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

New England Phonographers Union: MIC’D

It is a recovering of sonic phenomena that would otherwise be lost. We traveled from Boston to the small town of Kittery, Maine with Ernst Karel and Jed Speare to do some field recordings before a live performance they were to give later that evening at the Buoy Gallery. They are members of the New England Phonographers Union, a fluid congregation of sound artists that play on the contextualization and recontextualization of clips of acoustic information. Traveling around with recording gear, they seek out the sonic identity of spaces, sound objects and events; the New England Phonographers Union probes soundscapes for an acoustic signatures that can be reassembled (unprocessed and untreated) in an improvisational setting.

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The Union was formed as an outpost of the Seattle Phonographers Union, a similar group formed in 2002 that strives to make familiar sounds foreign and foreign sounds familiar. There are also like-minded Phonographers Unions in New York, Chicago, London, and Montreal, and the main link between them all is the idea that by playing back found samples from our acoustic ecology, we can become more attuned to our world. All of these groups seem to owe their roots to the World Scoundscape Project started by R. Murray Schaeffer and Barry Truax at Simon Fraser University in the late 1960s, which strove to create encyclopedias of our acoustic ecology and document the relationships between different sonic spaces. Drawing on this history, the New England Phonographers Union shies away from field recordings with a distinct melody, opting instead for the natural vibrations that can be picked up in our world. As the Boston Phoenix wrote in August 2008, “the hum of an electrical appliance, the whip and whistle of wind, chattering voices, the clang of machinery, and a host of ostensibly non-musical noises are all grist for the phonographers’ mill.”

Christopher DeLaurenti of the Seattle Phonographers Union has pointed out that good practice in field recording requires an awareness of listening as a form of mediation. During our time spent out on the docks and under the bridges of Kittery with Ernst and Jed, this notion kept coming up. We watched them stand huddled from the wind, microphone placed as closely as possible to the sound source as they tried to keep still for upwards of ten minutes at a time. And yet, the presence of the microphone shifts how we perceive the thing being recorded. “There’s a great illusion that I’ve always had about field recording, like being so attuned to what you’re doing that you feel very invisible, very inconspicuous,” Jed told us. “It’s really focusing on the moment.”

It is a recovering of sonic phenomena that would otherwise be lost, and a recontextualization of the aural data into a new, varied soundscape during collaborative and solo performances. During a performance, the phonographers are invisible in the space of the gallery—they set up their laptops and sound mixers in the corners of the room so as to recede into the darkness. It seems that we are not meant to acknowledge their presence, and the further that you move toward the middle of the room, the more their phonographic solos blend into an overwhelming sense of aural immersion. We have never seen the objects, people, and spaces that originally created the sounds we are hearing, and we cannot see how they are being replayed in the moment. Stripped of all context and visual cues, the shades of musique concrete coalesce into a map of the sonic environment being created right then and there.

The act of field recording constantly reminds us that our ears are not just receptacles, but filters as well. And when the specific sounds that have been plucked out of our noisy world are moved into an improvisational setting, we become aware of chance. As Jed told us, “in an improvisation setting, the ways that one contributes is by doing something and sticking with it and/or playing a kind of sympathetic or supporting role and balancing these things. Or just staying out altogether.” The members of the New England Phonographers Union work with and against the sounds deployed from each member’s sound database, strategically re-presenting sounds into a broader spectrum that resembles a modern classical composition. In a special moment every once in a while, the members’ clips speak to one another in a way that could not be planned—a flat-line hum perfectly works with the rhythm of a swing, or two sanguine vibrations perfectly mirror one another in a call-and-response pattern. It is our world, remixed.

But out in the field, back at the moment in which the data is collected and samples taken to the gallery for examination, it all comes down to what “catches the ear,” as Ernst says.

“These strange creaking sounds are kind of interesting.”

“I just did 13 minutes there.”