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In Pursuit of Silence

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Wood thrush and firepink. Watercolor, 2014

I'm amazed and delighted to announce that a new film, "In Pursuit of Silence" is now premiering at select theaters around the country. It's about our relationship with sound, about the impact of noise, and about the rarity and preciousness of silence.

This is something I think about a lot, birding by ear and tuning into every squeak, chirp and belch of the birds around me. Whether I've admitted it to myself or not, I have sought silence for my entire life; it's a large part of why I live where I do. Even as I write, I can hear trucks roaring out on the county road. No place in Ohio that I can think of is sonically pristine. All we can do is get close, for a little while.

Eastern bluebird, singing and wing-waving. Watercolor, 2011

A couple of July's ago, I got an email from Kurt Fristrup, who works for the Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division of the National Park Service.  (Ain't it wonderful, that there IS such a thing?) As a graduate student at Harvard, when dinosaurs still walked the earth, Kurt had been my independent studies advisor in animal behavior and ornithology. I wanted to learn more than coursework could give me about those topics, and I read a lot of papers and wrote a few, too, with Kurt's guidance. I never forgot him, his brilliance and his kindness and most of all the tantalizing promise of adventure he held--he was studying cock of the rock in Suriname at the time-- and I guess he hasn't forgotten me, either.

Now, in his capacity with the National Park Service, Kurt was planning a conference on noise, to be held in Denver, and he asked me to speak for 40 minutes on the importance of silence. That request kind of came from left field (Huh? Why me?) but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had a lot inside me, heretofore unspoken, about the importance of tuning in to natural sounds, and of avoiding human-generated ones. It's what I do, consciously or unconsciously, every day. I worked for a long time on my Keynote presentation, and it unfolded like a flower as I found simple phone recordings I'd made, and noticed how they were nearly all marred by engines of one sort or another, even in the tucked-away places I frequent. I also thought about the fact that we live atop the Marcellus Shale, and our sonic environment has degraded drastically since the current oil boom began.  I found delightful soundclips of whip-poor-wills; of a cow tooting lonesome in the night; of spring frogs and summer thrushes. And I wrote about all that. So I gave the talk at the conference, and it was fun and cool and moody like I'd hoped it would be, and  afterward Kurt and his wife, writer Kit Dunsmore and I went out in the field, accompanied by filmmakers who, I was told, were working on a film about silence.

White-throated sparrow. Watercolor, 2011. They're singing their quavering poor-Sam Peabody all over the place right now. Get out there and listen!

That's cool, I thought, and I didn't mind being trailed by a couple of big videocameras as we birded. I didn't try to use my ears any more or less than usual; I just did what I do in the field, which I guess when I think about it is a bit of a departure from how most people move through the field.  I move from found to sound, letting my ears tell me first who's around and what they're doing. Standing in front of a brushy hillside, to me, is like opening the morning newspaper. It's as if I can smell all the birds hiding there, only I'm smelling them with my ears.  Long story short, and to my great surprise, I wound up in the trailer for the film, sniffing birds out. I haven't seen the whole work, so I don't know what else got used. But wham! what a surprise. I about jumped out of my skin when my dear friend Harma, who is volunteering for the Sarasota Film Festival, sent me the trailer in an email.

Anyway. Just for fun, here's the trailer, with a typically intense Zick-being-English setter around 1:38. My friend Kurt Fristrup appears with a voice over and then in the flesh immediately after. Thank you, Kurt and Kit!

 And here are some of the venues where it will be screened in April.  The North American premiere was at South By Southwest Film Festival. Filmmaker Patrick Shen writes:

"Well, our North American premiere at SXSW was amazing. We had an incredible line-up of musicians and sound artists perform before each of our three screenings - all of which included a historic performance of John Cage's 4'33". On our opening night our very own composer Alex Lu led a local quartet in a performance of a piece he wrote for the film before going quiet for 4 and a half minutes which both confused and delighted the crowd. Here are some pics. AND a film critic with the Austin Chronicle had this to say about our film: 

'I am undone by this lands in the mind, at least to this reviewer, with an impact reminiscent of seeing 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi for the first time...Shen’s In Pursuit of Silence incessantly inspires and sometimes takes the breath away and can even accomplish both at once.'"  

Read the full review here.

Though I knew very little about the project, as I watched the filmmakers work I had a feeling it was going to be very, very good.  I hope I get to see it to confirm my suspicion. It's been a gigantic honor to play a very small part in their project. Thanks to the IPOS team for letting me in. 


Um... there's no sign of a trailer to click on. Are you sure you uploaded it?

