Hal Hartley’s 1992 Simple Men (Aztec) is blessed with one of the most lasting scenes in independent cinema. A highly agitated Martin Donovan (Weeds) pulls to the side of a rural stretch, rips off his cap, kicks it and screams “I can’t stand the quiet.” Cut to everyone dancing wonkily to Sonic Youth’s Kool Thing. It’s a scene that connects with our need to fill the void with useless chatter, with music, sound, noise, anything to keep the most horrible thing in the world at bay. Ourself.
So it’s interesting when someone has the opposite experience. Standing on a subway platform in Manhattan George Michelson Foy was suddenly overcome by the intense noise of his city. It’s an experience that changed his life. Purchasing a decibel meter he went looking for some peace and quiet. He chronicles his obsessive quest from Paris to Cananda to Minnesota in Zero Decibels: The Quest For Absolute Silence (Simon and Schuster). It’s a detective story of sorts as he valiantly attempts to not only locate objective silence but determine if it even exists. What’s interesting is how much of our daily lives we shut out. “The human mind is a masterful piece of equipment and is able to block out so much information as a means of making sense of the environment,” Australian sound artist Lawrence English once offered in an interview with Fragmented Frequencies, before listing the hum of the fridge, the tick of the clock, the whir of the air conditioner. Once armed with his meter and newfound obsession Foy’s ears likewise were suddenly tuned into his surroundings. Even the slightest vibrations. The early part of his journey consists of attempting to locate an elusive omnipresent sub frequency rumble that he eventually terms, the monsters breath, the sound of New York. He quickly moves beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characterisations and becomes fascinated by the diversity and subtlty of sound. Analysing everything, he discovers that most sounds possess at least two layers of tone, elasticity, and depth. He is becoming a sound conniesuer. He also calculates that New Yorkers on average are subjected to 50db every waking minute. A dangerous volume that according to some studies can lead to increased heart troubles. Foy goes in search of the anechoic chamber at Harvard that supposedly inspired John Cage’s 4’33, and delves into notions of silence in composition by artists as diverse as Walter Marchetti, Yoko Ono and Tom Johnson who used silence as a tool to draw upon the imagination of the listener as a compositional device.
He questions people deaf since birth now given hearing with the aid of technology, discovers how fish obtained their hearing, observes differing cultural meanings of silence and travels two miles down a mine shaft in Ontario. There’s a dalliance with weaponised sound, and an attempt to win a case of Guiness by staying for over 40 minutes in the quietest place on earth, an anechoic chamber in the Midwest rated at -9.4db. No one has succeeded before, like Donovan in Simple Men they can’t stand the quiet. Far from wanting to snub out sound, his research gives him a newfound appreciation of reducing the clatter and allowing the simplicity of the minute sounds to peek through. It also gives him an appreciation of the pockets of silence that he is able to snatch, though attempts to integrate his new theories and sensitivities into his daily family life is a struggle. Like all detective stories it’s a complex multi layered journey filled with dead ends and red herrings. When one avenue closes another opens up as he sifts through the noisy layers of debris that constitute modern life in the search of his own private sonic nirvana.
Whilst the Oscar winning documentary on the slaughter of Dolphins in a small Japanese fishing village is enough to get even the most ardent carnivore outraged, The Cove (Madman) features an amazing feat of guerilla field recording. It’s cloak and dagger stuff as the team plant hydrophones underwater and capture some of the most harrowing and repulsive sounds you will ever hear. Even if animal cruelty doesn’t give you the horn these sounds will blow your mind. It’s devastating.
Finally if film sound is your thing, Radio National’s Into the Music recently presented a journey through sound editing with Peckinpah, Kubrick and Roeg sound editor Rodney Holland. Holland discusses his surprising decisions in real time on Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Kubricks Barry Lyndon and Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. It’s fascinating and archived at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/intothemusic.