The Sound of Silence

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Original Air Date: 
December 09, 2017

Restaurants, bars, coffee shops — is there any public place left that doesn’t play background music? Loudly? In this show, we’re making the case for more silence. Because perhaps some need the drone of TVs, traffic and Muzak, to drown out the pesky sound of thinking, but others go to great lengths to find respite from a blaringly loud world.

A lonely Antartic landscape.

In 1993, Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge became the first person to cross Antarctica alone. It took him 50 days. The thing that had the biggest impact on him was the silence.

A salmon-colored rock marks the spot of the One Square Inch project
Photo Gallery

One of the quietest places in the U.S. is a spot inside the Hoh Rain Forest in the Olympic National Park in Washington. It's called "One Square Inch of Silence." And it was created by the acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton.

Reaching for 0 decibels

The world is getting noisier and it's hurting us. When George Mickelson Foy got worried about all of the toxic noise in his life, he set on a quest for absolute silence.

Not playing

John Cage’s "4’33” was first performed on August 29th, 1952, by pianist David Tudor. He came out on stage, sat at the piano, and did not play. The audience was not impressed. Kyle Gann tells the story in “No Such Thing as Silence."

Marcel Marceau

For more than 60 years, the great French mime Marcel Marceau dominated stages around the world without ever saying a word. Shawn Wen documents Marceau's story in a book-length essay called “A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause.”

rock and roll

For author Jennifer Egan — whose novel "A Visit From The Goon Squad" documents the inner life of lifelong rock and roll stars—the pauses in rock ballads might say as much or more than the riffs.

Show Details 📻
December 09, 2017
August 04, 2018
April 27, 2019
February 22, 2020
August 07, 2021
December 24, 2022
Erling Kagge
Explorer, Lawyer, Art Collector, Publisher, Author
Gordon Hempton
Acoustic Ecologist, Sound Recordist
George Michelsen Foy
Novelist, Non-Fiction Writer, Creative Writing Professor
Kyle Gann
Composer, Author
Shawn Wen
Writer, Radio Producer, Multimedia Artist
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from PRX. I'm Anne Strainchamps. Do you ever crave silence? How far would you go to find it?

Erling Kagge (00:32):

Antarctica is the quietest place I ever been.

Anne Strainchamps (00:37):

That's the Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge.

Erling Kagge (00:42):

I'd been forced by the company who owned the plane that flew me to bring a radio. The last thing I did in the plane was to leave the batteries in the rubbish bin.

Erling Kagge (00:55):

Alone on the ice, I could both hear and feel the silence. Everything seemed completely flat and white. Mile after mile, all the way to the horizon. I walked alone to the South Pole. There was no human noise apart from the sounds I made. In complete isolation, I began to notice that nothing was completely flat. Even the whiteness was transformed into countless shades of white. Tints of blue surfaced on the snow, somewhat reddish, greenish, and slightly pink. The landscape seemed to be changing along the route, bu I was wrong. My surroundings remained constant. I was the one who changed.

Anne Strainchamps (01:54):

In 1993, Erling Kagge became the first person to cross Antarctica alone. It took him 50 days, and the thing that had the biggest impact on him was the silence. So think about that. When was the last time you had more than an hour or two of complete silence. And I don't just mean sitting alone in a quiet room because you can do that and still feel bombarded by mental noise. Emails, texts, news alerts, to-do lists. In which case, what is silence? Do we need it? And where do we find it without going to the South Pole? Steve Paulson asked Erling Kagge for some advice.

Steve Paulson (02:43):

Erling, how do you define silence?

Erling Kagge (02:46):

I think about silence not as the opposite to sounds, but more like the opposite to noise. And noise, I'm thinking about, obviously heavy sounds, but also all these distractions you have throughout the day from our smartphones to tablets. Also noise and sense of traffic and lights, that's the opposite of silence, and I think that's the biggest challenge to the daily life today, that revealingly having all of these distractions that kind of make it really hard to appreciate ourself, that kind of noise is about running away from yourself, running away in sense that being connected to a smartphone, tablet, TVs, all the people, while silence is about focusing on yourself. Not in a sense that you should be even more egocentric or turning your back to the world, to me it's about the opposite. It's about silence, it's about opening up, seeing people, and love life even more.

Steve Paulson (03:52):

So this is a very expansive definition of silence. You're not just talking about sound, you're talking about something much bigger.

