As sound designers, sound editors & field recordists the ‘real’ sonic world is an endless source of both inspiration and raw material. But it is also the school in which we learn; every day, 24/7 our perceptions are active to varying degrees, providing sensory input and creating memories. And in many creative situations our personal realities are our reference. Our experiences inform how we interpret, recreate and manipulate sound as it relates to the medium we are working in: on our screens and in our individual & collective imaginations. You are the sum of your experiences, and while this may be an obvious statement it still bears repeating, as it is a reminder of how important it is to put yourself in the path of interesting experiences.
Training your perceptions & building memories are two crucial aspects of expressing yourself in sound and relative to last months theme on Designing Sound of silence I thought I would revisit two extreme experiences I have had in my life, both involving near-silence and both occurring in anechoic chambers, although the two experiences were more than 20,000 miles and quarter of a century apart.
Anechoic chamber 1: Engineering Deptartment, Canterbury University, NZ
Back before I went to Film School in 1990 I spent a number of years as a disgruntled electrical engineering student at Canterbury University in Christchurch, New Zealand. Disgruntled because despite progressing through the stages of a degree I was not finding myself any closer to career that I actually wanted. Other than hanging out with friends studying fine arts & film, I was always keen to find anything, anything at all, that was more interesting than sitting in tedious lectures and one day it happened.
We were taken into the Acoustics Laboratory where some slightly odd gentlemen in lab coats introduced us to their anechoic chamber. I don’t remember the details of their dry technical introduction but I will never forget the feeling of walking into that vacuous space, devoid of acoustic… And then the door was closed. Memory imprinted, permanently.
The room has a background noise level of 18dBA but reflecting on it now, it would not have been the level of quiet that impressed me. I grew up on a rural farm in a location remote enough to have a huge dynamic range of ambient sound: quiet was not hard to find. But the lack of acoustic made my spoken voice sound like it was actually thought, inside my head, not out in the real world. Effectively a perceptual disconnect occurred, between my mind and my body. Memory imprinted, permanently.
Decades later that experience still affects me, and throughout my film career silence (& manipulation of acoustics) have been techniques I have considered & invoked regularly. At the start of each film project one part of my modus operandi, after the initial spotting session with the director, is to first ask what they imagine as being the loudest moments in the film, and once those have been discussed, to ask what is the quietest moment. This question of quietness shifts analysis & discussion away from the endless to do list the director has carried all the way through the picture edit, and returns it to the evolution and shape of the script: the emotional beats so carefully carved out. This second conversation tends to be far more interesting than the first: overt exposition vs emotional arcs.
Over the years and course of many feature film projects I have noticed that emotionally these ‘quietest moments’ are also often the most profound, emotionally resonant points in the arc of the film. Moments of self realisation for the protagonist, turning points, the emotional eye of the storm. Not because we have made them silent but because that is the most powerful means of transferring that moment directly to the audience. The reductive transition from the fully realised sound world of the film to emptiness – an audience alone with their own experience. The films I am most proud to have contributed to contain these silent moments and I can instantly recall them: the man at the bottom of a hole, digging a grave for his wife. A woman in the middle of a thrashing storm at sea, realizing her lover has just died. A man for whom his next action will dictate the entire course of the remainder of his life.
I remember reading many years ago, an interview with a leading film sound designer explaining how you cannot use true silence in films. The primary reason given struck me as a straw man theory of epic proportions. Apparently ‘true silence’ would be interpreted as a technical error and would be rejected by inevitable QC checks. I cannot remember who it was who said it, or where I read it, but I can only presume the poor person had actually experienced a silent technical fault (e.g. a ‘drop out’ as might occur on a bad punch-in when recording to multitrack tape) and become permanently scarred by it. The truth is that the only way a silent moment could be considered a technical fault would be if it was incredibly badly implemented, i.e. it actually was a technical fault, intended or not. If the use of a silent moment pulls you ‘out of the picture’ then that should be very apparent during the mix and/or during mix screenings, the same way other all other dramatic moments are considered, reconsidered & evolved.
