Sunday, November 22, 2015

In Pursuit of Silence: the rest

The last two hundred pages of George Prochnik's In Pursuite of Silence, proceeded to bounce around to as many places as the first hundred. From shopping malls to boom car clubs, to soundproofing expos, the guy is covering territory. A trip to Copenhagen highlighted his conversations with "soundscapers" and sound mapping as a means to intentionally construct a space for the optimal everyday sound experience. A visit to a college for the deaf introduced Prochnik to the Deaf community's perception of silence and their attempts at a "deaf architecture" to accommodate that experience. He goes back in history to look at the successful campaigns against noise pollution headed by Ms. Julia Rice of New York -and their ultimate demise with the advent of motorized personal transportation. He explores the design of the Japanese garden and it's intended use a a space for quiet, solitary reflection. And finally, he pays a visit to a research laboratory specializing in earthworms and nematodes.

And what comes of these adventures? After the 200 page schizophrenic ping-pong marathon of ideas Prochnik settles on a conclusion similar to that of John Cage. Sound, certainly is not bad. The sounds we made are an assertion of our physical existence (the Italian futurists really harped on that). Ambient sound is, in fact, a necessary and inescapable part of human life. Of all life. Our frantic (and often expensive) attempts to control our ambient soundscape through headphones, soundproofing technology and community policy are simply an expression of our dissatisfaction with an increasingly lo-fi environment.

Our perception of sound is often relative and highly dependent upon who you are, where you're from, how old you are, your past sound exposure, your current sound exposure, and association of ideas you create around the sound you experience. We can fight over policies all at once deemed "too unreasonable" and "not stringent enough," or, as Prochnik suggests, we should shift our focus. Rather than impose upon ourselves and others the sonic environment one person deems best, we should instead attempt to intentionally cultivate opportunities for silence. This isn't to say we should obsessively seek quiet in the sense of "anechoic chamber-type-silence," but to quiet the sounds of our self-assertion, and allow for the sounds of life to show through.

Humans aren't made for complete silence, as evidenced by our own ears' hallucination of sound in the absence of stimulation. Humans are not made for constant sonic stimulation, as evidenced by the -sometimes violent- complaints made by neighbors and communities, and the detrimental physical affects to human health. We should instead, Prochnik suggests, create opportunities for hi-fi environments to exist. It's what we crave. It's what enable the monk to seek enlightenment It's what allows you to develop spacial intelligence. It's what gives you a reprieve from your own ego, and the egos of others, and become aware of everything else.

Overall, a nice, well-researched, and thoughtful read. An excellent exploration of John Cage's later attitudes toward the value of sound and silence. Prochnik's clumsy attempts at literary flair were mostly laughable, but his research of the question from all different angles was admirable.

And to be honest, who would have thought you'd get boom cars and earthworms into the same book?

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