In Pursuit of Silence (2015) Script









HELEN LEES: I was lucky to live in a house when I was growing up as a child that was located in quite a silent location.

There was also a good view out of my bedroom window.

And I guess, as a young child, I fell in love with it.

But I didn't know what that meant at all.

I didn't even know what it was, to be honest.

So, how do you talk coherently about silence?

You could talk about silence...

Does it exist in a decibel sense?

A noise sense, or a lack of noise sense?

And the literature is clear that silence doesn't exist in that sense.

GEORGE PROCHNIK: The etymological roots of the word for silence are somewhat contested.

There are two words in particular that people go back to.

There's the Gothic term ana-silan, and then desinere.

One of them has to do with the wind dying down and the other has to do with a kind of stopping of motion.

They're both to do with an interruption, not just of sound, but the roots of silence are also to do with the interruption of our own...

The imposition of our own egos on the world.


MAGGIE ROSS: Almost all of the early theologians talk about the ultimate worship of God is silence.

And that God dwells in the silence of eternity.


The history of monastic life is as old as the history of the human race.

I think the whole history of shamans is a history of a kind of proto-monasticism where someone in the tribe has clearly, evidently, a facility with silence and a facility with understanding the unspoken processes of the world.


Retreating from the cacophony of the world is stepping towards everything that's essential.

It's about stepping towards the world and really about learning how to love the world again.

SUSAN CAIN: Historically, solitude has always had an exalted place in our culture and it's really only recently that it has fallen from grace and now needs to be restored to its rightful place.

You look at all the religious traditions, Buddha, Jesus and Mohammed, Moses, these were all seekers who would go off into the woods, think their thoughts, have their revelations, and then come back and share those revelations with the wider world.

We lose a lot when we don't allow people...

Not just allow, but encourage people to go off by themselves.

You know, whether literally into the woods, or metaphorically, to just go and chart your own journey and do it by yourself.

There are certain paths in this life that you've got to walk alone and that's the only way to do them.





Through Zen, you need to feel the silence with your body, experience it every day, and then it becomes part of you.

That is what practicing Zen is about.

That is the life with Zen.

You honestly and genuinely live everyday life through silence.

It's not like you are just being silent and do nothing.



Would you tell our panel, please, what your name is and where you're from?

My name is John Cage. I'm from Stony Point, New York.

He is probably the most controversial figure in the musical world today and when you hear his performance, if you'll forgive me, you will understand why.

The instruments that he will use include a water pitcher, an iron pipe, a goose call, a bathtub, five radios all hooked up and a grand piano.

Between 1950 and 1952, when Cage created his most important piece of music, Cage had a series of revelations.

And the revelations informed the rest of his life and they informed the rest of his music, too.

He'd been interested in silence for a long time and he had been appreciating noise for a long time.

So, he had this dualism about silence versus noise.

So, he was looking for silence as an alternative to noise.

When he ventured into an anechoic chamber in Boston, he was looking for the quietest place on Earth, because Ramakrishna had said, "Find the silence and you will find God."

JOHN CAGE: And I heard, in that room, two sounds.

One was high and one was low.

And I thought there was something wrong with the room.

I went outside and found the engineer in charge and he said the high one was your nervous system in operation and the low one was your blood circulating.

KAY LARSON: He realizes that silence is an abstraction, it's a human concept, and what's actually happening is that Cage and his own body and his own being are completely interconnected with all beings and all bodies of beings, everywhere, and that everyone shares the same ground.

Then it became clear that...

That the function of art is not to communicate one's personal ideas or feelings, but rather to imitate nature in her manner of operation.

LARSON: Cage's most important piece of music is, as many people know, actually not music at all.

It's four and a half minutes of silence.

When Cage first performed that piece with David Tudor as his pianist, he performed it in Woodstock, New York, at a little barn called Maverick Concert House, and the audience went berserk.

This is 1952. August 29, 1952.

