In Pursuit of Silence, Interview with Director Patrick Shen


In Pursuit of Silence | Kickstarter campaign | @ music of sound | @ huffington post | @ pantheos

Silence has intrigued me for years, a topic that always gives you questions and open paths to discover our amazing universe. The concept itself has a lot of notions. Some value silence as sonic absence, some value it as a practice of stillness, others link it to listening, spiritual dimensions or even cultural and political aspects. No matter what we could say, silence will always remain as it is, untouchable. as David Toop says “Silence itself is conceived often as a version of time, a property of the world that maybe shattered or obliterated but nevertheless runs continuously as a background condition that is always the same.” (Sinister Resonance, pg 66)

When we face the situation of today’s world, we can easily get into this problem of our relationship with sound/silence and our lack of listening or being aware to our “silent” reality, thus making our acts unconscious, unhealthy, destructive. At this site, we have been reading and listening a lot about that, directly from individuals and groups who have found the incredible consequences of not being sensible to the sonic world around us. Natural species and environments are being killed because of the so called noise pollution. Our bombarded senses are suffering because of our lack of being still and quiet, to be just doing nothing but listening. Spiritually, culturally, socially, politically, etc there’s a need of silence, so instead of placing it as an opposite of sound, we need to establish our disposition to it in a right way and find its role not in the theories but in the practices and its value towards our sensibility and awareness not just of sound, but any aspect of reality.

Patrick Shen, director of a film called “In Pursuit of Silence” (which is currently in the last stage of his Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for finishing the film, so you can still support it), started his journey in a search of silence in his own experience. An actual silent practice that has been also important for the rest of the team at Trascendental Media, such as associate producer Cassidy Hall, who is also director of 17spaces resource dedicated to appreciate the Trappist monasteries with which she has been in contact and where has learned about this importance of silence, as she comments at Huffington Post: “Silence brings me back to what’s real, what the truth is — in the world and within myself. That’s not always a pretty thing, there’s some sort of purification effect that silence has when one practices it regularly and it’s not an easy process.”

In an article about the film, Tim Prebble asks: “what does it actually mean to ‘get used to’ living & existing in a relentlessly busy, noisy environment?” And probably that’s one of the main purposes of this film, to find routes about that concern of desensitizing towards our surrounding environments, and how silence, as an activity, can help on getting us into some kind of balance. It can be as paradoxical as we want, but the truth is, that if we’re silent, we will understand what this is all about. It is not about pursuing a concept or definition, but about making ourselves aware of several issues that are surrounding us all the time, and since many years ago, elders, monks, artists, researchers, etc have been leading to it, often using silence as a metaphor for peace and liberation, as Shen also does, when asked about his own definition of silence in an interview at Designing Sound:

“The silence I find myself thinking about most often these days is not the scientific / zero decibels notion of silence, but silence as a metaphor for that thing upon which everything lies, the substrate of our living, breathing, day-to-day experience. Silence – even the zero decibels type – after all is ever present. There’s just so much piled on top of it, noise and otherwise, that we hardly notice it’s there. So much of what silence is buried beneath is trivial, a buffer between us and the real world. I realize I’m contradicting the title of my own film here, but I think silence isn’t something you find by pursuing it. A pursuit is by nature an active process. I think we start to see/hear silence as we withdraw from action. Perhaps to move forward we need to learn to stand still a little more often.”

That’s probably something that many readers of this site are already familiarized with, since, for example, one of the consequences of field recording or listening practices is that constant surprise of finding things that we didn’t know that were there. But actually that initial realization is often the most valuable and important, since it is what actually keep us in our own search.

So in order to explore some points about the pursuit of the guys at Transcendental Media, some days ago I started talking with Cassidy Hall, who is a part of the team of “In Pursuit of Silence”. As she was very kind I got very curious and excited about Patrick’s idea for the documentary, I thought about doing some questions about their silent adventure. I was able to do a few questions  to Patrick, which I share with you below:

(Special thanks to both Cassidy and Patrick, who in the middle of this crazy stage of creation, found the time to get into the article)

Hi Patrick, thanks for accepting my invitation. I wonder which have been the most challenging aspects you’ve faced when approaching audio culture and concepts such as silence and noise. How is the relationship or division you have found between them and for example, how is the importance of sensibility in those noisy or “unbalanced” places compared to those more “silent” or “balanced?

That’s a really great question. We’ve certainly had to do a lot of explaining of our title to those who work in sound. People are often quick to point out that silence is very undesirable and not only that, it also doesn’t exist for humans. The paradox of pursuing silence, at least in the acoustical sense, is not lost on us of course. Though the film will most certainly deal with acoustics, silence is a more complex phenomenon than that. Silence has always had a very poetic quality to it whether we are talking about it in an audible sense or an emotional or spiritual one. We plan to explore many of those layers of silence in the film.

Then there is the challenge of defining noise. Most people define it as “unwanted sound” but of course “unwanted” differs from person to person and also differs within the same person depending on what sort of mood the person is in. Then there are times when it is culturally acceptable and even encouraged to make noise, say at a New Year’s party or sporting event. So, noise has a certain poetry to is as well.

Sensibility plays a huge role in how people understand silence and noise. While the beauty (or ugliness) is definitely in the eye of the beholder, there are definitely some sounds that are simply more complementary to our bodies than others. We are biological creatures who have existed in nature since the origins of humanity. Our hearing apparatus is clearly designed for that environment. The sounds of commerce and industry on the other hand are very new to our species and our bodies have not evolved to live amongst the racket of modern life. I think for most of us, a “balanced” auditory environment involves some degree of sound from the natural world.

