effort to name our environment: the meow of a cat, the roar of a police siren, the brush of pages turning in a journal, and the clicking of keys on a keyboard. We are constantly consulting our internalized database of sounds to objectify and pattern our sonic experience. Rarely are we in touch with the subjective nature of sound—the part of us that is continuously forming this experience. And here lies the opportunity In Pursuit of Silence offers: to bring us into subjective contact with the ways in which we pattern our listening experience, outside of our intellectual sensibilities.
What happens to the act of listening when we set aside our expectations of what we are hearing and focus on the affective experience of forests, cities, gas stations, freeways, and cornfields? Sounds that we typically set in the background—because they are familiar to us—may come to the foreground. The experience of silence and noise may change, and there may be ambiguities in this space. In the documentary Soundtracker, Gordon Hempton is inspired to record the sound of a bird singing while a roaring train passes with its whistle blowing. Not as irony but as a duet. Hempton, a noted enthusiast of silence, got a lot of flack over that. In an interview for On Being, he responded, “I don’t have to answer for the contradictions in my life.” And so it goes with exploring the subjectivities of sound and listening—there are times we will have to live with paradoxes.
The room may suddenly become spacious; the turning wheels of a truck down the road may become a marvel; the scrape of a dress shoe on the street may be uplifting.
Listening to new sounds requires attention. It may also provoke anxiety, because we don’t know what we are hearing. But listening to the places in which we find ourselves, without favoring any particular sounds, may foster new experiences of silence and noise. Not as the unheard, but as the previously unmentioned. And these new experiences can be immensely rewarding. The room may suddenly become spacious; the turning wheels of a truck down the road may become a marvel; the scrape of a dress shoe on the street may be uplifting. We don’t know what we will discover when expectations are dashed. Here, silence opens us up to the minutiae of sonic nuance, when noise can have our attention without a struggle. It’s a practice that takes time, as does all work with sound.
To this point, In Pursuit of Silence offers many listening opportunities, but I was hoping for more extended scenes of quiet places, without narration, to let quiet settle in more deeply and do its work. Following beautifully composed sequences of scenes in quiet places, a voice would inevitably interject to talk about silence, and I sometimes experienced this as an intrusion. But Shen seems keenly aware of this. One of the movie’s trailers is entirely without words, a slow, deliberate presentation of quiet places, perhaps pointing to Shen’s desire to explore silence on its own. And later in the film, we get a touching sequence where we share moments of quiet with each individual interviewee, without any speaking. Standing in a monastic choir. Sitting in an office chair. Eyes open, looking into the distance. Eyes closed, turning inward. Wordless moments that resonate after a shared journey into silence.
This kind of respite is just the beginning of our coming into a deeper relationship with silence, noise, and listening. We experience something of this in the film’s conclusion, when the audience returns to the opening scene, a cornfield brushed with gentle breezes, the same place that established a sense of calm at the start of the film, a moment of rest and repose. Now, the cornfield becomes something more precious: a site for deeper exploration. By meeting silence in this way, with less expectation of understanding and more of a sense of curiosity, we may learn something more of what silence is for us, in the quiet of a dark movie theater or elsewhere, shielded from the yammering of the day.
Over the five weeks I spent camping in the Hoh River valley, I came to see that silence lives within us and can be instilled by such a place, given time—seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, longer. Like my stay at St. Joseph’s, the experience has left a resonant mark within me that resounds the particular note of silence struck by the place. There is a variety of notes in this silent symphony played across the world. In Pursuit of Silence strikes its own note in accord with this symphony, touching something of the tuning forks in our bones, the longing for sounds that gather us in rather than scatter us out.
- Discernment is a process of determining if one is called to a Catholic monastic vocation that can take five to seven years or even longer. I decided it wasn’t for me, but learned much from the process.
- The article was published in the Los Angeles Times, September 21, 2017.
- Gordon Hempton, One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World (Free Press, 2009), 263.
- Elisabeth-Paule Labat, The Song That I Am: On the Mystery of Music (Liturgical Press, 2014), 112.
- Salomé Voegelin, Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art (Continuum, 2010), 83.
- Michael Casey, A Guide to Living in the Truth: Saint Benedict’s Teaching on Humility (Liguori/Triumph, 2001), 212.
- Among them: the World Health Organization, the Natural Sounds and Night Skies (U.S. National Park Service), and even the newly formed exploratory session “Sound as Religion,” convening at the 2017 American Academy of Religion conference in Boston.
- Thomas Münzel, et al., “Cardiovascular Effects of Environmental Noise Exposure,” European Heart Journal 35, no. 13 (April 1, 2014): 829–36.
- Martin Kaltenbach, Christian Maschke, and Rainer Klinke, “Health Consequences of Aircraft Noise,” Deutsches Ärzteblatt International 105, no. 31–32 (August 2008): 548–56.
- Joan A Casey, Peter James, and Rachel Morello-Forsch, “Urban Noise Pollution Is Worst in Poor and Minority Neighborhoods and Segregated Cities,” The Conversation, October 5, 2017.
- As Gross describes, the study found that “two hours of silence per day prompted cell development in the hippocampus, the brain region related to the formation of memory, involving the senses.”
Timothy L. Gallati is a master of divinity student at Harvard Divinity School studying experiences of “silence” in nature and contemplative practice, with applications in virtual and augmented realities. His research focuses on accounts of listening to “silence” in sound art, poetry, and Catholic monastic theology.