George Michelsen Foy on "Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence"

Jim Fleming: 30 million Americans suffer from environment-related deafness according the EPA, so it's only natural that some people would look for relief from this never-ending omnipresent cacophony while they're still able to hear anything.  One of those people is George Michelsen Foy.  He's the author of  "Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence."  He talks with Anne Strainchamps about his efforts to track down silence, but first, he reads an excerpt from his book that explains why he embarked on his quest. It was something that happened while Foy was standing in a subway platform in Manhattan.


That day, however, just as the downtown local was coming to a halt, the uptown local came in; and at the same instant the downtown express entered the station, its seven burgundy-colored cars thundering shrieking roaring at 40 mph between the slowing locals. Immediately thereafter the uptown express, as if anxious not to miss the party, showed up around the curve from Seventy-Second Street and blasted into a station already occupied by three other trains, two moving, one now stopped.

The noise was immense. It was gut-pounding. It smacked the cosmos. Without thinking I clamped the flat of my palms to both ears and screwed my face into the scrunched expression of a root-canal patient. I usually despise people who do that on subway platforms.  Wimps, I think; milquetoast souls who cough if someone is smoking across the street, who wear cardigans and bicycle clips; for God's sake, if you're so delicate, move to an ashram!  But here I was doing the same thing. And still the noise grew, as the express trains slammed past each other in the stone tunnel, and the flanges of their wheels rocked forty-five tons of weight against the edge of rail; the whine of motors; the warning "dings" as the doors of the downtown local closed and ours opened; the grunts and plaints of sardined passengers; and the over amped voice of the conductor yelling, "Seventy-ninth, let the passengers off.  Stand clear of the closing doors."

I remember keeping my hands power-glued to my ears, even as we boarded and sat down. My daughter Emilie, who as a teenager is always alert to signs of egregious weirdness on the part of her progenitors, glanced at me nervously. But for once something had cracked the enamel coating New Yorkers must accrete to live in this town, and I kept my ears covered, cringing at the rumble that filtered through my palms; thinking, I can't put up with this kind of noise, day in, day out, any longer. I mused, this has to damage me in some way, reflected also, because that was the other wheel of this scooter of thought, I need to find somewhere quiet. And the train rumbled slower, and stopped, and the loudspeaker blatted, "Eighty-sixth, let 'em off!"  And I thought no, not just quiet; what I want now is silence.

Perfect silence.

No noise. No sound. Nothing.


George Michelsen Foy: I came to think of the city as having this monster breath. If you listen, even at 3 or 4am, stick your head out the window and listen, you hear this constant sound, this huge organism breathing all the time.

Anne Strainchamps: You also traveled to Colorado to talk with David Nighteagle, he's a Pine Ridge Lakota, and this is thinking more about cultural silence.  What did you find there?

Foy: I was looking into, as you said, cultural silence. The fact that in Western culture, and especially Western American culture, that we are very much conditioned to be suspicious of silence. There have been studies done that show that when somebody doesn't talk much, or is not very forthcoming with what they say or allows a lot of silence, essentially in their interaction, we view them with suspicion. They are seen as sly and untrustworthy. However, among a lot of American Indian cultures, the opposite is the case, where people are conditioned essentially to allow a lot of respectful silence in their interactions. When the Lakota, for example, talk in council, there's a very defined pause at the end of each person's contribution to the conversation.  And that pause is respected, and in fact, nobody will talk until somebody has something to say, which is not a bad rule to go by generally speaking, but I think we're conditioned kind of to do the opposite. The Apache, the Ute, the Sioux; all have this way of being. So, I went there to interview David Nighteagle, who's a flute-maker and a musician and somebody who' s talked a lot about (and written about) the kind of music that the American Indian make and the importance of silence in terms of making music, in terms of allowing the environment around them to influence what they're doing.  And I met a number of Ute especially who were part of his community and we talked a lot about that. It was just very interesting because of not just what they said, but the fact that they talked the way they were supposed to in the sense that they were very, very respectful, and very respectful of the silence between sentences, the silence between ideas, and allowing people plenty of time and quiet to think and to contribute what they had to contribute to the conversation.

Strainchamps: It must have made you, I don't know, come home and begin to think about even conversation differently. Did you feel that you almost tuned your ears to listen differently?

Foy: Yeah, oh definitely.   And I think that's one lasting effect of this quest was that I do think about every aspect of my life differently. I think about it in terms of not only of what I have to say and the noise that I have to make to sell my books or to tell my kids something, but also the flip side of that, which is what I have to say is not only defined by the ideas that structure the words that I'm coming up with, but it's also defined by the silence and the space that I leave around those ideas and those words; and the ability to listen that implies; and also, there's a greater structure that happens, I think, when you think about the pauses between what you say; the pauses that happen in music; the pauses that you allow in your life.  There's something else that happens. Our lives are very much defined by rhythms. There have been studies done that show we tend to work in cycles of fifteen or twenty minutes, after which our energy and attention lags a bit. We actually need, apparently, organically, a downtime at that point. I think silence works into that in ways that we don't yet fully understand.

Strainchamps: That's fascinating. So we're physically designed to need silence, to need the pauses.

Foy: That seems to be the case.  And I think some of the playwrights and artists who have used a lot of silence in their work understood this organically. One of my favorite playwrights is Harold Pinter, and my actor friends call him "Harold (Pause) Pinter" because he puts so many pauses in his work. He and Beckett both generate these (or generated) these plays that are incredibly tense because there is so much space and silence packed around the words that by definition, the actors and the people who watch them have to pay way more attention to what is finally being said after those pauses; after that silence; after that tension has mounted; and after you've had time to kind of absorb everything around them, because people aren't actually saying something right at that moment.