An interesting approach in your film is that of exploring silence/sound/listening in an inter-cultural way. I wonder how that process has been. What similarities, differences or dialogue have you found within that plurality ? I guess the terms themselves feature a very rich spectrum, both in the epistemological, cultural and political dimensions. Could you give us some examples?

I think how we relate to silence and sound says a lot about who we are. There’s a beautiful practice that the Japanese used to take part in during the mid-1900s where they would gather around a lotus flower to “listen” to it bloom. I think a lot of us in the west laugh at that sort of thing, or at least are very quick to discount it. For the Japanese listening is done with one’s entire being and considers not just the auditory properties of a place or situation but also one’s personal experience, history, and socio-cultural context. I think that’s not only truer to how we experience sound, but also a much more poetic way of relating to our environment.


Another dimension that seems crucial in your adventure is the exploration of spiritual perspective towards silence, for example in your work with the Trappist monks, zen practitioners or scholars/historians focused on those aspects of our silent relationship ourselves, which is actually very ancient and profound. I wonder how has been that journey in the spiritual side (which has a deep impact in the health aspect as well, I guess) and also how is the integration of those perspectives with urban life and the realities we all face in the contemporary worlds, where this “fear of nothingness” you mention in a recent interview is so present.

It was this monastic silence that first got me interested in silence and so returning to that for this film and getting a small taste of it myself was something I had anticipated from the very start of this project. I think there’s something beautifully primal about silence. All life emerges from silence and returns to silence. Many of us talk about “returning to our roots” as a way to reconnect with who we once were, back when life was somehow more magical; as if we’ve lost our way somehow and need a reset. What’s more fundamental than that space from which we came into being? I think silence brings wonder and reverence back into the muddied mix of our daily lives. And I think with more wonder and reverence in our being, we not only move forward with more purpose, but movement itself becomes more meaningful.


Could you talk us about your theoretical background and the professionals or ideas that constitute your main axis of work? Any authors, references, books, moments, places, do you remember the most for the basis your creative process with the film?

I’m heavily influenced by the work of Ernest Becker, an anthropologist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Denial of Death. My first film was based on this work and continues to inspire me still. I think death, like silence, has a way of wiping the slate clean of all the nonsense so that we can move our lives forward in a more constructive and meaningful way. I suppose what I’m trying to do with my work ultimately is to provide people with more meaningful options to consider as they continue to navigate their lives and seek meaning.

In trying to stay true to the heartbeat of this film I continuously turn to what I believe is one of the most important books about filmmaking ever written, a book called Devotional Cinema written by the celebrated avant-garde and silent filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky. This book has just as much insight into how we should live our lives as it does filmmaking.

Here’s an example of what I mean:

“…life is full of gaps. We try to make the whole thing seem continuous and solid, but it’s actually more intermittent than we often want to admit. In a sense, for a film to be true, it has to trust this intermittence. It’s montage has to present a succession of visual events that are sparing enough, and at the same time poignant enough, to allow the viewer’s most basic sense of existence to “fill in the blanks.” If a film fills in too much, it violates our experience. Allowing intermittence into a film activates the viewer’s mind. There is an opportunity to make connections, to feel alive and stimulated. Making these connections, activating these synapses, brings the viewer into the present moment.”

Here’s another glimpse in which he discusses the importance of giving your narrative room to breathe and exist but could easily be referring to silence as well:

“If we do relinquish control, we suddenly see a hidden world, one that had existed all along right in front of us. In a flash, the uncanny presence of this poetic and vibrant world, ripe with mystery, stands before us.”

I wonder how have been you approaching the recording of the places you’ve visited. Do you record them in a particular way? What have been the challenges/goals in terms of field recording and how are your initial ideas towards the post-production process of the soundtrack present in the film? I guess this film in particular exposes some special points in terms of music, sound design, etc…

When we’ve found ourselves in an environment with unique sound properties, we’ve tried to capture them from various spots within that space in order to get a full aural picture. We’re using a RODE NT4 mic with a Sound Devices 633 recorder. We’ll use a combination of those recordings to build an authentic soundtrack for those spaces in the film. Early on, we experimented a lot with a Holophone Microphone as well, but I’m not entirely sure to be honest how that’ll work into our sound designer’s process. Ultimately what we’ve tried to do is to capture as much material as possible so that he has plenty of options to work with in post.

Finally, I see you will release an album with some field recordings of places you’ve been exploring. Could you share some of that with us? would be great to listen to one of those soundscapes.

Yes, I’m really excited about the Silence is a Sound album. It’s not just an album of field recordings but also a sound diary that tells a story about our experience of these places complete with a short essay and photos for each recording. Below is a glimpse of one of the recordings that will end up on the album which we’re tentatively calling “The Silence of Nostalgia.” It was recorded in an old abandoned brick factory in the Belgian countryside that used to be buzzing with all sorts of activity when it was operational between 1920 and 1975. An old man who has lived on the property since birth inherited it from his father who used to run the factory. Though it’s just footsteps from his home, he’s left it untouched for almost 40 years. When we finished up filming and recording in the factory, the old man invited us into his home and poured us a glass of warm Stella Artois.