I was recently interviewed for a Scientific American article about my new doc In Pursuit of Silence and noise and how it affects the brain. Here are some of my answers that didn’t make the cut.
Q: You said that silence is mysterious. That it can be a vehicle for discovering the self, god, a peak experience. You also said that by inserting silent vignettes into your film, you hope viewers can experience some of this. Can you elaborate on what you hope to induce?
A: I think everyone experiences silence differently, like an abstract piece of art. I think silence is mysterious for the same reasons why our inner most lives are often a mystery to ourselves – there is simply too much noise, literally and figuratively, to allow us to focus on anything but the immediate. To put it simply, somewhere underneath that noise lies more possibility to explore the things that matter to us and to remove the armor that allows us to navigate our days with some sense of invincibility. The problem with that armor is that we have mistaken it for our own flesh. I like this quote by Picasso a lot: Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. That’s how I feel about silence too. I intend to give people the blank canvas upon which to paint themselves and the space in which to shed that armor…or at the very least, inspire them to seek a space of their own to do this.
Q: You lamented that our digital lives are taking over. That we are more virtually connected but less physically connected. That we don’t gather, create, and explore our environments with our senses. Can you say more about what it is that virtual connections neglect? About why it matters that now we gather, create, and explore virtually, not physically? That we don’t use our senses?
A: When we connect virtually, we share a much more polished version of ourselves. Our Instagram personas might reflect something about ourselves, but it doesn’t allow us to be vulnerable with others and to simply come as we are to an exchange with someone. It doesn’t allow much room for our conversations to take on a life of their own. Rather, we exchange sound bites and more crafted responses with very little genuine human interaction in our lives. When we can let our guards down, shed the armor and be able to participate in a meaningful exchange then we have learned what it means to really connect with someone. I think this benefits us on various levels. On the more practical side, Robert Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone, famously claimed that when we join and participate in one group, it cuts our odds of dying next year in half.
Another important point…Unlike other organisms we have the ability to experience the world in an entirely differently way, a more three dimensional way. The ability to anticipate pleasure, then to experience that pleasure, and finally to reflect on that can be a genuinely exhilarating experience when channeled properly. We are a beautiful mix of the creaturely and of the godly. It allows us to connect to our environment in very meaningful ways. Nowadays, in our virtually connected, immediate world, it requires a lot more discipline as we have moved so far away from this. We don’t have the attention span or discipline to be still long enough for this sort of unifying experience with our environment or the people around us to even take place, not for any significant length of time any way. Imagine if we channel that ability towards connecting with other people and the world around us, not the virtual one but the one that actually exists in real time.
Q: You admitted to having trouble finding truly silent spaces to film. That you may not find absolute silence, but only places that give a sense of silence. How can you give viewers a sense of silence? Amid even mild sound, must you employ certain techniques or approaches as a filmmaker to create a sense of silence? Is this related to seeking, as you say, the right quality of sound?
A: Aside from monasteries and anaechoic chambers, I suspect it will be challenging to find truly silent places to film. However, as many before me have figured out, absolute silence doesn’t really exist and nor is that necessarily the goal. The silence that I’m seeking with this film is indeed more about the quality of sound but also the amount of sound. Sadly, finding silence in this day and age is more about minimizing unwanted sound as much as possible – silence becomes more a relative term as our world evolves. The good news is that even a sense of silence or experiencing a relative silence can have this effect of washing away “the dust of everyday life” that I’m after. After all, silence was also relative for primitive man as he was surrounded by the constant din of another sort, that of the natural world. So, there are varying levels of “silence” or quiet that I hope to expose to the audience. For starters, there is the silence of primitive man – birds chirping, for example – and the calm that instantly comes over us when nature signals to us that it’s safe to re-emerge from our caves. There are still places in the world where we can experience this sort of silence and I hope to showcase them in an immersive way in In Pursuit of Silence.
Watching a film is often a very noisy and stimulating experience. You are simply asked to sit back and react to what’s happening on the screen. I want to give people an opportunity to INTERact with my film. By slowing down the pace from time to time and giving audiences plenty of space – in the form of silent pauses and extended experiential vignettes – to breathe and reflect throughout the film, I believe they’ll begin to experience a sense of silence. Silence has been used very effectively in music and art but rarely in documentary film. There’s a lot I plan to experiment with here. Of course sound will play a significant role in my film. From how it’s captured in the field to the sound design, we are using the best technology has to offer and employing techniques very unique to documentary film. For example, to capture the most authentic recordings of the environments we’re using special microphones by Holophone which record 6 channels of surround sound straight out of the microphone. Once we get into post-production, our sound designer Steve Bissinger at Skywalker Sound will build on all that raw sound we capture in the field and create a uniquely immersive and experiential soundtrack for the film.