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Posted by on Jun 28, 2014 | 1 comment

Designing Silence


Charlie Chaplin on ‘City Lights’

“Ideally, for me,  the perfect sound film has zero tracks. You try to get the audience to a point, somehow, where they can imagine the sound. They hear the sound in their minds, and it really isn’t on the track at all. That’s the ideal sound, the one that exists totally in the mind, because it’s the most intimate. It deals with each person’s experience, and it’s obviously of the highest fidelity imaginable, because it’s not being translated through any kind of medium.” – Walter Murch

Silence can be sonic; sound can be silent. We’re always listening to both. When we listen to a sound, we listen to a silence. When we listen to silence, we listen to sound. The dualism behind this is just an illusion, because in reality, we only find one thing, a single coin, with two faces, but a single coin.

There’s always sound in silence, always. There’s no such thing as sound without silence. There’s no such thing as silence without sound. Both are always dependent on each other and get differentiated just because of our fantasy of reality. We could think as silence as “absence of sound” but that will not be in an absolute way because there’s no place without sound, there’s no time without sound. Silence is absence just in partial ways, depending on the wave, all the time attached to the context the absence of a particular sounds, or just the choices around the speakers can’t reproduce.

Finding the sonic silence

“Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture; by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, audience, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.” – Susan Sontag

In a previous article, I explored the notion of silence directly related to the listening experience. This time I wanted to treat another perspective of silence, related mainly to the aspect of sonic thresholds and the frontiers of non-audible/audible, meaning the silence related to the sounds we can’t hear, but are still “there” to talk. This is the so called musical silence, the zero note, an implied sonic space.

The interesting fact here is that sound itself is silent. Sound is impossible to catch, is invisible and exists as a direct reflection of impermanence, the transitory and ephemeral essence of everything that exists. Sound is never “there”, it just passes over leaving prints we call sounds, when there are not really sounds but silent things. A film features a sequence of sounds as it does as a sequence of silences, capable of narrating any time, with or without information. Any decision, is telling stories all the time.

SFX = Silence effects

“But more than the rupturing of sound, it is in the silences themselves that we find the loudest call to listen and strongest imperative to interrogate, contemplate, and resonate. […] Silence is not, then, the absence of sound but its essence, and the body of the subject is its origin and end point.” Lisa Coulthard

As Kim Cascone states, when we record sound we’re not capturing the soul of sounds, but copying them, just making prints of vibratory events but not really capturing any sound. It’s a process of illusion: vibration-data-vibration, but what is really what we’re listening to? Recorders capture data and codify data.

Computers reproduce data and are able to make it sonic, visual, apparently tangible and plastic, but sounds are not there, are not even in the acoustic space. There are no sounds in the computer, just files, silent files. The hard drive makes a sound, the keyboard also. But a sound file, where is the sound? All those sound effects we supposedly store and use, are not really in the machine, but in the process of listening, in the silent nature of the mind.

That leads us to think that the soundtrack is mental and when it comes to the intention of silence in a film, for example, it has a lot of psychological sonic effects, for example as Michel Chion states: “Varying extension to the point of absolute silence is of course used for achieving effects of subjective sound. The suppression of ambient sounds can create the sense that we are entering into the mind of a character absorbed by her or his personal story.”

In fact, films were silent before sonic, and the emergence of sound in films is not just about replacing the silent movie with a noisy one, but creating a dialogue with what silence is already telling before the soundtrack arrives to the game.

We can use no sound in a scene or a particular moment of any sonic composition and we would be still making sound in the mind. Maybe, before thinking “Which sound should I put in this moment?” we could do the exercise of asking us… “And what if I put no sound in there? Could be that void more effective? Could a scream of silence be more terrifying than a noisy one? Or what about the silence after the sonic howl?

One way perfect for understanding this, is by the use of “silence effects”, to leave those spaces for the audience. Not for leaving them empty, but for creating space to imagination, tension, and expectancy. There are a lot of examples of films on which great directors and sound designers are not specialists on putting sounds, but also on kicking them of. As Rob Bridgett said in his most recent article, “one of the biggest questions for us as sound designers no longer seems to be ‘What sound should it make?’ but ‘Should it make a sound?’ Is a sound always necessary?”

Silence effects are actually what make possible the sound effects to be great. Sound design and composition is usually conceived as an art of “adding sounds to the picture”, when most of the time it’s actually about “taking them off” in order to leave space for the sound to born and die, and vice versa, since sound also makes the possibility for silence to be more dramatic. Many times, in order to be more accurate in terms of the emotion/story of a piece, the real choice is to pick up the right amount of audible and inaudible sounds, to hide some of them and to put some others. Or… how could we separate sounds without the possibility of silence? What if every sound would have all the frequencies?

Chion also talks about the implication of silence in the variation of loudspeakers, since when having the possibility of choosing on which speaker put audible signals while excluding others, it creates activity of silence around the sound, with that not only making empty space, but establishing a focus to the sonic signal.