DAVID TUDOR: They were incensed.

They were in an uproar over the performance.

And afterwards, John opened the floor to questions.

One of the artists got up and said, "Good people of Woodstock, "I think we should run these people out of town."

That was the reaction. (LAUGHS)

PICO IYER: Silence is where we hear something deeper than our chatter.

And silence is where we speak something deeper than our words.


All of us know that the most essential things in life are exactly what we can't express.

Our relation to faith, our relation to love, our relation to death, our relation to divinity.

I think silence is the resting place of everything essential.

ROSS: For the first, I don't know how many, hundred thousand years of human life, when we were out on the savanna, learning about the forest, silence was essential to our survival.

So, silence is our natural milieu, and the farther we get away from silence, the more we lose our humanity.


PUNDIT ON TV: I want you to answer the questions!

I want you to answer the questions!

- Was there... WOMAN: Do I believe...

I'm giving you an opportunity. This is how to ask it.

This is how you need... I'm giving you an opportunity.

I'm doing the interview, Dana.

But you weren't there... I don't need to...

PROCHNIK: American individualism now has become more and more associated with our right and our almost social obligation to impose our will on the world, to get out our thoughts, to not hesitate, to not be shy.


In race after race, bottom line...

In race after race... Third card trick...

In race after race, Democrats...

When it comes to women. Winning over women...

There is such an intense, overwhelming drive to contribute our little ricocheting response to this soul-crushing din of the moment.

...over me. You're not... (INDISTINCT)

One of the specific plans... You're not gonna filibuster.

I'm not going to let you do it. Ed, Ed, Ed!

Let me answer your question you asked me earlier.

(CONTINUES TALKING) I'll go back to this question.

PROCHNIK: Throughout Japanese history, there has been an appreciation of softer, quieter registers of being.

One of the most signal instances of this is really in relationship to the tea ceremony.

One of the most important masters, Sen Rikyu, lived at a time of incredible martial activity among different samurai groups.

And part of his interest in developing the tea ceremony, in the ways that he did, was to cultivate an appreciation for silence and silence's relationship to a more pacific environment in general.


When guests entered the tea room, they would remove their katana swords.

All of the participants leave behind their social status, distinctions, and other such concerns when they enter the tea room.

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.

As a result, there are no selfish desires or thoughts of personal gain, only the peaceful world inside the tea room.

LEES: Silence allows everybody to have equal platform and equal voice because if nobody is talking, nobody is dominating.


JULIAN TREASURE: Silence is a sound, and I think it's a sound with many qualities.

I think if we start to cultivate an appreciation of silence as the precious thing it is, and enjoy it for a few minutes a day, then it gives us a proper relationship with sound, with noise, with our own sound.

It allows us to be much more balanced in the way that we relate to the world, much more conscious.

PROCHNIK: When we throw around the term of silence, we may, in the first instance, imagine that we're seeking some kind of absolute quiet, but very, very few people look for that.

What we're looking, I came to believe, is really more for a kind of balance in our environment.

It's the particular balance of sound and quiet that maximizes our perceptual awareness of where we are.


Sounds a little bit like one of those toys you see, and you shake it, and it's like a little... (IMITATES RATTLING)

Kind of like that sort of a...


Kind of one of those...


Well, probably should leave him be, I suppose.

The first superintendent of this park, Harry Karstens, he was very aware of the solitude and quietude of this place.

And he had an interesting quote in 1924, when he said, "There is much to learn by those who understand

"the language of the great silent places."



Oftentimes, I make measurements that can be as low as 13, 14 decibels in the wintertime.

And in the summertime, might be in the 20-25 decibel range.

As the background level decreases, your listening area increases.

In a really still environment, you've got this situation where you're very large, acoustically.

You can detect these very minute sounds from far away and it gives you this incredible sense of space, this openness.

