by Sandrine Ceurstemont
June 21, 2016
If you live in a modern city, finding a
quiet spot is a challenge.
The buzz of traffic, planes, sirens and
the racket of construction are probably the backing track of your
daily life. And you'll get no respite by sitting at your computer
even with headphones on: browsing the internet, you'll be
interrupted by ads on autoplay or telltale beeps announcing a new
Most people seem to adapt to the
cacophony, but are we paying a price?
Beginning with an ode to
John Cage's seminal
silent composition 4'33",
the sights and sounds of this film, the experience
of which the Austin Chronicle describes as
"reminiscent of seeing 1982's Koyaanisqatsi for the
first time," delicately interweave with silence to
create a contemplative and cinematic experience that
works its way through frantic minds and into the
quiet spaces of hearts.
As much a work of
devotion as it is a documentary, In Pursuit of
Silence is a meditative exploration of our
relationship with silence and the impact of noise on
From the Desert Fathers
and mothers of the third century AD who became a
model for early Christian monasticism to John Cage's
4'33" which would go onto inspire a generation of
artists, humankind has had a long fascination with
Yet in our race towards
modernity, amidst all the technological innovation
and the rapid growth of our cities, silence is now
quickly passing into legend.
From causing aggressive
behavior to hundreds of thousands of heart attacks
around the world, there is no aspect of human life
that noise does not infringe upon. Silence as a
resource for respite and renewal from the sensory
onslaught of our modern lives is now more important
than ever before.
imagery that shimmers with the kind of almost
otherworldly wonder one might associate with a
Terrence Malick movie…
This film does more
than just tell a story, it testifies to the
sheer loveliness of anything - everything - when
drenched in silence."
Pursuit of Silence, a
documentary film directed by Patrick Shen making its UK
premiere last week at Sheffield Doc/Fest, explores our relationship
with silence and the impact of noise on our lives.
It begins boldly with 4 minutes of "silence" as an ode to John
Cage's seminal piece of "silent" music, which featured an
orchestra turning pages and clearing throats, but not actually
Luckily the beautifully shot, calm
scenes aren't boring to watch and, accompanied by some of the quiet
sounds at these locations, they challenge the idea that anywhere is
Even if there were no humans, the environment wouldn't be quiet. On
land, in the air and in the sea, the natural world is awash with
sound. But some types of sound can be disruptive.
The film follows Greg Hindy, a young man who has taken a vow
of silence and is trying to get away from distracting sources of
noise embedded in electronics and entertainment.
"My intuition was that it was a good
thing to do," he writes, showing his words to the camera.
His instinct may be correct.
A few years ago, the World Health
Organization declared that excessive loud and unpleasant sounds pose
a health risk in western Europe. Biologically, noise is meant to
alert us to danger and when we hear sounds, our levels of stress
hormones and blood pressure rise.
Chronic noise exposure can have a
long-term impact on health, for example, by disrupting sleep, and at
its most extreme it can kill, typically by contributing to heart
Noise can harm us in more subtle ways, too. In the film,
bio-acoustician Kurt Fristrup from Colorado State University
in Fort Collins mentions the gradual onset of hearing loss that many
people may not notice.
We may also be losing the ability to hear distant sounds, which our
ancestors would have been able to pick up when living in the
relative silence of nature.
Sound in Mind?
Then there is the effect of sound on our minds.
Music can alter mood, and even relieve
anxiety, but intrusive sounds can affect our ability to make sense
of what we're hearing. And the increasing level of noise in
hospitals is thought by some to lead to medical errors.
In a widely publicized 1975 study, Arline Bronzaft, an
environmental psychologist, found that pupils in classrooms close to
railway tracks fell a year behind in their reading scores - which
prompted officials to add padding to the tracks and soundproof
In Pursuit of Silence touches on other potential solutions to
the rising tide of noise. A foundation called
Quiet Mark in Hove, UK, for
example, works with manufacturers to create quieter technology.
And airlines are setting noise targets.
Virgin Atlantic, for instance,
wants to reduce plane noise by 75 per cent over the next four years.
Car designers are also aiming to create quieter models.
In Japan, a more offbeat solution is to attend forest therapy
sessions to de-stress.
Ultimately, modern culture may be hindering a peaceful lifestyle, as
people spend most of their spare moments getting a stimulating hit
from the digital world.
A tea ceremony featured in the film illustrates Japan's cultural
appreciation of silence, while in the West, more importance is often
placed on being loud and expressing yourself.
The documentary is engaging and thought-provoking throughout.
Its meditative style, however, might
take some getting used to; we are so accustomed to the adrenaline
rush of an action film to keep us entertained that reconnecting with
our quiet side can be hard work.