“This silence, which reigns around isolated words or sounds, imparts a particular new intensity to certain scenes. It appears, moreover, in some of the earliest Dolby films and the even earlier ‘magnetic soundtrack’ films. […] Dolby cinema thus introduces a new expressive element: the silence of the loudspeakers, accompanied by its reflection, the attentive silence of the audience. Any silence makes us feel exposed, as if it were laying bare our own listening, but also as if we were in the presence of a giant ear, tuned to our slightest noises. We are no longer merely listening to the film, we are as it were being listened to by it as well.”Michel Chion

Silence is always present, both in the editing and mixing stages, always challenging our sense of space and deeply affecting the storytelling, because it not only opens space for the imagination, but also shapes the form of sound itself. Silence is the shapeless essence of the soundtrack, like if the aesthetic of emptiness would be the responsible of the aesthetics of sound. Maybe, a soundtrack is not about the amount of sounds, but the effectiveness of them, which is usually a silence-driven choice.

Organizers of Silence

In the same moment we organize the presence of sound, we are also organizing the space where it develops, which is silence. That is not just a charge of shaping audible forms, but also to give life to inaudible materials. We’re designing silence for people, spaces of listening, and habitats for sonic organisms. Time makes sound alive and editing/performing tools allow us to not only organize sounds, but spaces between them, as those silent notes in music theory.

There’s even the possibility of silence in the use of sound itself, by adding inaudible space to the audible shape, thus creating silence from the subtlety of audio information. That is the use of room tone as an almost silent, almost inaudible form, the fabrication of atmosphere with a bit of presence and a wide open absence, which in the logic behind storytelling, is not absent, but able of creating a new way of the signal and its occupation.

“However, this zero-degree (or is it?) element of the soundtrack that is silence is certainly not so simple to achieve, even on the technical level. You can’t just interrupt the auditory flow and stick in a few inches of blank leader. The spectator would have the impression of a technical break” – Michel Chion

And it’s not only something that happens in time or amplitude, because silence is present also in frequency and the grain domains. For example, in sound composition that features the use of microsounds and subtle audio signals, there’s an impressive use of that inaudible space and its call for details, which is actually created not because of what’s not sounding, since it’s not possible to isolate that, but what’s sounding. Silence is created because of the use of sound and is as subtle as sound can be. Take the example of one of the sound work of a great artist, Bernhard Günter:

Sound organizers are silence organizers, capable of valuing the apparent absence of sound. Many of the greatest sound designers have made an incredible use of silence, shaping it as powerfully as sound. That emptiness state is able to tell, narrate, and condense emotions. It plays an important role and is something we could have always in mind.

In music composition there’s a big importance of the fact of being able to silently listening and to give attention to what’s not being audible. There’s too much happening in that apparently empty room and the dynamics created in time are actually dependent on that silent sonic dialogue.

A call for the silent sound

Sound is always emerging, living and coming out in silence. What is always there is emptiness, not the form, because the form is transitory, but the silence always remains, even when sonic phenomena arise in such massive way as it does. Billions of billions of microsounds are constantly being arranged to create sounds and related, collapsing and interacting each other in order to create sound objects, soundscapes and complex networks of vibratory activity.

The soundtrack will always be silent and there’s no such thing as the soundtrack. The sounds are not there, just a story of silent forms. It’s a story for listening, for opening the senses beyond what’s materially the film. Silence arises the poetics of sound, capable of doing everything that’s possible with the soundtrack itself. The imaginary sounds we create and organize in the silence of inaudibility are not so different from those we believe are audible and existent. It’s just about knowing when to use them and how to establish a dialogue in between. Maybe sound designers are not complete until the recognition of sound design as silence design as well.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this, it was a very nice, inspiring reading.
    Shifting slightly to a film score awesomeness, it also reminded me of the strong impression I got when I first met the cinema of Robert Bresson.
    At first I did not understand the state of grace, wonder and otherness that his movies dragged me, then I realized that it was mostly due to the great silence in which the film’s story was dropped. Such silence also reflected the alienation, the state of loneliness, or losing heroism of his characters. It was his aphorism that a “a sound must never come to the rescue of an image, nor an image to the rescue of a sound.” …maybe a little hard for us to digest, but, how can I say, “philosophically correct”… anyway, very forefront for his time!
    Bresson actually made a very rare use of soundtracks, often rejecting the use of background music and extra-diegetic sounds in film as an unnecessary and distracting ornament, with few exceptions being sparse but precise spots of pre-existing music, sometimes recurring as a theme.
    But on the other hand he spent a great care and sponsored an extreme focused use of real-life sounds, both environments and noises arising from the things and from the actions carried out by his characters, stripped from any other sound commentary.
    “The noises must become music”, was one of his faith, as we can read once again in the book “Notes on the Cinematographer”.
    And eventually in this “music of noises”, a featured place is devoted to the “noise of silence”, which in Bresson’s films it definitely gets a dilated, immense space.

    P.S. Here a final sequence from the film “Au Hasard Balthazar”


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