I find myself cringing at all the man-made noise that is so difficult to escape. Stores with their piped-in music -- sometimes turned up WAY too loud, trying for a "festive mood". Cars and trucks honking, their lack of adequate mufflers readily apparent. Music blaring from either from people's cars or their iPhones (there ARE ear buds for those things!), because everyone seems to need a soundtrack to their lives these days, and wants to share it with the world at large despite our lack of interest. There are the occasional days when everything is quiet, but they are rare and enjoyed. I find hiking in the woods recharges me, but even there, there are traffic sounds most of the time. Undoubtedly all this noise pollution is why I spend so much time at home -- without any TV or music. "Out there" can be very stressful for introverts.

Posted by Anonymous April 3, 2016 at 3:57 AM

There is too much over stimulation from noise. Why I escape to the woods or water and am just quiet. Thanks for sharing this.

Posted by Anonymous April 3, 2016 at 6:44 AM

Great trailer and looks like it would be a fantastic film. Wish it were playing closer to where I live.

Posted by Lucy from MN April 3, 2016 at 9:43 AM

I crave silence. I live as quiet of a life that I can. In this day and age it is almost impossible. My quiet is not so quiet as I live between a busy street and highway. Even the refrigerator is a bother noise-wise. Sigh~~

Have a question-- is the Ashland festival in Ashland, Oregon? If so want to tell a friend who lives there.Linda in Texas

Posted by Anonymous April 9, 2016 at 6:27 PM

@Linda in Texas, I Googled "Ashland Film Festival" and yep, it's in Oregon; recommend you Google those words. The blue location names in my post are live links, but aren't much help if you don't already know where Ashland is!


The idea of pursuing silence seems so obvious, yet so few seem to realize the value of this precious (and scarce) resource. Who still notices the sounds of nature -- too often drowned out by the blaring noises of our society? Lang, of course. You. And a handful of others. My students commented about all the noises of the rain forest in Costa Rica. It takes the racket of Howler Monkeys and large tropical birds for them to notice.

I have always been one to be soothed by the sounds of the Great Lakes, the dawn chorus or the evening symphony that highlights insects and amphibians over the birds. I crave moments of pure quiet. The Sound of Silence was one of my favorite songs as a youth.

As an aside, but still on sound, this is interesting:

I'd be very interested to see the film since sound has been a theme in my life since I began losing my hearing at the age of 20. I got my first pair of hearing aids at the age of 25 and went through 3 different pairs until I got my first Cochlear Implant at the age of 43. Sound has a whole different meaning for those of us who are deaf. Noise is a horrible issue if you're losing your hearing. I could go on for pages about how this affects us, but there's not room here. But as you lose hearing you become much more sensitive to noise through an issue known as recruitment. Meaning that your normal ability to tolerate loud noises is much diminished. Noise becomes painful. Yet on the other side, after total deafness, there is still sound. Sound in one's head. At night when I take off my processors it is sometimes a blessed relief to go completely quiet with only my inner thoughts. And of course people say they envy me for not hearing noises at night, to be able to sleep through snoring or thunder or street noise. But I envy their ability to pick out the true melodies in music, to be able to identify bird sounds, to readily understand children, to follow conversation in noisy environments.

This is an interesting subject and one that impacts me daily. As always, you seem to bump into the most amazing things!

Ah @cowango, I had no idea. Yours is the most eloquent expression of deafness I've read. Thank you for helping me understand what my mother experienced, what my little dog is going through; what my friends and acquaintances experience, and doing it so kindly. I can only imagine how it feels to hear someone say they "envy you" the quiet at night. To readily understand children...sigh. Not to mention insect and bird music. Humbled, yet again. And looking for the gift in being disconnected from my beloved Bacon. Retraining is happening, slowly. Old dog, new tricks, all that.

@Diane Husic, I listened to the tree music. It was wonderful!! I love a notion like that; I've heard a composition based on birds sitting on a wire being notes, as well. Fabulous. Then I watched a bull that had purportedly been chained his whole life being set free and now I'm a blubbering mess. Thanks! I guess...waaaah

Julie, I had no idea your Bacon was losing his hearing. But it's not surprising as it most commonly is an aging thing. But not for all of us. :) I love birding but am horrible at it as I rely almost exclusively on sight, and I missed out on bird sounds for so long that I no longer can readily identify more than a handful at best. My joy is that my CIs have brought back sound for me -- my husband's, family's, and friends' voices, music, insects chirping, the wind rustling, rain on the roof, and my cats' purring. I'm daily grateful for technology and what it has allowed me. Thanks so much for your kind words -- I'm always glad to give people a better view of this world. My best to you and yours,
- Stefanie

Julie, have you heard of Gordon Hempton? He's also known as the Soundtracker, and there was a documentary made about him several years ago. He wrote a book a few years back about his quest for silence in the National Parks and the frustrations he faced. Here is a link to his website: And his book, One Square Inch of Silence I had the pleasure of interviewing him: and visiting the One Square Inch site. If you ever make it to Washington State, I'd be happy to take you there!

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