Erling Kagge (03:59):

Yeah. Absolutely. And I think this silence, of course, it's nice to be surrounded by silence, but somehow you can't wait for silence to appear. So sometimes, especially in the cities, you need to create your own silence. You need to search for the silence within the silence, which is there all the time. Your silence will be different from my silence, and the silence I had yesterday is different from the one today because in this silence, you need yourself.

Steve Paulson (04:29):

Now, you have gone to extreme measures to experience this kind of silence that you're talking about. I mean, you're the only person in history who's traveled to both the North and the South Poles and climbed Mount Everest on foot without any help and without any radio contact. How did those experiences shape your understanding and your appreciation of silence?

Erling Kagge (04:49):

You know, I think in particular... I was the first to do this, people have done it after. But in particular, for me to walk to the South Pole totally by myself, 50 days and nights under a midnight sun, changed my attitude towards silence because I experienced how enriching silence could be, and how important it is. People talking about silence today, it's not a trend, not a fad. This is something deeply human we have needed for thousands of years, and also need this year and the years to come. I mean, the walk there by itself, no radio contact, it's hard to see that sometimes your brain can be wider than the sky.

Steve Paulson (05:31):

Let's just pause for a moment and put this in context. You walked for 50 days alone in the Antarctic. That is just mind-boggling. I can't even imagine having that much time alone, and not to mention the danger involved.

Erling Kagge (05:48):

But you know, when you hear about it on the radio, it sounds a bit crazy and mind-boggling. But actually doing it, it's not that crazy in the sense that all you need to do is put one leg in front of the other enough times, and you get to the South Pole.

Steve Paulson (06:05):

It's that easy.

Erling Kagge (06:07):

Even our mouths can eat an elephant. It takes small portions.

Steve Paulson (06:10):

But you're pulling a sled during all of this, right?

Erling Kagge (06:13):

So I had a sled with everything I needed for the whole trek because nobody had done this before, I was uncertain how many days I was going to spend so I had food for 66 days and fuel for 70 days, my sled, and I was eating about one kilo every day, so I started at 120 kilos, which is probably 260 or 270 pounds, and it got two pounds lighter every day.

Steve Paulson (06:41):

So you were a lot lighter by the end of the trip.

Erling Kagge (06:43):

Yeah, the sled was lighter and I was lighter because, of course, you burn off much more calories than actually put in.

Steve Paulson (06:49):

Yeah. Now that is also just a lot of time alone with your own thoughts, and a lot of people just wouldn't be able to handle that much time in their own head.

Erling Kagge (07:00):

Yeah, but you know, I think that's only partly correct in the sense that if you actually are in that situation, I think humans' talent for actually adapting to the circumstances they're in is huge. So I think most people would appreciate actually being by themself. Maybe not for 50 days and nights in Antarctica, but slightly more than they are. I know, of course, some people, too much silence is a big problem, but in general I think people would be better if they had a bit more silence in their daily life. So that's also why I sat down to write this book, because I felt I had something not only personal but also something greatly important to tell about.

Steve Paulson (07:44):

Can you describe what it was like, the landscape and the silence of those 50 days in Antarctica?

Erling Kagge (07:53):

Yeah, what's interesting is that when you start out walking, you feel that everything is flat and everything is white all the way out to the horizon. But as days and weeks pass by, you start to see all these details, that it's not absolutely white. You have variations of white. It's a bit reddish, bluish, pinkish appearing in the snow. It's not that flat either, you have these structures [inaudible 00:08:17] see all the details, you get more and more aware of the surroundings.

Erling Kagge (08:23):

And also, I had the same experience as most people have if they're out in nature for a long time that you kind of feel that your body doesn't stop by your fingers, by your skin. We're kind of extended into the nature, so you start to have a kind of a dialogue with the surroundings. You send some thoughts out to get all the ideas back again.

Steve Paulson (08:44):

Now you have traveled all over the world. Do you think there are different cultural experiences of silence? Is silence sort of defined in different ways?

Erling Kagge (08:54):

In the Eastern culture, silence is much more important in the daily life and it's higher valued. But also, like if placed in Japan, if you listen to people speak Japanese to children, you have all these silent breaks so you understand that much of the communication is within those silent slots.

Steve Paulson (09:14):

Which is interesting, because by comparison, I think in a lot of American conversations... Like when you, you know, either just with family or getting together with friends, there are uncomfortable silences. I mean, if people aren't just talking, they're sort of like, "What's wrong?"