So, you know, we exist in the world, and to be able to explore that world with an unbroken attention, I think that's one of the things that both silence, and an intact soundscape, protects that sort of exploration.



JULIE ZICKEFOOSE: I guess I got hooked on birds when I was about eight.

I heard the sound of a bird bathing in a woods pool behind my house in Virginia, and I did sort of a jungle crawl under all this catbrier and I came out onto this little blue-winged Warbler bathing in a forest pool, and it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.

I really like being in quiet places because I use my ears for everything.

Primitive man, if you didn't pay attention to every little thing around you, you were going to be in trouble really fast, or you weren't going to find anything to eat.

And I think, for me, it's a question of keeping in touch with those primal instincts and just always being ready for whatever comes your way.

I call what I do the art of disappearing.

It's a situational awareness, it's a richness of being, it's a tapping into this great show that's going on all around you.



There's that herring.

These very quiet environments offer tremendous opportunities for listening, but they're also the most fragile resources we have.

Certainly, the physical beings we are, we're built to function in these places and to hear those distant sounds.

If we really lose touch with our senses, with our capacity for deep listening, I think we'll lose a large piece of who we are, certainly of the animals we once were.

It's just like our muscles, and if it happens over time, across generations, it may not be easily reversed.

To lose our connection with the world through our senses, I think would be a terrible loss, and everyone knows this.

I mean, the prospect of being blinded or deafened I think would be terrifying to most people.

But in fact, it may be happening in a much more subtle way already.



We humans lived in nature for seven million years.



Following the industrial revolution modernization began which led to urbanization.

Big cities like Shibuya started to appear, and at the same time, started to create overwhelming noise.

Evolution even causes our genes to change.

But this change doesn't occur in just hundreds of years.

It's believed to take 10,000 to 30,000 years for this to happen.

In other words, we're still carrying the genes which allow us to adapt to nature while we are living in this artificial modern world.

I believe that humans originally, from a genetic point of view prefer silence.

We prefer this, the silence of nature.




Historically the forest has been understood simply as a "nice and relaxing place to go" based on our experience.

However, it's more than that. It's preventive medicine.

The forest's healing effect comes with the ability to prevent illness.



It's not that it will cure the illness, but it will reduce stress and strengthen the immune system, preventing people from getting sick.

What is central to this whole situation we live in is silence.

And that the sounds that we notice are merely bubbles on the surface of silence that burst.













Silence doesn't really exist. Silence is sounds.

If I stop talking, for instance, now we hear the sounds of Sixth Avenue.

Sound is affecting our brain waves, our heart rate, our breathing, our hormone secretions. All of our physical rhythms are being affected by sound outside us all the time.

A sudden noise, for example...

So, anybody watching that probably had a little shot of cortisol, fight/flight hormone.

And that happens to us a lot in cities.

On the other hand, if you imagine surf, that would calm you down, in fact even send you to sleep.

Many people will go to sleep to surf.

So, physiologically sound affects us, that's the first way.

Second is psychologically.

It changes our mood, our feelings.

Music does that.

So do other things, like birdsong.

The third way that sound affects us is cognitively.

So, you can't understand two people talking at the same time.

We've got a huge storage space in our brain, but the auditory input channel is quite limited in its bandwidth.

Roughly 1.6 human conversations.

Of course, we have no ear-lids.

(OVERLAPPING SPEECH) Therefore if we're in an office and we hear somebody talking and they're taking up one of our 1.6, it doesn't leave us with much bandwidth to listen to our internal voice where we're trying to write something or calculate something.

And the final way sound affects us is behaviorally.

We'll move away from unpleasant sound.

We'll move, if we can, towards pleasant sound.

Here in London, they have about 140 Tube stations with classical music playing in them now because the research has shown that classical music reduces vandalism.

If you put pounding music on and you're driving, then suddenly you'll drive faster.

That kind of behavioral change happens to us all the time.


ARLINE BRONZAFT: Sound is a physical phenomenon, right?

