In Pursuit of Silence (NR)

Documentary 81 min. June 23, 2017
By Daphne Howland
Patrick Shen's In Pursuit of Silence argues for an antidote to our loud, hectic, tech-driven society. He visits with psychologists, ornithologists and monks, explores John Cage's 1952 piece 4'33 (the one in which musicians don't play a note), and collects persuasive notions on the value of mindful pauses and contemplation.

The flip side is tragic: a school so close to railroad tracks that students lose hours of instruction as passing trains drown out their lessons, workers and city dwellers forced to tolerate unhealthy high-decibel environments.

But Shen overplays his hand. "All of us know that the most essential things in life are exactly what we can't express," says one expert. "Silence is our natural milieu," says another, "and the farther we get away from silence, the more we lose our humanity." Such diktats pile up, accompanied by the counterintuitively generous use of a serene but nondescript piano score.

The music, pronouncements and footage of quiet scenery can't hide the confusion in Shen's rich material. Consider Cage's 4'33, forged after the composer spent time in an anechoic chamber and designed to show that any sound, or no sound at all, is "music." It was a koan angrily rejected by its first audience; today, people clap. One especially fine rendition is a 1993 piano recording by Frank Zappa, a musician whose natural milieu was hardly silence. "The disgusting stink of a too-loud electric guitar," he reportedly once said -- "now that's my idea of a good time."
Patrick Shen Patrick Shen, Andrew Brumme Cinema Guild

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