Erling Kagge (09:28):

Yeah, exactly. You know as a journalist, if you're interviewing someone and after a while you turn silent, that person just have to start to speak. And that's quite often when people say the stupid things, which is important to journalists.

Steve Paulson (09:47):

The secret trick of journalists is the uncomfortable silence.

Erling Kagge (09:52):

Not even secret. I think it's obvious.

Steve Paulson (09:53):

Now, you also write about what you call visual silence. What is that?

Erling Kagge (10:00):

You just walk the streets in the city, you have all this traffic, and in the evenings you have all this light, and that to me is visual noise. I think there are many places on Earth you're not able to see stars anymore due to this visual noise. That's a bit sad because I think to look up into starry heaven is some of the best things you can do in life.

Steve Paulson (10:25):

I mean, that's interesting that you would define that as silence as opposed to being out in nature.

Erling Kagge (10:30):

When I started out writing, I thought about silence as places with very little sound, but I felt that was too limiting.

Steve Paulson (10:40):

And I suppose coming from Norway, especially when you're not in the city there, that would be part of the experience of being Norwegian, just sort of being out there under those starry skies.

Erling Kagge (10:52):

Exactly. I think almost all over Norway you would see the starry night, but also most over the States you can see starry nights, but not in the big cities.

Steve Paulson (11:00):

And I'd love to end by having you read the very last pages of your book.

Erling Kagge (11:05):

Yep. Which paths lead to silence? It is easier to find silence than many people think or believe. Leave electronics at home, take off in one direction until there's nothing around you. Be alone for three days. Don't talk to anyone. Gradually you will rediscover other sides of yourself.

Erling Kagge (11:52):

It feels good to wander on your own. I had to use my legs to go far away in order to discover this, but I know that it is possible to reach silence anywhere. You, my own three daughters, me. Follow your own path. You have to find your own South Pole.

Anne Strainchamps (12:21):

That's Norwegian explorer and publisher Erling Kagge who's reading from his book, Silence in the Age of Noise. So where else can you go to find silence? Well, one of the quietest places in the US is a spot inside the Hoh Rainforest in the Olympic National Park. It's called One Square Inch of Silence, and it was created by the acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton, as part of his paradoxical life mission to record the sound of silence.

Gordon Hempton (12:53):

Some people hear this as a recording of silence made audible by the coyotes because the echoes if you listen carefully, those echoes are so never-ending, defining the very hills they're performing. And if there was the least amount of noise in the background, the experience would change dramatically.

Gordon Hempton (13:39):

I was studying John Muir, also known as the father of our national parks, and he uses the phrase, "Snow melting into music." But of course in the back of my mind I was thinking, snow doesn't literally melt into music. I mean, it's nothing I would be dancing to or humming all day. Then I caught myself and I thought, when's the last time I really listened to snow melt? So I went to the top of Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park on a late summer day, August afternoon, and I poked my head inside of the snow bank that was melting, and this was what I heard.

Gordon Hempton (14:39):

Thank you, John Muir! And that just turned me on to all kinds of other things, and then I'll go another step. I'm going to share a very, very simple experience, and this is distant thunder. All right? Distant thunder with a cricket. Very simple. Just listen.

Gordon Hempton (15:16):

Silence is an inner experience, but it's recharged by that outer world, that environment we're inseparable from, and we forget that. I think we forget that in the city because we're so busy in our isolation booths and chambers, protecting ourselves from all these assaults of noise that we forget that we're connected to everything. In a quiet place, you are connected to everything.

Anne Strainchamps (15:52):

Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton is the founder of One Square Inch of Silence.

Anne Strainchamps (15:58):

Did you know that we're actually not supposed to put extended silence on the radio? Automated broadcast systems are programmed to trigger alarms if they detect much radio silence. So while we can talk about silence on the air, we can't have any. Somehow that just says it all, doesn't it.

Anne Strainchamps (16:18):

Coming up, is there such a thing as absolute silence? Like, zero sound? The answer is yes, but it drives most people crazy. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (16:42):

Not only is the world getting noisier, it's actually hurting us. The EPA estimates that 30 million Americans suffer from environment-related deafness. Not to mention what those ear buds are doing to your ears. Are you listening, kids? When George Michelsen Foy got worried about all the toxic noise in his life, he set out on a kind of quest for absolute silence. He tells the story in Zero Decibels, beginning on an especially loud day in New York City.

George Michelsen Foy (17:16):

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 72nd 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.