And when the sound hits the ear, the ear physiologically picks up the sound brings it to the brain and the sound is identified.


When does it become noise?

That's a different part of the brain.


That's the part of the brain that says, you know, this particular sound is intruding on what I'm trying to do.

This is unwanted, unpleasant sound.



REPORTER: It is official, Arrowhead Stadium is again the loudest outdoor stadium in the world.

Fans reached 142.2 decibels, beating the Seattle Seahawks fans who previously had that record.

To put this amount of noise in perspective for you, it is more than a jet engine and far more than the human pain tolerance of the ear, which is why the Chiefs passed out about 36,000 earplugs but that's only enough for half of all these people that were inside tonight.


PROCHNIK: 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, dominates all of your perceptual apparatus.

It might be bad, it might be good, you might be in the mood for it or not, but it's consuming you, it's taking over your heartbeat or at least taking over your attention.



Almost everybody knows that education is very, very, very important.

But with the train passing by every, like, two minutes, you can't hear some things that could be very, very important to know when you grow older.

TEACHER: That's right. Okay, so she said...

REBECCA BRATSPIES: For schools, the internal maximum that the city recommends is 35 decibels.

It's routinely over 85, with the windows closed!

When the windows are open, it's routinely in the 90s, and this school doesn't have any air conditioning, so in August and September and May and June, those windows have to be open or it's unbearable in the classrooms.


PROCHNIK: When people make decisions in noise, and this has been shown again and again, their decisions are reactive.

PAUL BARACH: Noise is a huge issue because it constantly envelops everything we do. It surrounds us.

There's technical elements, devices, pumps, alarms, physical environment, in combination with humans that make mistakes.

We see very clearly anxiety, delays in decision making, errors in receiving information, errors in transmitting information, errors in calculations of medication dosages, and a whole series of other downstream problems because of confusion caused by the overall external noise.


SUMAIRA ABDULALI: Mumbai is the loudest city in the world according to an official statement of the Central Pollution Control Board.

We have a whole range of festivals in India.

We call them traditional, but traditionally we didn't have loudspeakers.

I could say it in terms of decibel levels, but I think I should just say that if you were to stand right next to a jet engine for a long period of time, that's what your house would be like for at least three months during the festival season.

And people can't bear it. People in hospital, there have been instances of people who have died due to heart attacks.

The Supreme Court of India first took notice of noise when a 10-year-old girl was raped during a festival and her screams couldn't be heard because of the noise.


PROCHNIK: If you look at what's happening today, I think we're in a kind of frenzied echo chamber.

STEVEN ORFIELD: Visually, it's busier.

Acoustically it's busier and louder.

CARA BUCKLEY: You just want to go buy a sweater and you're bombarded with loud music.

There are decibel ratings in New York restaurants of 90 now.

You're screaming at somebody from a foot away to be heard.

Technically, in those New York restaurants, all the waiters should be going around with hearing protectors on.

BUCKLEY: Obviously, when you move to New York, you're moving to a loud city.

It's the biggest, most vibrant city in the country.

It's famously loud, it famously never sleeps.

But what has seemed to happen over the years, what has changed is noise has become more ubiquitous, and we seem to be almost desensitized to it.

Do you want me to ask the neighbors? Is that sound...

MAN: Yeah, is that the thumping?


LEES: Why should we always be stimulated, or more and more stimulated, so it'll reach a fever pitch...

Then what happens? Where do you go next?

PROCHNIK: There is a tinier and tinier space for reflective thought.

WOMAN: The planes start at 6:03 in the morning.

They usually stop at midnight, but sometimes they go to 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.

I did not sign up for this kind of noise.

Nobody did.

They are making these precision lanes in the sky.

Right now that lane is over my house.

Five years from now it's going to be over your house because those lanes are going to be multiplied by 10 fold, 20 fold, 50 fold.

