George Prochnik’s Pursuit of Silence

“As we all know, absolute silence is impossible—it’s the ending of all vibrations, total death,” states George Prochnik, the author of the new In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (Doubleday, 2010). Our sonic landscape is a mixture of signal and noise, silence and form, and Prochnik’s pursuit is to take our aural “temperature,” to encourage us to think about our sonic architecture. Take a short soundwalk through any American city and the level of noise is overwhelming; we decide to combat the sonic vertigo caused by blaring horns, engine roars, babies’ cries, and machine hums by turning on our iPods and tuning out. As Prochnik argues, the problem begins at the exact moment that we reach for a noise-making device to re-upholster our sonic environments, to combat an uncomfortable level of noise by adding yet another layer of sound. In Pursuit of Silence puts forth the claim that we have lost our ability to listen to the many textures of the world and to inject our personal space with varied levels of silence.

Edited into our interview with Prochnik is sound from As a database of sound recordings submitted by sensory ethnographers and sound artists from around the world, the Freesound Project offers us a window back into the realm of silence. The Project works on the same level as Prochnik’s oft-repeated quote from Thoreau: “silence has different depths, like fertilities of soil.” If there are different textures to our acoustic landscape, it is vital that we recover the experience of them and the ability to listen closely and find meaning.

What do we mean when we talk about silence?

In a Bookforum review of Prochnik’s book, J. Gabriel Boylan summarized the dangers of constant exposure to noise: “It turns out that the peak of brain activity, of thinking, comes in the tiny pauses between sounds, when we simultaneously process the previous sound and anticipate the next. When noise never abates, brain activity tends to flatline.” The disappearance of silent spaces is endangering our ability to obtain a reflective, active state of mind. One of the most dramatic moments in Prochnik’s latest effort comes when he spends a night shift with a police officer in Washington, DC who frequently responds to calls of domestic violence. He tells Prochnik how the scene upon arrival is frequently one of deafening noise—layers of televisions, radios, stereos, and the inevitable screaming of the angry parties—but when he asks that these devices are turned off and the couple sit down quietly, the violence comes to a halt. We are, as Prochnik puts it, “living after the third sonic fall,” in a moment in history when we have taken the decibel levels of the Industrial Revolution and two world wars and added a third layer of noise on top. As a result, we’ve lost the close connection with our environment—that heightened awareness and ability to be surprised—that comes with the ability to pluck out sonic information from the general hum of life.

As Prochnik told Paul Holdrengraber in a conversation at a recent NYPL Live event, “the quest always begins in silence, whether it’s an animal stalking its prey or a thinker answering a question. The start of the question is silence.” During the course of his “quest” in the book, he encounters the “boom car” fanatics of Florida, neuroscientists who are looking at how consistent exposure to noise rewires our neural pathways, architects working to transform spaces for the deaf community, friends at the Brooklyn Friends Meeting House, and more. In the end, he writes that “instead of being against noise, I think we need to begin making a case for silence.”

As Prochnik states, we’ve turned “so many of our public spaces into noise dumping grounds and what we can put into a direct feed into our ears is somehow more interesting.” We put on our earbuds to exert at least a minimal amount of control over the noise, and in so doing enact a tiny personal protest against the barrage of sound that ultimately further removes us from our environment. The simple act of tuning out erases deliberate thought, i.e. silence, and causes a deficit of listening. “I don’t think it’s about fabricating silence,” Prochnik told us, and rather “it’s about defabricating the noise.”

Building Silence

“Silence doesn’t just happen magically, it needs a space.” Prochnik’s assertion speaks to the need to find what he calls “that aural truffle.” When Prochnik turns the lens back toward his own environment (that of Midtown Manhattan), he discovers the allure of the pocket park for providing that “site of refuge” from the proverbial hustle and bustle. Also called a minipark or a vest-pocket park, these tiny patches of green space are squeezed into the irregular waste products of zoning codes or haphazard development.

The first pocket parks were built in the years following World War II, when the frequent bombing campaigns in Europe turned the urban layouts into Swiss cheese-like schematics. Today, in particularly blighted urban environments like Detroit and Philadelphia, city officials have made it a priority to develop more of these pocket parks out of the empty lots that are cropping up every day. In Philadelphia, for instance, the population of the once-bustling industrial hub has dropped 26 percent since the 1960s, from a peak of 2 million to less than 1.5 million today. The infrastructure and space could support many more residents, but the 25,000 vacant lots (the highest per capita rate in the nation) have led to a city plan that is needlessly sprawling. The Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s Philadelphia Green program has launched a campaign to inform city officials on how to build in more green space, at once reclaiming the vacant land and providing a vessel of solace within a city littered with assaulting noise.

As Prochnik makes clear, these reclaimed holes in the city grid do not produce silence exactly, but rather something akin to silence. In a world that lacks “acoustical contrast,” it is comforting to be able to sit down and observe the many layers of aural information that rise above the baseline. In one section of In Pursuit of Silence, Prochnik visits with some of the leaders of the sound mapping initiatives taking place right now by the European Environment Agency—initiatives that are mired in bureaucracy and produce maps that are essentially endless data streams that might never actually catalyze change.

“Rather than just being against noise and telling people who have no experience of silence, ‘be quiet,’ people who at this point literally don’t know what the means, we’ve got to start showing them what it means to be for silence,” Prochnik told us. “We’ve got to give them the space to do it and it’s got to be experiential.”

Silence Now

Silent Worship at Brooklyn Friends

When individuals during Quaker worship feel the unmistakable urge to stand and speak (to give ministry), it is often described as an non-intellectual moment, and a person may not even realize that he or she has stood to speak until the act has actually occurred and words are flowing from the subconscious. The other friends then focus on the speaker, and the utterances become held within the silence of the group. Silence offers a conduit for those thoughts to reverberate and take on new life in the minds of the listeners, forming a community around each ministry. (An old Quaker saying questions that value of ministries, asking “does it make the silence better?”) Elias Hicks, a controversial Quaker leader who lived in the beginning of the nineteenth century, said that Quaker silent worship was the search to “center down into abasement and nothingness…This is what I labored after: to be empty, to know nothing, to call for nothing, and to desire to do nothing.”

In traditional societies and settings, sound can take on a sacred quality—the ringing of bells, chanting, blowing of horns all are meant to invoke the gods’ passions and attentions. At the turn of the last century when the mechanical revolution turned aviators and broadcasters into secular gods, the hum and roar of industrial machinery took on this sacred aspect of noise. Power was displayed through displays of noise; sound is a conduit for whatever a culture or individuals hold as the divine.

But the inverse still holds true; there is still a divine power to sonic absence. Quakers and Buddhists both turn to the silent world for a sense of peace and communication with the divine spirits. The Ohio Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline states that “a living silence may be so filled with the Divine Presence that all who worship become conscious of it and are drawn together in unity under the power of His love.”

The Quaker meeting is a silent affair with neither mantra (as in Orthodox Christianity or Hindu meditation) nor focal image (as in Tibetan Buddhism). Instead, silent worship moves Quakers toward an uncircumscribed divinity, an openness that allows god’s inspiration to fill the individual until he or she is moved to speak. And also unlike other forms of religion that focus on meditation, Quaker worship is not meant to draw the self back within—it is not a complete introversion. The Meeting House is an energetically charged environment in which silence is used to draw the friends together as they all reflect on light, spirit, prayer, and god.

William Penn believed that silence was preferable to speaking because the secret always remained safe: noise is folly. Sitting still in the quiet of a meeting, human-generated problems wash away, and the inaudible voice of god can be heard.