George Michelsen Foy (17:49):

Without thinking, I clapped the flat of my palms to both ears and screwed my face into the scrunch 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 flanders of their wheels brought 45 tons of weight against the edge of rail, the whine of motors, the warning dings as the downtown local closed and ours opened, the grunts and clings of sardined passengers, and the over-amped voice of the conductor yelling, "79th, let the passengers off. Stand clear of the closing doors."

George Michelsen Foy (18:42):

I remember keeping my hands power-glued to my ears, even as we boarded and sat down. My daughter, Emily, who was 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, and reflected also because that was the other wheel of the scooter of thought, I need to find somewhere quiet. And the train rumbled slower and stopped, and the loud speaker blurted, "86, let them off." And I thought, no, not just quiet. What I want now is silence. Perfect silence. No noise. No sound. Nothing.

George Michelsen Foy (19:46):

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

Anne Strainchamps (20:01):

And you also traveled to Colorado to talk to David Nighteagle who's a Pine Ridge Lakota, and this is thinking more about cultural silence. What did you find there?

George Michelsen Foy (20:10):

I was looking into, as you said, cultural silence. The fact that in Western culture, and especially in Western American culture, we're 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 suspicious. They're 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.

George Michelsen Foy (20:45):

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.

George Michelsen Foy (21:07):

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, not just what they said, but the fact that they were supposed to, in a 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.

Anne Strainchamps (21:56):

That 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?

George Michelsen Foy (22:07):

Yeah, 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 idea, the structure, the words that I'm coming out 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 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 that show that we tend to work in cycles of 15 or 20 minutes, after which our energy and our attention flags 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.

Anne Strainchamps (23:12):

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

George Michelsen Foy (23:20):

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's an anechoic chamber, which is the best in the world in terms of just cutting out all noise, cutting out all sound.

Anne Strainchamps (23:39):

What's an anechoic chamber?

George Michelsen Foy (23:40):

Well, it's kind of like what it sounds like. An being Greek for no or not, and there's no echoes because there's no sound. It's three concentric tubes of steel and concrete. Within the innermost cube, the walls are completely covered with sound absorbent material. The doors are thick, kind of battleship type doors, and it's rated to minus 9.4 decibels. Zero 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.

Anne Strainchamps (24:18):

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

George Michelsen Foy (24:24):

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

Anne Strainchamps (24:32):

You went in, though, right?

George Michelsen Foy (24:33):

I did. I did. And apparently there was something called the Orfield Challenge where by if anybody could stand being in there for 45 minutes with no sound, 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 an absolute, even if it didn't exist, and that was as close as I will ever come to it before I croak. And it was wonderful.

George Michelsen Foy (25:10):

When I went in there and they shut out the lights, because lights actually can produce a little bit of a buzz, and they closed the doors, and I was there in total darkness on this kind of spring-loaded grid work because a floor would creak if you walked on it. And for a few seconds there, 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.

Anne Strainchamps (25:35):

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

George Michelsen Foy (25:42):

Well, the total silence, my feeling of total silence, only lasted a few seconds. And then of course I became aware that I was making the sound breathing, so I tried stopping that for a little while. When I stopped breathing, then I became very aware of my heartbeat, and when I tried to listen in 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.

Anne Strainchamps (26:04):

You could hear your pulse?

George Michelsen Foy (26:06):

Yeah, it was amazing. If I frowned, I could hear while I was concentrated on hearing nothing. If I frowned, I could hear the sound of my scalp rubbing over my skull, which is a bit eerie.

Anne Strainchamps (26:17):

I'm frowning now. I don't hear anything.

George Michelsen Foy (26:20):

No, no. You're listening to me. 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 the bucket dredge that just rhythmically clanks around and scrapes mud off the bottom of the harbor and dumps it into a barge, and the kind of rhythmic, rusty, metallic clanking was what it sounded like. And I never figured out what it was. I have a good idea what it was, which is a form of tinnitus, but I spent a good part of the time trying to figure that out. Fairly obsessively at first, and then after a while I just tried to enjoy it. I walked around a bit 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, so I wanted to see if I was disoriented by total sensory deprivation.

Anne Strainchamps (27:20):

And were you?

George Michelsen Foy (27:21):

No, I don't think so. Not really. Except obviously I couldn't see what I was doing or where I was going, but there was a chair there that I could use as an anchor. And then I just enjoyed it. 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 in between because I knew that was as close as I was going to get to total silence in my life.

Anne Strainchamps (27:45):

George Michelsen Foy. He's the author of Zero Decibels: the Quest for Absolute Silence.

