Alex Beam

‘Silence’ is in the ear of the beholder

FROM GLOBE PHOTO FILES John Cage American Composer 1971 14clasno 19score
The most famous piece by American composer John Cage (above) was “4:33,” which was “silent” for its duration.

So there is such a thing as the sound of silence after all.

A rural cornfield in Iowa caressed by a gentle wind emits about 45 decibels of sound. Standing alone in a deserted section of Denali National Park, you hear — or fail to hear — up to 34 decibels of ambient noise.

When John Cage, composer of the famous orchestra piece “4:33” — the musicians sit in silence — entered an anechoic (soundless) chamber at Harvard University, in 1951, he complained about the noise. The chamber was absorbing sound, actually registering minus-13 decibels.


But Cage heard noise. “The high one was your nervous system,” an engineer explained to him. “The low one was your blood circulating.”

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Cage is one of the stars of Patrick Shen’s endearingly oddball documentary, “In Pursuit of Silence,” which will have a rare showing at the Amherst Cinema on Tuesday. Another of the movie’s quiet sensations is Nashua, N.H.’s Greg Hindy, a 2013 Yale graduate who spent a year walking across the United States, without speaking a word.

Hindy is now living and chatting in Austin, Texas. What about extended silence, I asked him? “There’s something to be said for it,” he replied.

I’m not one of those people who frets constantly about noise pollution, and while it’s true that I favor the Quiet Car (decibel count = high 30s) on my occasional trips to New York, I enjoy a normal conversation (55-60 decibels) as much as the next person.

But you have to admit, these are awfully noisy times, both figuratively and literally. A few years ago, I branded the endlessly posturing Senator Elizabeth Warren as The Big Noise, but compared with the leather-lungs in the White House, I would have to rechristen her the Still, Small Voice.


That’s just the metaphorical noise. Have you eaten out lately? The Washington Post recently discovered that more than half the eateries they review have 70-plus decibels of sound. For comparison, Logan Airport tries, and doesn’t always succeed, in keeping surrounding decibel levels at 65 or below. The Environmental Protection Agency deems levels over 70 to be “excessive” and “possibly harmful.”

Back to Shen’s movie. You knew that the Trappists, who generally observe vows of silence, would show up sooner or later, and indeed they do. Left unmentioned is Thomas Merton, perhaps the best known, and most garrulous, 20th-century Trappist. Merton, a revered writer, left us 400 hours of recorded homilies, and — forgive me for pointing this out — died while on a worldwide speaking tour.

“In Pursuit of Silence” has some cute quirks. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern remarked that “the necessary paradox of Mr. Shen’s enterprise is that the film’s silent stretches are repeatedly broken by people talking about silence.” I couldn’t help noting that Shen will gladly sell you the movie sound, er, silenttrack: “10 recordings of silent spaces captured from around the world during the making of ‘In Pursuit of Silence.’ ”

In the fourth grade, I had a teacher who made us write out verses from Ecclesiastes when we spoke out of turn: “Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter anything before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.”

Translation: Ssssh.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @imalexbeamyrnot.