Strainchamps: You're sort of suggesting that silence is not so much a negative¦ it's not just the absence of sound in and of itself, it's maybe a thing itself.

Foy (pauses a few seconds): Can you feel yourself really waiting for me to talk right there? (Anne laughs a little) It is! I think it is. I think we're going to come to a greater understanding of that as we understand more about our own rhythms and the way we process information and how much I think we need to take time to understand what we're doing; understand, especially in this society, how huge the amount of information we're expected to see; listen to; digest; absorb; use. Actually, absolutely unprocessible amounts and yet, we're subjected to just tremendous, tremendous amounts of data -- visual, oral and so forth.  And I think that society is going to, at some point, ascribe way more importance to stopping that for a moment, or an hour or what have you, enough time to be able to readjust our lives; to analyze what's come in; to cut away stuff that we don't need from this massive overdose of information; and that to go on with a more balanced rhythm; with maybe a more balanced thought process because we've taken time off from being subject to all this noise; to all this information.

Strainchamps: Along your quest, you searched out the quietest place on Earth and this is a laboratory in Minneapolis?

Foy: Yeah, it's actually a sound studio plus lab, and it's a wonderful place.  And the owner, Steve Orfield, is just this wonderful, forward-thinking, free-thinking guy. Within the Orfield lab sound studio, there is an anechoic chamber which is the best in the world in terms of just cutting out all noise; cutting out all sound.

Strainchamps: What's an anechoic chamber?

Foy: Well, it's kind of like what it sounds like; it sort of, "an" being the Greek for "no" or "not," and there's no echoes because there's just no sound. It's three concentric cubes of steel and concrete and within the innermost cube, the walls are completely covered with sound-absorbent material, you know, the doors are thick, kind of battleship type doors,  and it's rated to minus 9.4 decibels. 0 decibels is kind of the quietest noise that anybody can hear at that level. This is rated to about 10 times less than that, and that only makes sense in instrument terms because instruments can pick up what the human ear can't.  "The Guinness Book of Records" rates it as the quietest place on Earth.

Strainchamps: And this is a place that, supposedly, humans actually have a hard time withstanding?

Foy: Yeah, there apparently were instances of people going in there and kind of freaking out because they're not used to it.

Strainchamps: You went in though, right?

Foy: I did. I did, and apparently there was something called the "Orfield Challenge" whereby if anybody could stand being in there for 45 minutes with no sound and total darkness and so forth; they would get a case of Guinness, which had something to do with the Guinness Book of World Records I think...but I went in there...and I went in there for 45 minutes and far from freaking out, I actually loved it! I guess I was sort of the right person to love it because I was looking for total silence... I was looking for absolute...even if it didn't exist...and that was as close as I will ever come to it before I croak (Anne laughs). And it was wonderful when I went in there and they shut off the lights because lights actually can produce a little bit of a buzz and they closed the doors and I was there until darkness on this kind of spring-loaded gridwork because the floor would creak if you walked on it, and for a few seconds there, it was just wonderful. I felt as if I'd found the grail. It was like this bubble ... this conceptual bubble, because within the bubble, there was nothing and that's the only way I could visualize it.

Strainchamps: What did you do for ... like the 45 minutes in there? Did you just sit and listen to the silence? Did you move around?

Foy: Well the total feeling of total silence only lasted a few seconds and then of course I became aware that I was making sounds breathing, so I tried stopping that for a little while, but when I stopped breathing, I became very aware of my heartbeat, and when I tried listening between my heartbeats, I heard other things. I could hear my pulse, which isn't quite the same as my heartbeat because it makes noise in other parts of the body...

Strainchamps: You could hear your pulse...

Foy: Yeah, it was amazing. If I frowned, I could hear ... I was concentrating on hearing nothing... I could hear my scalp rubbing over my skull, which is a bit eerie.

Strainchamps: I'm frowning now and I don't hear anything!

Foy: No, no, well... you're listening to me. On top of it all, there was another sound that didn't seem to equate with either the heartbeat or the pulse or the breathing or anything else that I could figure out. It was this kind of rhythmic scraping sound that happened. The only thing I could think of was ... having grown up in a waterfront area... there's a kind of dredge called a bucket dredge, that just rhythmically clanks around and scrapes mud off the bottom of the harbor and dumps it into a barge, and that kind of rusty, rhythmic, metallic clanking was what it sounded like... and I never figured out what it was ... I've a good idea what it was, which is a form of tenitis... but I spent a good amount of the time trying to figure that out and fairly obsessively at first and for awhile I just tried to enjoy it. I walked around a bit trying to see if I was disoriented because some people are disoriented due to the proximity of the inner ear balance system and the outer ear hearing system. Apparently, they affect each other to some extent. I wanted to see if I was disoriented by total sensory deprivation...

Strainchamps: And were you?

Foy: No, I don't think so... not really...except I couldn't see what I was doing or where I was going, but there was a chair that I could use as an anchor ... and then I just enjoyed it. You know, I sort of tried to parse the different levels of my own breathing and I tried to sort of analyze my heartbeat and I tried to hear the silence inbetween because I knew that was as close as I was going to get to total silence in my life.

Jim Fleming:  George Michelsen Foy is the author of "Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence."  He spoke with Anne Strainchamps.