Anne Strainchamps (27:50):

So if the closest he could get to absolute silence was an anechoic chamber, maybe it's time to rethink one of the most controversial pieces of music ever written, John Cage's 4'33". It was performed for the first time on August 29th, 1952, by pianist David Tudor. He came out on stage, sat at the piano, and did not play. The audience was unimpressed. Kyle Gann tells the story in No Such Thing As Silence, and here with Steve Paulson.

Steve Paulson (28:35):

So from the audience's perspective, they must have thought here was this pianist sitting up there doing nothing for four and a half minutes and then he finishes, and they want to call this art?

Kyle Gann (28:46):

Pretty much. The idea of a composer taking credit for something he didn't actually do.

Steve Paulson (28:51):

David Tudor never actually touched the piano keys, right?

Kyle Gann (28:54):


Steve Paulson (28:55):

What did he do?

Kyle Gann (28:56):

Well, Tudor, it says afterward, he turned pages. The tempo was supposed to be a quarter, not equal 60, and he simply counted the right number of beats. As they would go by, he'd turn the page, and he thought that was the only authentic way to perform it.

Steve Paulson (29:12):

You said that it got outraged reaction by some people sitting in the audience. What about the press when word got out about this bizarre piece of music? What was written about it?

Kyle Gann (29:25):

It was really not well known for a long time. The New York premier took place two years later. It got two reviews. One of them just dismissed it as kind of the usual downtown bohemian exhibitionism. The other was kind of bemused and tolerant. It's gotten lots of mixed press ever since, although I was really impressed when Cage died how many critics wrote in their obituaries, wrote about that as his most distracting piece and really seemed to understand what it was about.

Steve Paulson (29:59):

You write that John Cage's 4'33" is one of the most misunderstood pieces of music ever written, and yet also one of the avant-garde's best understood. Can you explain what you mean?

Kyle Gann (30:13):

It's very widely misunderstood by people who aren't familiar with the whole context, even at that time by some who were, it was seen as something kind of cheeky and arrogant.

Steve Paulson (30:23):

Just a joke. I mean, he was going to get up there and thumb his nose at the music establishment.

Kyle Gann (30:28):

Right. Given some of the initial impetus behind the piece, I think there is something of a joke aspect of it. He first got the idea as a response to muzak because in the 1940s composers and musicians at that time were really horrified by the advent of muzak and what it was doing to the way people listened and the way it was imposing music on people and taking away people's quiet. And so the original idea was to write a four and a half minute piece of muzak because four and a half minutes was the longest thing you could get on a 78 rpm record, and that's what muzak used at the time. To sell to the muzak company so that people could get four and a half minutes of silence.

Kyle Gann (31:13):

It's hard to say that that's not a joke. He didn't really go through with the piece until four and a half years later when he had decided it was more than a joke. There was an actual joke, there was a student at the time who got in the newspaper for his plan to make silent records for jukeboxes so that people who didn't want to listen to jukeboxes could put in a quarter and buy a few minutes of respite from them.

Steve Paulson (31:41):

I think most people when they hear about John Cage's piece, 4'33", that they see this as an exercise in silence.

Kyle Gann (31:50):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Steve Paulson (31:50):

But it's not totally that, is it?

Kyle Gann (31:53):


Steve Paulson (31:54):

The performer might be.... I don't know if he's making any sound as he's lifting the piano cover up and down off the keys. I mean, you can hear the ambience in the room as well. I mean, for Cage, those things matter, right?

Kyle Gann (32:08):

Yes, they did. Cage's idea of the piece changed so much throughout his life, and he later said that he performed 4'33" every day for long periods of time. He actually removed the title from the piece and said it can be as long as you wanted it to be, and said it was something he listened to everyday. But it's impossible to distract from the piece the theatrical aspect of its premier and its early performances with the idea that somebody is sitting on stage, everybody expects that they're going to play, and they don't play. And that is the aspect of the piece that relates to Dada, the Dadaist movement around World War II, when people were doing, like, Marcel Duchamp taking a normal men's urinal and signing his name onto it as a work of art, a very similar kind of gesture.

Anne Strainchamps (33:05):

That's Kyle Gann, talking with Steve Paulson about his book, No Such Thing as Silence. John Cage's 4'33", which by the way is also the exact length of that radio piece.

John Cage (33:16):

To all of the great actors in the world, I can only name one who is actually internationally known, Marcel Marceau, will now present his romantic rendition of the tango.