STEPHEN STANSFELD: Recent research is building on the foundation of really now almost 50 years of research that suggested that there are more serious health effects related to noise.

Hypertension of high blood pressure, and even more recently there is a very convincing effect of particularly transport noise, road traffic noise, on the risk of cardiovascular disease, of heart attacks, myocardial infarction, and even death from noise.

Noise kills. And that's right, this is what we have shown, that noise causes heart disease.

People don't die from one day to another because they visit a noisy area.

If the noise stress becomes chronic, if it's persistent over many years, all of a sudden you may have a heart attack, due to the chronic stress.

You don't get used to it. You cope with it.

TREASURE: Something in your brain is having to go, "I'm not listening to that. I'm still not listening to that.

"I'm definitely not listening to that."

And it takes effort.

Somewhere there's mental effort going on to screen it out.

That's 102 decibels going out.




I guess the question that is on everyone's mind is why I'm doing this.

I could say that it's, you know, merely a response to something like a culture that's more concerned about material things and leisure and less with reflection and introspection.

I could say that it has something to do with some inner turmoil of my own, that it's me trying to figure out my life.

Honestly, nothing quite seems to do it for me.

I'm not really sure why I feel I need to do it.

I have this feeling that it has a lot of potential to be something really meaningful for me, and hopefully for other people.

LEES: Silence returns us to what is real.

This is how I see it.

IYER: Silence is a journey into the wilderness and into the dark.

You can't be sure what you're going to encounter there, and I think many people are rightly wary of silence because we use noise as a distraction and an evasion.

Silence is a journey right into the heart of your being.

LEES: If you allow silence to circulate, particularly among people, what you're going to discover is that your mind becomes aware of what the truth is.

And sometimes truth is not that sugar-coated.

Sometimes you have to face the truth that things are not going the way that you might want and that you're losing or you're failing, or they are.

You might feel out of control because when silence circulates, it makes you aware that you're not that in control of anything, really.

So it puts people against a wall and says, "This is you and you're human and you're existing right now

"and this is your reality. Do you like it?"

And often people say "No."

PROCHNIK: I guess that I would argue in defense of pursuing the experience regardless.

That we have such a deficit of that kind of encounter in our lives right now.

We have so little that is opening out onto something larger.

ORFIELD: We tend to have substituted human experience with technological experience.

ROSS: We think all this noise and artifice is human, but it's not.

It takes us away from what is human.

There's nothing wrong with it, but we tend to live via our ingenuity instead of being our own truth.

So much in the ways that we exist, particularly our forms of digital connectivity, take us out of ourselves all the time, all the time.

And that's a different kind of desert, and ultimately to me, it's a much more frightening desert.

Because that's a desert in which our individual self is just obliterated in a circuit of constant very, very surface-level communication with others.

IYER: The information revolution came without a manual, and I think we are all noticing that machines can give us pretty much everything except a sense of how to make discerning use of machines, and that at some level, we have to go offline to collect ourselves to begin to know how to navigate the ever more complicated and accelerating online world.

In the 21st century, I think the need for silence is more urgent than it's ever been.

There tends to be a big technological discussion about computers and whether they're good or they're bad, and I think that's sort of a silly discussion.

But there should be a discussion about how much time you spend in the real world and how much time you withdraw.

And I think that's going to be a very significant predictor of the earlier onset of dementia and other declines in aging than has ever happened before.


As we say...

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.

PROCHNIK: We have less silence, and by that I mean that the fabric of noise is more constant and pervasive.

This shift to a constant envelopment within a band of noise that's too much, I think is what's really driving us crazy.

TREASURE We just build these cities willy-nilly. Tire noise, diesel sound, that kind of stuff is all around us all the time.

ORFIELD: Architecture to a large degree is about the visual impact of things.

So, it's about the visual impact of the façade.

It's about the visual impact of the big public spaces.

It's really not about the user's experience.

It's really not about perceptual comfort.

It's really not about the user preference.

