Escaping the Noise Machine

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Writer George Prochnik found himself increasingly assaulted by noise. Starting from his office in mid-town Manhattan, Prochnik set out to explore how noise came be so all-pervasive, and how the absence of silence in our urban and suburban environment is shaping entire generations. In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise also takes Prochnik to monasteries, soundproofing manufacturers and secluded natural settings as he seeks out increasingly scarce silent environments. Prochnik talked to The Atlantic about architectures of noise, acoustical machismo, and how city-dwellers might be re-sensitized to natural harmonies through the experience of profound quiet.

You write that classical and Gothic architecture are structured along what are essentially acoustic harmonics, and then describe how the spaces we create now are completely screwed up, acoustically. Is modern architecture one reason why noise in cities is so extreme?

I think that in broad strokes one can say yes. In many instances the Victorian design ethic, the muffled interior, the padded space, has been replaced—consciously defeated—by a very simplified, reductionist. cacophonic expansiveness.

In restaurant architecture we see a removal of all of the noise-dampening interior decoration that in the past was considered de rigeur for a certain caliber of restaurant. Tablecloths are removed, the carpet is gone, the curtains and cloth napkins are gone. These spaces actually become echo chambers. The effort to construct something that is going to feel visually open and expansive is also, in many cases, consciously trying to up the volume as a way of upping the energy of the space.

I am very troubled by the ways that we've turned our public spaces into noise dumping grounds. It is a consequence of malign neglect, and it is why so many people don't have an experience of anything else but noise. Architecture is one way out of this trap.

One contemporary architect who is deeply embedded in silence is Louis Kahn, and there are a few others who have imbued their work with that value. That's what I found at Gallaudet, the university for the deaf in Washington, D.C. I was so struck by some of the work of some of the contemporary urban planners who are working in soundscape design, and how simple some of these solutions are. Like the "pocket parks" that I write about, these undertakings are not economically extravagant. Moreover, they don't require us to "just say no to noise". They show another path.

Noise dumping grounds? Really?

I mention near the end of the book what it was like to go around with these people who do spontaneous meditation on the streets. We were moving around Columbus Circle, a neighborhood I walk through frequently. We would just drop down, shut our eyes, and meditate for a few minutes. Now, I'm reasonably aware of the sounds of my environment, but by the second or third time I did this, not only couldn't I meditate, but I felt like I was in a movie theater with Sensurround sound, playing a horror movie soundtrack of unbelievably frightening dimension. The mechanical cruelty of what I was hearing—which I had been absolutely oblivious to.

Do you remember Koyaanisqatsi, the impressionistic documentary that came out in the 1970s? The title is a Hopi word for a world that has gotten out of harmony with nature and natural law, and has fallen into disorder. When I read what you'd written about how modern architecture had gotten away from classical principles that are founded in the principles of acoustics, I was struck by that.

In certain Cistertian architecture there was an encompassing effort to imbue all our different environments, whether they acoustical or visual, tactile or olfactory, with harmony.

That very much speaks to a natural order of things. I cite that line from Boethius, "We love similarity but hate dissimilarity." One definition of noise used by many acoustical engineers is the idea of multiple dissimilar frequencies of sound. It's a relevant definition because of many of the things that we know now about some of the stressing of fundamental frequencies can produce aggression and tension. But when we say, "Well, we can't build Cistercian cathedrals in a contemporary metropolis," we end up leaving all of those classical values behind.

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Douglas Gorney is a writer living in San Francisco.

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