Anne Strainchamps (33:35):

Coming up, the world famous artist of silence, French mime Marcel Marceau. He spoke volumes without ever uttering a word. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (33:54):

So we've discovered a few things about silence so far in this hour. We've talked about how silence is not just the absence of noise. We've also learned that there's no such thing as absolute silence, unfortunately. Next question, is there an art of silence? There is, and it was created by the great French mime, Marcel Marceau. For more than 60 years, he dominated stages around the world without ever saying a word. He's also the subject of a new book-length essay called A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause. It's by multimedia artist and radio producer, Shawn Wen, and she's such a big Marceau fan, she used to toy with the idea of creating a whole radio show about mime. Doug Gordon sat down with her.

Doug Gordon (34:41):

Shawn, when did you first become interested in Marcel Marceau?

Shawn Wen (34:45):

Well, I first heard of him when he died, actually. I was reading his New York Times obituary, and I was really surprised by the split in his life. His youth was essentially interrupted by World War II, and much of his family died in the Holocaust, and he and his brother went on to fight in the French resistance. So he was at work smuggling Jewish children over the Alps into Switzerland. Marcel Marceau was a very skilled visual artist, so he would obscure identity papers to make children look younger than they were so they wouldn't be taken to concentration camps.

Shawn Wen (35:24):

And then after that he went on to become the most famous mime artist of all time, so that was kind of like what set off the spark. Like, how do you have such a split in your life? Why would one half be so dichotomous from the other.

Doug Gordon (35:40):

Do you think it's fair to say that Marceau's career as a mime was a way of returning to and maybe continuing his childhood? Because he was kind of playing a high-level form of make-believe in his art.

Shawn Wen (35:51):

I think that that's a way that someone could think of it. One way that I think of it is, sometimes I think that he saw his way of mime as a way of trying to repair the world after it was so utterly shattered in World War II. The idea that he traveled the world over and over again, doing 200 shows a year, 300 shows a year. And doing a silent art, right? An art that transcends language. Art that anyone of any nationality could interpret, and often would interpret in the same way because he used such universalizing gestures and stories.

Shawn Wen (36:31):

I think of it less as a return to childhood than as a way of healing and trying to bring the pieces back together.

Doug Gordon (36:39):

I like your interpretation a lot more. You have a beautiful short poem about Marceau as a child. Could you read that for us?

Shawn Wen (36:46):

Sure. He imitated everything, though. It wasn't imitation. It was play. It wasn't play. He was a bird, the shape of plants and trees. Spoke silence, the language of fish. The body's boneless, loose like elastic. The form of anything that vibrates or throbs.

Doug Gordon (37:07):

That's great, and that really just kind of captures the essence of Marceau's unique talents. When Marcel Marceau performed on stage, was their music that accompanied the scenes that he performed, or was it just pure silence aside from the sounds of the crowd, the audience, and the sounds he was making when his feet would move on the floor and things.

Shawn Wen (37:25):

He performed with music.

Doug Gordon (37:26):

I'm surprised by this because I would think that music would undercut his artistry, like kind of be seen by some critics maybe as a crutch that he needs the music, just the pure silence and the magnificent way he was about to contort and move his body wasn't enough. What do you think?

Shawn Wen (37:45):

I don't think that he was so much a purist, to be honest. Yes, he was silent. Yes, he didn't speak on stage. But he was also just a great entertainer. I think that when we think of mime, there is this idea of being a complete aesthete, right? But I don't know if that was him.

Doug Gordon (38:08):

Yeah, that makes sense. Now would be a great time to have you read one of your descriptions of one of Marceau's Bip scenes. How about scene seven, Bip as skater and spectator.

Shawn Wen (38:18):

Sure. The white floor suggests a sheet of ice. Bip enters stage left, placing one foot in front of the other in a deliberately flat-footed walk. Taking a moment to admire the other skaters, he leans on an imaginary guideline, his torso slightly bouncing against its natural tension. Upstage, there are two pillars. He rests his hat on one and pulls himself up with the other so that his feet dangle over the floor. He laces his skates and waxes the blades. In a show of extra preparation, he applies wax to his armpits and his chest, and then warms up with a few stretches.

Shawn Wen (39:07):

Bip's skates populates the empty stage with a crowd of holiday revelers. As he follows a particularly skilled skater, his upper body rocks aspirationally from side to side. His head weaves in a figure eight as she glides around the rink. But his interest turns into derision. She takes a spill on the ice, he laughs and points at her. The mishap gives him bout of courage, and he lowers himself onto the ice.