You know, in the UK architects train for five years and they spend one day on sound in five years.

It's no wonder they're entirely ocular.

You ask an architect what he's working on, he'll show you a picture.

People speak at somewhere between

55 and 65 decibels usually, and often the heating and cooling system in the building is louder than that.

This is absolutely not an argument for everywhere being quiet or everywhere being the same or that there's some sort of panacea magic soundscape or that we want to manipulate citizens into a Nineteen Eighty-four zombie state or anything like that.

If we all start taking on designing with sound we will have a huge profusion of amazing sound to enjoy.

Just like we have a huge profusion of furniture to enjoy.

And just in the same way, I think we'll have a million different soundscapes that you'll be able to buy or download or stream.


POPPY SZKILER: Quiet Mark is the new award program from the UK's Noise Abatement Society that awards the quietest, high-performance, low-noise technology across over 35 categories of product design, and also solutions to unwanted noise.

Everything from home appliances, airplanes, cars, to the way we build houses with the materials.

I think ultimately consumers want more peace and quiet.

And we've reached a point where we have got so many extraordinary layers of technology around us helping us, like a technology golden age, but the noise of those machines have become almost too much for us to really cope with, or we don't really know what we're coping with.


LEES: A lot of items are made these days without an awareness of their volume.

You put them all together, it's a cacophony, it's not a symphony.

We made this car the smallest mobile anechoic chamber.

We put a lot of effort in modifying the materials which are used in the car to get a very quiet and relaxing atmosphere in the car.

MAN: It's not only the design outside the appliances, it's not only the user interface, it's the whole package, and sound is very important these days for the whole package.

It's not only the decibels we measure, but it's also the quality of the sound we measure.

WOMAN: We are hoping that we can reduce our noise impact, through our aircraft, for the people in our neighborhoods by 75% by 2020.



ROSS: Silence is available to everyone and it is never too late to seek silence.

It isn't true that it's a rich man's plaything.

If you really want to learn the worth of silence, then you will use your ingenuity to find a place and a time for that silence.

CAGE: All of us have changed in the time since 4'33" was first made in the early '50s.

We have less...

We have less confidence.

Now in time, as it goes into the future, we wonder, for instance,

how long the future will be.

We don't take for granted that it will be forever.

We wonder whether we've...

You might say, we wonder whether we have ruined the silence.


LARSON: 4'33“ has been performed all over the world in all kinds of circumstances.

Some of them very casual, some of them, like Carnegie Hall, very formal.

But people now respect this piece.

People sit very quietly for it.

It's as though without knowing anything about Cage's history and why he came to this realization, it's as though people get a piece of that realization themselves.

"Oh, yeah, four minutes and 33 seconds of meditation

"in which everyone is silent together."

It's the most extraordinary thing, to be in a place where it's being performed.

What you feel is the entire audience just listening to absolutely everything that happens.

You just sense this breathing organism of people and this place, sharing this moment.


COMMENTATOR: Well, that's one of the most extraordinary performances I've ever experienced here in the Barbican Hall.

4'33" by John Cage.

ROSS: If we could all learn the work of silence, we'd take an awful lot of pressure off of our planet.

There wouldn't be this constant seeking, seeking, seeking for something else to fill up that empty space, when what will fill up the empty space is actually going into the empty space.

We do need to adjust to our environment.

We also need to learn to be able to be silent and to draw on the Wellspring of silence when the environment isn't conducive to silence.

IYER: In a world of movement, stillness has become a great luxury, and in a world of distraction, it's attention that we're hungering for.

And in a world of noise, silence calls us like a beautiful piece of music on the far side of the mountains.

ROSS: It's not some kind of exoticism, esoteric practices in a coded language.

It's as simple as shifting your attention from the things that cause noise in your life to the vast interior spaciousness which is our natural silence.

It's this process of ungrasping, it's the process of opening your hand, it's the process of unclenching a fist.