Exploring the power and relationship of the senses

Event #1, 11/9/2016: Design Film Festival ( In Pursuit of Silence)

“Silence is where we speak something deeper than our words…”

“Silence returns us to what is real.”

“If nobody’s talking, nobody’s dominating,”

I caught several films at the Design Film Festival this September 2016. One which i was looking forward to the most was In Pursuit of Silence. It is a documentary film that speaks about the beauty of silence, its spiritual and physical benefits and the effects we are experiencing individuals and collectively in our increasingly noisy world. Yet, there is an additional layer of poetics that is peeking through the meanings of the film. The trailer was strikingly thought-provoking. It was a compilation of people from different fields of specialities speaking about the ‘Silence’ itself. The visuals that were linked to silence surprised me. They ranged from big cities to vast forest landscapes. I wonder though, how would it be like to talk about the politics of silence or noise?


In the noise of the modern world, silence is fast becoming absent. As much a work of devotion as it is a documentary, Patrick Shen’s film powerfully begins with an ode to John Cage’s seminal silent composition 4’33” then passes as a piece of meditative cinema that explores the human relationship with silence and sound, and the impact of noise on our lives.

4’33” , John Cage

4’33” pronounced “Four minutes, thirty-three seconds” or just “Four thirty-three“) is a three-movement composition by American experimental composer John Cage (1912–1992). It was composed in 1952, for any instrument or combination of instruments, and the score instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. The piece purports to consist of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed. The piece refers to the total length in minutes and seconds of a given performance, 4′33″ being the total length of the first public performance.

4′33″ originated while the composer was working on Sonatas and Interludes around 1947–48. For Cage, it became the epitome of his idea that any sounds may constitute music. It was also an attestation to the influence of Zen Buddhism, which Cage studied since the late 1940s. In a 1982 interview, and on numerous other occasions, Cage stated that 4′33″ was, in his opinion, his most important work. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes 4′33″ as Cage’s “most famous and controversial creation”.

An excerpt from an article speaks of 4′33″ in the film,

Archival footage reveals the avant-garde composer John Cage ruminating on how his almost mystical relationship with silence informed his compositions, including the legendary 4’33” — a work that consists of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence (or, rather, of whatever ambient sound exists wherever this work is being performed) . Indeed, the movie begins with an homage to Cage — the first four minutes and thirty-three seconds of the film are silent, a de facto performance of Cage’s 4’33” set to a succession of lovely images. Cage (and 4’33”) dance throughout the film, with looking at how controversial the composition was when it was first performed in the 1950s, and how respected it is today — perhaps because we’re slowly coming to realize just how valuable (and endangered) silence is?


Traditionally, silence is an absence of sound. In my exploration towards how the senses and the big cities relate, I thought that the film brought up several good points worth thinking about especially towards the meaning of ‘Silence’ in today’s times. 

  • It is possible to teach an audience to appreciate a sensory experience through an art piece. John Cage’s 4’33” was initially not well-received by the public. It was perceived to be a joke of some sorts, for the audience were expecting an orchestra to be playing a music piece having paid for a concert. Recording footage showed audience chuckling, fidgeting uncomfortably and even sighing in frustration amongst the silence. However, they were later noticed to be embracing and appreciating the silence. The art piece ended with a standing ovation and was very well-received.
  • To what extent should a sensory experience be measured? A soundscape technician speaks in technical terms of how certain decibels indicate certain geographies of the earth such as the sounds of crackling ice in the snow of the poles on a fine day versus a windy day. It reveals a relationship between the measuring of a sound and the meaning of the sound itself.
  • Engaging in our senses allows us to keep in touch with our innate, most truest selves. A Japanese researcher discusses about the potential of silence within the forests that enhances human health simply because it reduces stress.

To quote, 

Silence is not just a kind of spiritual treat, but actually an essential condition for human wellness — which makes the pervasive noise of our technological world all the more troubling.


  • Senses can be a medium to express a concept. For instance, the relationship between silence and the body.The Japanese have a cultural tradition of the tea-making ceremony. During this procedure, all participants are to shed themselves of their physical possessions and partake in this meditation in silence. Silence plays an important role here. It removes people of their rank, their history and everything else that comes along with their identities. In the teahouse, everyone are equal. Because they do not speak through sound and only through their bodies, the silence mediates their positions and they only express through the common notion of tea-making. 

To quote, 

Monastic silence yields to the silence of nature and the wilderness, in a wordless recognition that silence originates from and takes us to a place beyond dogma or socially constructed meaning. Rather than promoting any kind of ideology, the film ponders insights such as Prochnik’s musing on how silence is “the interruption of the imposition of our own egos upon the world.”


  • With silence, exists noise. How does these two opposites relate? 

Additional information can be found in : http://www.huffingtonpost.com/carl-mccolman/in-pursuit-of-silence-a-q_1_b_9396596.html, http://solomonsmusic.net/4min33se.htm