Shawn Wen (39:36):

His ankles give way and legs collapse. Embarrassed, Bip climbs back on one pillar and pretends he's happy to be a spectator. On his final attempt, he starts off timidly, ankles bent inward. His body begins to wobble, and he throws his arms out for balance. He swims the breaststroke, then freestyle, trying to catch an air current strong enough to allow him to stay upright. Finally, he shifts his weight from one leg to the other, skating briskly towards the audience. Beaming with happiness, he throws out his arms and spins.

Doug Gordon (40:22):

Thank you, that was excellent.

Shawn Wen (40:24):

Thank you.

Doug Gordon (40:24):

I'd like to have you do another reading here. M on America, 1955, in which you talk about his debut in the US.

Shawn Wen (40:34):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). He arrives in New York for a two week run, but the Americans hold him over and he stays for six months. Originally slated to perform at the Phoenix Theatre, he moves on to the Ethel Barrymore on Broadway. From there, City Center.

Shawn Wen (40:48):

Applause begins before he even steps onstage. A figure in the deep. White, because it shows movement. White, because it hides the wrinkles. White, because we are frail. Marceau said... Oh, do you want to read Marceau?

Doug Gordon (41:06):

Yeah, sure. Yeah, thank you.

Shawn Wen (41:08):

Marceau said...

Doug Gordon (41:10):

Americans love something new, and I was doing something new. I brought silence onstage for the first time. I made the invisible visible. I created metaphors, and Americans saw the poetry.

Shawn Wen (41:24):

As Chaplin danced and bumbled, Marceau studied the footwork.

Doug Gordon (41:28):

I found the art in that silence.

Shawn Wen (41:32):

And he sold it.

Doug Gordon (41:37):

Marceau spent a lot of time performing around the world. What kind of impact did that have on his family?

Shawn Wen (41:44):

I think it was really hard for his family. He performed for most of the year. 200 shows a year, 300 shows a year. Most of it as a one man, solo performance. Right? It's like running a marathon. So as far as his family goes, he was married and divorce three times, he had four children, and I think that to some extent, his children felt largely abandoned by him.

Doug Gordon (42:12):

That's particularly heartbreaking that because he lost his family, his family was destroyed in the Holocaust, and then when he has this opportunity to create his own families, he really just kind of abandons them, doesn't he?

Shawn Wen (42:24):

Yeah. I think that is one of the great ironies of his life. His life is marked by one tragedy on one end where his family is pulled apart by World War II, and then on another end when he gets a chance to create his own, he basically abandons them.

Doug Gordon (42:42):

Yeah. What is Marcel Marceau's legacy?

Shawn Wen (42:46):

I think he has a complicated legacy. On the one hand, he is without question the most famous mime of our era. Right?

Doug Gordon (42:56):

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh, definitely.

Shawn Wen (42:57):

Like, name one other mime. And he has changed our visual culture. Michael Jackson modeled his moonwalk after Marceau's walking against the wind.

Doug Gordon (43:07):

Wow. We're exploring silence in this hour, and so I'm curious, what do you think Marcel Marceau and his art can teach us about silence?

Shawn Wen (43:17):

Marceau really embraced the idea of silence, right? He would call mime a silent art. He would talk about what the body could do that words could not do. He would say that words are vehicle for lying, and that the body can't lie, movement can't lie. I think that he believed in a certain truth as to impurity to physical movement, and his relationship with physical movement necessitated a sort of pointed silence.

Shawn Wen (43:48):

That said, I kind of went into this project with John Cage's notion of silence, the idea that there was no such thing as silence. Even in the chamber, John Cage could hear the sound of his own heart beating, or the blood rushing through his body. And so, in the radio version of this story, which I never end up producing, my initial idea was to create a very noisy take on mime. Right?

Doug Gordon (44:17):

Yeah, otherwise there's just a lot of dead air.

Shawn Wen (44:20):


Doug Gordon (44:20):


Shawn Wen (44:20):

Exactly. So you can hear, like, footsteps tapping on the stage floor, clothing rustling, the actor breathing, the audience gasping or sighing or laughing, chairs creaking, music. And so I think that he was very enamored with this idea of silence, but I have a little bit more of a critical notion of it. He chose not to speak, but not speaking in and of itself is not silence.

Doug Gordon (44:49):

That's a very profound statement, yeah. I think a great way to end our conversation would but to have you read the title piece from your book, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause.

