In Pursuit of Silence

The documentary, In Pursuit of Silence, is a study of the impact of noise on people’s lives. Completed in 2016, the independent 81-minute film from the Cinema Guild tells us that we need more silence in our lives. The critically-acclaimed documentary reminds people that amid today’s technical innovations and the growth of our cities, true silence is becoming a rarity.

The film opens with four minutes and 33 seconds of silence – relating to American composer John Cage’s ground-breaking silent composition 4’33”, pronounced Four Thirty-Three. According to Cage who came up with the idea in 1952, the experimental composition is full of “accidental” sounds. The basis of his idea was that any sound may constitute music.

The composition has been performed live by a pianist who walks on to the stage, sits at his piano and after sitting in silence, closes and opens the lid of the piano several times to represent each different movement.

After releasing his conceptual idea, Cage who died in 1992, said with hindsight he felt many people had missed its point. He was trying to point out there was no such thing as complete silence and that what people thought of as silence was full of accidental sounds but they didn’t know how to listen.

He referred to the wind rustling outside or raindrops falling on the roof as accidental sounds. He also said that during the premier of 4′33″, the audience contributed to the accidental sounds by talking or walking out because they didn’t understand what he was trying to do.

The sights and sounds contained in the film, In Pursuit of Silence, interweave with silent moments to create an unusual cinematic experience, aimed at being a meditative exploration of humans’ relationship with silence and the impact that noise has on our lives.

The film, which premiered in the US in June 2017, takes viewers on a journey around the world, visiting a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in Kyoto and the hectic streets of Mumbai during the noisy festival season. Director Patrick Shen introduces Zen practitioners and a young American, Greg Hindy, who decided to remain silent for one year while walking across the country, in a kind of Forrest Gump-style.

Shen combines static shots of scenes and their sounds, each lasting for 30 seconds: a petrol station after dark, a tree in a field or a motorway. He interviews audiologists, monks, academics and all other people across the world whose daily lives relate to the consideration of sound and silence.

The film takes viewers inside Orfield Laboratories’ anechoic chamber in Minnesota, which is officially one of the earth’s quietest places, where a background noise of –9.4 decibels has been recorded by the Guinness World Records team. Shen contrasts the abrasive audio and visual noise of city life and today’s digital world with the sounds and sights of stillness.

Critics have praised the film as being jarring and calming at the same time. One particularly poignant scene is filmed in London’s Lloyd’s building, where hundreds of stock exchange workers are unusually, standing still to observe the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day. The eerie silence makes the scene appear like a photograph rather than a film – until the two minutes is up and suddenly, the scene comes to life, as the usual buzz and noise that we’re used to returns in an instant.

The film took four years to complete and Shen said it was aimed at making audiences think, challenging them to slow down to make the world feel “new” again.

The question is, why do we need less noise in our life? Obviously, we do, as statistics show that every year, local authorities deal with around half a million complaints of noise nuisance, most of which relate to excessive noise made by other people.

A 2012 study by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs revealed 48% of UK residents who responded said their home life was spoiled by noise, which came fourth in a list of 12 environmental issues that could affect people’s wellbeing.

Experts say excessive sound has a detrimental effect on our physical and mental health. Sounds can change your mood – imagine listening to a pneumatic drill performing roadworks in the street, compared with gentle birdsong or waves lapping on a shore and think how each sound would make you feel.

Noise affects concentration and can lead to physical problems, such as debilitating stress and the dangers of high blood pressure. Silence, on the other hand, is calming and good for the brain, while it also increases productivity.

The first film to be made solely about noise pollution, In Pursuit of Silence is a step in the right direction towards creating a sound-balanced world and enjoying a “quiet revolution”.

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