Escaping the Noise Machine



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.

I think of my parents, who live in suburban Washington, D.C,, which simply couldn't be more dissonant or more without moments of grace. Or where I work in midtown Manhattan where all of the new architecture is just trying to impose itself very, powerfully. We're learning so much about the way that our different sensory modalities affect each other. I found this study from the 1960s that scientist who set up a study in which the participants were subject to a very loud noise and then asked to look at different sorts of imagery. And he found that there was a temporary loss of depth perception, and also a reduction of peripheral vision.

I think that if we as a society would make a commitment to looking at the problem architecturally and educationally, rather than approaching it form a strictly regulatory perspective, that it really might be possible to get somewhere. It's got to begin with re-sensitizing people to what there is to hear out there that's not just negative, besieging noise—something you want to shield yourself from.

Psychologist Walter Thompson's experiments come to mind. A child was made to cry every time he saw a white rat, or any time he saw anything fluffy and white—even an old man's beard—because he associated it with a loud noise he would hear at the same time. And of course those principles were used in advertising—

—and used, I think, with increasing sophistication. Really more than we can consciously reject it, too, because it works at a physiological level. So much of what I heard when I spoke with people who were living in loud environments, but were not complaining about it, was a variation on the basic idea that "We can tough this out. We know how to habituate to it." If you're affected by it you're weak, you're feminine, you're antagonistic to fun. It's acoustical machismo.

In our culture we have so many ideas associated with our right to the pursuit of happiness in a sort of high energy, ecstatic form of pleasure-seeking. That low-frequency thunder which is directly part of the same family of sounds that you get on a Harley Davidson, or with a "boom car" with an oversized sound system. These are associations that we've cultivated. Taken with what we see in restaurants and the larger built landscape, I think as a society we've pivoted as a culture away from intimacy and towards ecstacy. We are prioritizing the idea of orgiastic release.

You had mentioned some kids who had had a very uncomfortable relationship with silence.

That was one of the most poignant moments for me—conversations I had with a class of kids in a school in a tough neighborhood who simply had no positive associations at all with the idea of silence. I thought to myself, "What does it even mean to tell these kids, 'You gotta be quiet, shut up, don't add to the noise?'" You're asking them to stop doing something which their entire environment reinforces as correct behavior. They don't have any alternative model of why silence should be something that they should aspire to. It just is absent from their lives.

There's that beautiful line from Thoreau, that silence has various depths of fertility, like soil. I felt again and again when I was traveling how each one of these different microclimates of silence, a pocket park or a monastery or a Zen garden or a neurobiology laboratory, had such a different texture to it. And with the array of silence that is out there, I think if we made a commitment to try to help people who don't have any access to any kind of silence currently, to explore something of that spectrum, that there really would be tempting silences there for almost everyone.