Shawn Wen (45:00):

All right. I'd love to. Sound travels like water, flows into our bodies through inlets and ears. You don't have ear lids, after all. We take it in. Flesh absorbs vibrations. Noise beats at your bowels. It taps softly at the roots of tiny hairs that cover your skin. It can tickle or nauseate. The force is invisible, a ghost. Sound agitates your nerves, like wind blowing against stocks of grain.

Shawn Wen (45:29):

As we watch the mimes expressive form, we lose awareness of our own. We forget to breathe. Thank God our lungs inflate and deflate on their own. This is why at performance end, we scream, stomp our feet, and throw our hands together. And we violently reawaken to our bodies.

Anne Strainchamps (45:50):

Shawn Wen is the author of A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause. Doug Gordon talked with her.

Anne Strainchamps (46:05):

Every composer knows that you don't just write music with notes. You also write it with silence. Literally. There's that little squiggly symbol for it called the rest. Well, Jennifer Egan might have been thinking about that when she wrote her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. The book includes a chapter formatted as a PowerPoint presentation.

Jennifer Egan (46:26):

I realized that what had really been driving me to it the whole time is that PowerPoint as a form is built around the same kind of structure that Goon Squad is in the sense that it consists of isolated moments with pauses in between them. That's what PowerPoint is. First of all, it allowed for me to in a way reveal the structural idea behind the book right there, and also pauses are a big part of our perception of time. It's often when we have a sense of time briefly stopping that we're aware of its passage, and I had gotten very interested in pauses in songs because they function similarly. Well, the best [milia 00:47:06] in which to explore all of that was a form like PowerPoint which is built around a counterpoint between moments and pauses. So it really ended up serving me well in that particular case, I think.

Steve Paulson (47:19):

And it's worth pointing out that one of the characters in that chapter is this young boy who was obsessed with what he calls the great rock and roll pause. You know, these pauses in a song. Why does that idea interest you so much?

Jennifer Egan (47:30):

Well, it was another case where I wasn't so sure why it interested me so much. I had encountered it in a book that I had read in doing research on the music industry called So You Want to be a Rock and Roll Star by a drummer named Jacob Slichter who was with the name Semisonic. And they had a huge hit in 1998 called Closing Time that I think most people would recognize, and there's a pause in that song.

Jennifer Egan (48:04):

There's a pause, and you think maybe the song has ended, but then the song continues, and you're relieved, but then you also know the song will actually end. Jacob Slichter talks about how that pause came to be in the recording of the song, and there was a particular producer involved, Bob Clearmountain, who's known for inserting pauses in songs, and in fact they are called Clearmountain pauses. That idea just caught in my mind, and I was dying to somehow use pauses in the book, but I couldn't find the right way. I had an academic at one point, he was writing a book about pauses in songs, but that particular piece never quite worked. But I think the reason I was so obsessed with it, actually, was exactly the same thing that led me to the PowerPoint so it was perfect that they all converged, which was that pauses make us know that time is passing. And in a certain way, that's a metaphor for the way we perceive time in our lives.

Steve Paulson (49:10):

Oh, it's interesting, also, to hear this from the perspective of a fiction writer because I suppose it would but very easy just to write a novel that kind of races along, that doesn't give you that time for pausing. But that's not what you wanted to. You wanted to sort of force us to step back and reflect and think about how things turned out the way they did, for instance.

Jennifer Egan (49:30):

Yeah. I felt, too, that just letting time unfold in a more real time way, which is what [Proust 00:49:36] did, didn't feel... Well, first of all, it would just be literally mimicking him, but also it didn't quite feel of this moment. I think we live in a moment that's full of gaps and shortcuts and a sense of speeding up, a sense of acceleration, and then moments when that acceleration seems to stop. I guess we live in a moment that feels kind of herky-jerky to me, and I guess I just wanted to capture a sense of that and to suggest a whole epic sweep but in little parts through the refraction of little parts rather than one huge, long monster of a whole.

Anne Strainchamps (50:26):

Jennifer Egan is the author of A Visit from the Goon Squad. Her new novel is called Manhattan Beach, and Steve Paulson was talking with her. And I'm afraid it's our closing time, at least for today. To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio. Doug Gordon produced this hour. He had help from Charles Monroe-Kane and Mark Riechers, and engineering help from Steve Gotcher. Joe Hardtke is our technical director and sound designer. Steve Paulson is our executive producer, and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening.

Speaker 1 (50:56):


Last modified: 
December 16, 2022