Retreating from the cacophony of the world is stepping towards everything that is essential. Silence should be explored, not explained


These words are spoken in the film from Patrick Shen, In Pursuit of Silence (2015), a meditative exploration of the sonic world around us. Elegantly filmed across a variety of locations, from street celebrations in Mumbai, Urasenke Tea House in Kyoto, Trappist monasteries and allegedly the quietest place on earth, the anechoic chamber at Orfield Labs in Minneapolis, the viewer engages with a world that is filled with noise, while longing for quiet. 

It’s clear to many that in our absorption of technological innovation and the expansion of our cities across the world, that we have in many ways lost touch with ourselves, always noisily racing towards a finishing line that we can never quite reach. How often have you sat across a table from someone in a restaurant and found yourself shouting at the top of your voice to be heard, then once home found your ears whistling. Have you even considered the health impacts of noise on your life? Elevated workplace or environmental noise can actually cause hearing impairment, hypertension, heart disease, annoyance, and sleep disturbance. In such a context ‘In Pursuit Of Silence’ is very interesting, if only as a prompt to reflect and to consider the balance between noise and sound in your own life. 

Silence in saying farewell

Let me share with you for a moment a very personal story of how this relationship between noise and silence has truly resonated in my life. Five years ago, I had to make the impossibly difficult decision to switch off life support for my mother who was terminally ill in hospital. Moments later my wife, my brother, and I were sitting at her bedside, while nurses unplugged and wheeled away a mobile wall of technology that had been sustaining her life for the previous week. Suddenly the hum, the beeping, the pulsing of artificial life was absent and we were left in silence. Footsteps could be heard, distant activity, muffled conversations, but for a moment, a very brief moment, we were locked into this private space. 


Then, just minutes later, a portable radio was handed to us, tuned into a station playing an indistinguishable blurry mix of easy listening music. Clearly the nurses were aware that silence is an unsteady force in such a troubling setting and were trying to humanise this evaporating space for us. For seven hours we sat there, watching as a life force was slowly drawn away, the music itself desperately trying to offer comfort. To this day I can vividly recall the sound of the room and find any hint of a Rod Stewart tune brings me to tears. Then again, perhaps I’m not alone in that response. 

John Cage and the anechoic chamber

Back in 1952, John Cage most famously embraced the notion of silence with his celebrated and endlessly debated ‘4’33”’, otherwise known as his silent work. It’s a piece which, when it was first performed in a wooden barn in Woodstock, left the audience in uproar afterwards, and that’s for a piece of music that essentially makes no sound at all. 

John Cage performs his seminal work in the streets of New York City

Inspired by Cage’s visit to Harvard’s anechoic chamber, a space designed to eliminate all sonic vibrations, Cage was surprised to hear two sounds – the pulsing of his blood and the whistling of his nerves, in exchange for promised silence. Of course ‘4’33”’ isn’t silent at all, as it’s filled with all the activity of sound around us. With no traditional musical notes performed, the ear immediately tunes in to the people around us, their watches ticking, breathing, traffic passing by, a cough, a shoe shuffling on the floor. As in the hospital for me, the work becomes deeply personal, as you are witnessing yourself and others listening. 

In the anechoic chamber at IRCAM Paris

It’s been scientifically proven that silence, found by sitting in a forest for example, can strengthen the immune system and aid towards healing. You don’t have to turn full Zen and feel the silence through your body, but in our increasingly aggravated days it’s worth considering finding a space for reflective thought. I rarely wear headphones when I walk about, choosing rather to listen to the environment around me, as we commonly use such devices as a way to block and isolate ourselves.

Try for a moment to make a space for yourself, and exchange technological experience with inner experience. For just a moment put down that mobile phone, breathe deeply, slowly and listen to what’s happening around you. Now, doesn’t that feel better? 

Music is a great force for change, for inspiration, for rest, for sheer beauty, for passion, and at the heart of this is self-reflection. For me the finest films, artworks, poetry, books and music work by nature of how they resonate, how they linger in the mind long after you’ve experienced them. Their function is to create meaning for you and of course the very creation of meaning is what it is to be human. Listening to a piece of music is about so much more than the sound in itself. 

Allan’s Beach Dunedin New Zealand

Where do we go from here?

So where do we go from here? Cage taught us that in many ways everything is possible, opening our ears up to the world in the simplest, but most effective way. Barriers between silence and noise are invisible, but perhaps it’s an opportunity to rekindle our relationship with nature and learn that music isn’t only for escapism, to retreat from reality, but something that truly celebrates the genius of mankind. 

Life today is a frenzied echo chamber, asserts one of the characters in the film, so ensure you make space for yourself, not only physically but mentally. Remember silence is an invitation, not a command, yet it speaks of trust, of love, of intimacy and ultimately yourself. Now you may switch your phone back on. 

An alternative version of this was published originally in Electronic Sound Magazine Issue 23 in 2016