In my experience, moments where silence is an ideal expression for a film can reveal themselves in many different ways. Sometimes they are easily identified during sound editorial and the elements are created with this in mind. But sometimes they are only discovered on the dub stage, amonst the full context of the final mix. But just as with the interesting conceptual discussions they create with the director, such moments always lead to very interesting work for re-recording mixers. Transitioning to and from moments of silence can require a different philosophical approach than that of shaping music, ambiences & sound effects around dialogue and action. Making such transitions appear seamless can totally alter the way that production sound, ADR, breaths and foley are utilised. As anyone with any experience in minimalism will tell you, as you reduce the elements it can reveal the true nature of the remaining elements, a nature that was not apparent in a busier context.
Anechoic chamber 2: ICC Gallery, Tokyo, Japan
Prior to my first trip to Japan in 2007, I invested a lot of time researching aspects of contemporary Japanese culture. I already had a basic knowledge of contemporary Japanese film makers so I focused my research on contemporary art, artists, architects, graphic design, street art, galleries, museums & locations that might lead to interesting experiences. In some ways I needn’t have worried, in Japan every experience was deeply fascinating. But amongst my research I came across a group exhibition of digital art being held at the ICC Gallery, a gallery funded by telecommunications giant NTT, presumably as a form of public research and development. Included in the exhibition was a work that insatntly caught my eye: Anechoic Room – now this I had to visit!
Arriving in Japan for the first time is an almost overwhelming sonic adventure – there are so many contrasts to how sound exists and is considered in the West. One of the first clues I noticed was in the station & on the train from Narita airport into Tokyo: there were signs in the train carriage politely insisting that phones be switched off, or at least be silent, and answering a phone was clearly discouraged. Similarly in many temples and some parks, quiet was explicitly requested.
But don’t get me wrong, Tokyo is not a quiet city by any means. But the contrasts in ambient sound can be vast, for example moving from the reverential hush of a temple directly into a street scene straight out of Bladerunner can almost create perceptual whiplash. But just as quiet plays an important role in Japan, so does noise. Scattered throughout Japan you will see huge buildings lit up like a living advertisement for neon, and if you venture close enough to peer inside you will be greated with an unimaginable cacophony:
Pachinko is a legal form of gambling in Japan, and while the game involves firing small ball bearings into a machine, the combined soundtrack of the rows and rows of machines is akin to some combination of an 8bit heavy metal concert and an industrial factory. When I asked a Japanese friend why anyone would subject themselves to such a dense loud space, he hypothesised that maybe the people liked to lose themselves in the noise, in a way parallel to how a meditating monk might do the same with quiet.
Pachinko aside, finding the ICC Gallery for the first time involved passing through some intense sound spaces. The first was exiting from the Yamanote loop train line at Shinjuku Station, a station which sees over 3.5 million people transit every day (that is close to the entire population of New Zealand!) – it is an experience of beautifully ordered chaos.
As I was in no hurry & happy to get lost along the way, I walked to the ICC Gallery, eventually finding it deep within the massive Tokyo Opera City Tower. At last, up an escalator and my journey across 2 decades & thousands of miles had ended!
While the anechoic chamber was not as large as the University one of my youth, the effect was almost more profound due to the journey getting there. Taking my shoes off I entered the room, noticing the panic button on the wall & closed the door. Intense quiet filled the room, every subtle movement I made seemed amplified and the sense of dislocation from the ‘real’ world while at first was relaxing, slowly became oppressive. No need for the panic button, but my thoughts of spending an hour or more inside there soon evaporated and I craved to hear the surrounding reverbant gallery spaces, and mroe than anything: the sounds of life. Deprivation can take many forms, but it is always context based. And being deprived of sensory input in such a stimulating place as Tokyo, put me in a similar state of mind as I experienced when visiting dry gardens in Zen temples in Kyoto. My sense of self felt reduced, my mind remained quiet and more keenly observational of the ever changing minutae that surrounded me. These feelings stayed with me clearly for the rest of the day, and to varying degrees have remained ever since.
Memory imprinted, permanently.
Apart from this being an acoustic & time travel journal for me, if there is one moral I encourage you to take away it is this: you must seek out & experience an Anechoic Chamber If you live in a large city there is a good chance there is one close at hand. Negotiating access may take some tact, but failing all else please know that there is one anechoic chamber that you can visit. And it is in one of the most amazing cities in the world. Just check the gallery schedule before you book your tickets!
ICC Gallery – Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Also worth a read: Acoustic Epiphanies in Japan