One summer evening in 1952 in Woodstock, New York, a pianist sat down at a piano and didn’t play it for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The audience were furious and the composer and pianist were even threatened. The piece was of course 4:33 of Silence by John Cage. A musical equivalent of Duchamp’s Fountain, Cage’s most famous non-composition was at once a mickey-take and a revolution, infuriating and perplexing; and intriguing and amusing. Partly inspired by this seminal moment, Patrick Shen’s new film In Pursuit of Silence is an examination of silence and its role in the contemporary world.
There’s a nice seven minutes of silence, or near silence, wordlessness shall we say, before the first talking head speaks. In the meantime, we get some wallpaper worthy high definition imagery of grass brushed by the wind, a tree standing in a field, an all- night garage, lonely in the middle of the night. The relief is palpable when someone finally speaks to tells us how good silence is. And here is perhaps the rub. The concept of silence is itself a surprisingly slippery one, with a variety of experts, apostles of silence, scientists and writers lining up to try to quietly make their attempts. Author George Prochnik tells us the etymology of the word is undecided; a doctor tells us that the measurement of decibels does not give us a definition of silence. A zen Buddhist monk talks of the silence we must find as part of us. A truly silent witness, Greg Hindy has taken a vow of silence and is walking across America, ordering his Subway sandwiches via handwritten notes.
Walking the length of America along busy roads seems a quixotic activity for someone in search of silence. And there’s more than a bit of the mad hermit in his unkempt beard and slightly mad stare. Shen frontloads his film with a lot of new age twaddle that doesn’t bear much examination. We are told that “Silence is our primal humanity”; through silence “we learn to love the world again” and that in silence “we learn the deep truth”. All of this maybe so, but my inner silence was disturbed by the noise of my eyes rolling into the back of my head. Contrasting Alaskan wastes to the blathering of Fox News, we are offered this gem: “Silence allows everyone to have equal voice because if no one is talking, no one is dominating.” Once beyond the babble of the Mindfulness merchants, the latter half of the documentary, however, is far more interesting and compelling as Shen has his experts round on the noise pollution that so disrupts our lives.
A Japanese doctor holds therapy sessions in the forest; an expert who wants architects to consider the acoustics of the buildings and urban spaces they create, and a park ranger who describes the quietness of his workplace in terms of extending yourself. The World Health Organisation lists noise pollution as second only to air pollution in its negative impact on our health, with increases in incidence of heart disease and stress caused by noisy environments. This awareness is leading to initiatives and a silent fightback, an insertion of the quiet into our lives. Whether or not this will lead us to any deep truth or quasi-religious reconnection to the world is not clear, but at least Cage’s once shocking piece is now available on iTunes.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty