The Silence Issue


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Will Fenning

Shhhhhhhhh ……! This week’s issue is all about ‘silence’. We explore the quietest place on earth; discover the darker side of hushed tones; indulge in the merits of the unspoken; and imagine programming our car to the sounds of sci-fi. So turn the music off, find a quiet corner, sit back and enjoy the silence.


The quietest place on earth

Where is the quietest place on earth? A strong case could be made for Norwich city centre on a Friday night; but according to the Guinness World Records, it’s a man-made chamber at the Orfield Labs in Minneapolis - once the famous Sound 80 recording studio for Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks. I won’t bother with the array of acoustic insulation jargon. 

Just picture a steel box, suspended in a steel box, suspended in a soundproof room. It’s been measured at negative 9.4dB which is beyond quiet when you know that the lowest threshold for human hearing is considered to be 0 dB.


This beyond pin-drop silent box is probably not what you’re imagining though. A therapeutic, blissful silence it’s not. In this environment, all reverberation is removed, making it very difficult for your body to grasp a sense of space and surrounding.

The sound of your own heartbeat, pulse and a deafening ringing in your ears will quickly drive you insane making it tough to spend any time in there, let alone to relax. Because of this, the fun-loving dudes at Orfield set a little wager for a crate of beer for anyone who managed to spend longer than 45 minutes in the dark anechoic chamber. No-one has lasted beyond half an hour. That said, I’d be interested to see the results if they left the crate of beer inside the chamber.

You’ll never get to try your luck at sticking it out for the full 45 minutes though; the challenge was banned in 2011 after a hapless internee emerged from a sterling 26 minutes in the chamber having eaten his left hand.



Silence is deadly

Delivering low maintenance and low fuel costs, zero emissions and green deity-status, electric cars seem to herald the future of the automobile. But that’s not to say they’re perfect. Without a combustion engine, they can actually be too quiet; it takes a pedestrian 40% longer to notice their presence versus a “normal” car. So, to all the electric car owners out there, if you’re silently speeding along, doing your bit for the environment, please also remember that you pose double the threat to a pedestrian than a normal car. Sorry to burst your green bubble.

But help is at hand. It comes in the unlikely form of Steve Levine, producer of The Beach Boys, Culture Cub and, perfectly, Motorhead. He has been hired by HALOsonic, partners with Lotus, to compose an artificial ‘soundscape’, to be

played from speakers at the rear of the EV.
HALOsonic describe their work as ‘at its best, like a film soundtrack: you create a ‘mood’ for the car.’ So it’s not all about safety; people have always wanted an impressive soundtrack to their personal transport experience. Older generations might remember kids in the 1950’s attaching a folded cigarette box to the brake calliper of their bike, replicating the noise of a mini-scooter engine as it drummed against the spokes.
From the ‘brum brum’ of traditional cars to sci-fi Star Wars style noises, the question of noise limits for road vehicles has been hotly debated in the House of Commons – perhaps supporting auto soundscapes could be a great little project for Nick Clegg? And outside of politics, there’s even talk of downloadable, bespoke ‘soundscapes’ of huge variety.

Will car sounds fall to the same sonic melange as mobile ringtones? I’d opt for a clockwork Noddy-car noise, with Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana as I put my foot down. In fact, I hope government legislation will lay some sensible perimeters, as I think the sound of this could wear a little thin during M25 rush hour.


Uncomfortable silences

You’ve cleared your throat twice, exhaled deeply, drummed your fingers on the table and then finally, and fatefully, you start humming, realising that you have inadvertently performed the typically bizarre behaviour of a human being trapped in an uncomfortable silence.
Why do we automatically do this?
And why do we need elevator music?
Well, the answer is that humans are innately terrified by silence. Charles Darwin observed the use of ‘contact calls’ between social animals, notably wild horses and cattle. These indiscriminate noises might be made during feeding or foraging, for example. It’s kind of like animal small talk. When faced with danger, the calls stop, creating a silence to alert the whole group.

We are social animals too (mostly), and Joseph Jordania argues in ‘Music and Emotion: Humming In The Beginnings Of Human History’ that humming was an early contact call between humans. Of course he’s not suggesting that cavemen would have sat round a fire, a little short on conversation thinking ‘oh how awkward!’ – silence just had a use as an early alarm system.

Nor is it to say that a period of silence today prompts a feeling of impending doom (although I’ve witnessed a few situations where you could argue quite that).  Yet perhaps this visceral impulse explains our unconscious behaviour today.  Think about when you’re alone in an empty house; you might turn on the TV or radio, even though you are not really paying attention, just to avoid that eerie silence.

Thanks to Darwin and Jordania for the scientifically grounded explanation, but I think Mia from Pulp Fiction sums up the matter perfectly.


The Sound of Silence

I’m sorry if this sounds like the desperate ramblings of an out-of-work conspiracy theorist, but our ears are being lied to.
My paranoia radar was piqued by the guys at Humans Invent, who’ve compiled a pretty exhaustive list of everyday-devices-which-are-actually-silent-but-are-designed-to-make-a-bogus-sound-by-manufacturers-for-one-reason-or-another.
It’s a depressing day for humanity when one of the most fiercely debated issues on the Internet is whether or not the whirr of an ATM machine is real or not, but if it is artificial, are we no more mentally independent than Ivan Pavlov’s dog? Maybe the words of Jerry Seinfeld will give us some insight:

You see people at the cash machine; they’re just there. Just, dit dit dit dit dit dit dit, they’re waiting for the sound, you know the sound, you’re waiting for the sound. That’s what we’re trained to hear, the ‘here comes the money’ sound, ya know?

Other sounds that exist purely by design include the satisfying ‘clunk’ of a car door, recorded crowd noise to compensate for under-filled sports arenas and ‘comfort noises’ such as the barely audible static sound on a Skype call to reassure you that the call has not gone dead. Of course, we all know about the simulated shutter-snap on digital cameras, but this is more than just a comforting soundscape to remind us of the bygone days of photography. In Japan, this has become a legal requirement to help put an end to the rather worrying pastime of covert ‘upskirting’.

So, if we are going to trick our senses with a bombardment of phony sounds, why not have some fun with it? Let’s take inspiration from visual artists Allora & Calzadilla and their Algorithm. All I’ll say is that it’s an ATM synchronized with a full-sized pipe organ, and you can see it here.


Who needs words?

We couldn’t do an issue on silence and not mention the recent phenomenon that is Michel Hazanavicius’s multi-award winning silent film The Artist. While being a charming and witty film in its own right, it also well documents the fall of silent cinema.

It’s refreshing to watch in an age where poor acting can hide behind glib special effects and fluffy dialogue. And with that in mind, here are some of the most meaningless, absurd and downright terrible moments of movie dialogue that’ll make you wish the ‘talking movie’ was never invented:

Love Story (1970) "Love means never having to say you're sorry."
Batman and Robin (1997) “I hate to disappoint you, but rubber lips are immune to your charms”. Imagine the audience gasp with disbelief as Robin tears the prosthesis from his mouth. 
Batman and Robin (1997) “Let’s kick some ice’” I-CE what he did there.
Goldfinger (1964) “At least they won’t be using heroin flavored bananas to finance revolutions”
Poseidon (2006) “It’s a pressure valve, it won’t open unless there’s tremendous pressure”

Once Upon A Time In Mexico (2003) “Are you a Mexican or a Mexican’t?” Johnny Depp and Danny Trejo deserve Oscars for delivering this exchange with deadly serious faces.
The Wicker Man (2006) “OH NO! NOT THE BEES! NOT THE BEES! AAAAHHHH! OH, THEY’RE IN MY EYES! MY EYES! AAAAHHHH AAAAAGGHHH!”. Despite retiring from acting in 1997, Nicholas Cage still appears in some movie productions.
More like The Artist please!

About the Author

The young Will Fenning is a very talented writer. This is his second SFTW. Back in September, he wooed us with a beautifully written issue on design. We loved it so much that we invited him back again. Big up to Will, he’s one to watch in the future. http://kyanitesky.tumblr.com/


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