through a window, a marble bust, gold leaves, and other items hard to decipher; there's a reflection of a car in the window
Threnody (2004). Courtesy MUBI

In 1928, directors Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Grigori Alexandrov began a collective statement with a declaration: “Our cherished dreams of a sound cinema are being realized.” It was a transitional period for the medium, as feature films had recently incorporated synchronized audio, and the year prior saw the first part-talkie in Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer. Their excitement, however, was tempered. “Sound is a double-edged invention,” they suggested, wary of how straightforward implementations could “destroy the culture of montage.” Only the most thoughtful would ensure these new technologies led to innovation, and this radical change for film would be, as we now know, a permanent one. This evolution was something they may have seen as inevitable, as they noted that “the whole world now speaks of the ‘silent’ that has found its voice.”

The “voice” that those Soviet filmmakers referred to was, of course, actual voices or sounds. But there’s an unintentionally profound statement there regarding silence as having its full potential unlocked, that there exist far more possibilities for silence than we recognize. I’ve spent much of my life thinking about this and, as with most, it began with John Cage. While the American composer wrote a lot on sound and silence, the passage of time has reduced his words to basic ideas stemming from his most famous work, 4’33” (1952): There’s no such thing as true silence, the “extramusical” sounds we hear outside of a performance should be appreciated as music, silence should be considered as a true compositional and structural element, and so on.

These are perspective-shifting truths, and they certainly transformed how I engage with the world through my sense of hearing, but the music that has followed in the decades since has proven itself less revelatory than it initially appeared. Artists who are (self-)described as “post-Cage” are, in fact, regurgitating his ideas in slightly different contexts, and the results are largely inconsequential. Really, it’s works outside of this highbrow tradition of classical music (ironically referred to as “new music”) that surprise me most. One example: the 1970 LP The Best of Marcel Marceao, a long-form gag showcasing the greatest hits of a mime. Each side features 19 minutes of silence followed by a minute of uproarious applause. It’s funny in a way that most serious music isn’t.

Different contexts allow for different understandings of silence. This has never been more clear for me than when, after becoming a high school science teacher, I saw it manifesting in my classes every day. Silence can indicate critical thinking when I propose a challenging question, it can conjure up an awkward environment if someone’s joke doesn’t land, it can provide for tender moments of reflection when students accept they’re smarter than they ever realized. Silence is also a major pedagogical tool, as it can be an elegant maneuver to convey that everyone needs to be more attentive, that something important is about to happen.

I came to understand silence as instructive through the arts, and mostly appreciate it nowadays when watching avant-garde films. When you watch a silent experimental film, there’s no room for music to dictate anything. Consider the real miracle of sound as an artistic medium: it can be engaged with in a multitude of ways, but importantly, it’s one of few that people regularly interact with passively—think of podcasts you barely pay attention to, white noise machines you keep on when sleeping, or any music you comfortably leave playing in the background. What’s not considered in our passive engagement with music is that its inherent rhythms are so impactful that they can readily overwhelm filmic ones, which is why it’s such a travesty that countless avant-garde films are ruined by poor considerations of audio. Beyond the mere content of the music being dull, it’s how it usually functions: at their worst, experimental films utilize sound as cheap mood enhancer. Through an inability to trust the images to evoke emotions and ideas on their own, directors use music as a way to fill in cognitive blanks. These artists don’t trust the audience, or even themselves.

Ten more silent films to help you see:

– Fuses (Carolee Schneemann, 1967)
Chant (Robert Fulton, 1973)
V.W. Vitesse Women (Claudine Eizykman, 1974)
Couleurs délicieuses sur fond bleu (Christian Lebrat, 1976)
Splices for Sharits (Joseph Bernard, 1980)
Midi (Teo Hernández, 1985)
The Secret Garden (Phil Solomon, 1988)
Bouquets 1-10 (Rose Lowder, 1995)
Toccata (Hannes Schüpbach, 2002)
At Sea (Peter B. Hutton, 2007)

This is why the most spellbinding avant-garde films often transcend the need for sound. Stan Brakhage, of course, is one of the most important in this regard. He understood how silence forced an acute awareness of his images: “I feel they need a silent attention,” he once said of his works. Indeed, in Window Water Baby Moving (1959), sheer joy and love are on full display as he captures his then-wife giving birth, and any emotions would’ve been stymied if audio was provided. Through extreme close-ups, rotations of his camera, and dazzling reflections of light on water, he constantly maneuvers in a tight interzone between visual abstraction and clarity. What occurs is a continual refocusing on these bodies, as if he’s reminding you that, yes, what you’re witnessing is actually extraordinary. More than anything, silence prevents what we’re seeing from diminishing into banalities.

One real power of silence comes in allowing films to be appreciated at their basest levels. It’s so often that it can lead to greater appreciation for light. There’s Brakhage’s own A Child’s Garden and the Serious Sea (1991), which transforms light-reflecting seafoam into mystical colors, or Jerome Hiler’s Words of Mercury (2011), whose glimmering blues and yellows conjure up a sense of the fantastical. A simple R-L pan in Larry Gottheim’s Doorway (1971) is bolstered by silence as it leads to a more expansive understanding of how much really exists in one’s surroundings. In Nathaniel Dorsky’s Threnody (2004), silence allows for a consideration of the contrast in rhythms we encounter in our everyday lives, be it the fading of light on specific textiles, the sway of flora in the wind, or the stillness of a cloudy evening sky. Silence, as people may understand it via meditation, is a way to be more attuned to the world around us.

Even filmmakers who’ve explored sound throughout their careers often find their creative peak when employing silence. Take Bastian Clevé, whose works have been soundtracked by legends such as Eberhard Weber, NEU!, and Klaus Schulze. His silent short film Tollhaus (1979) has rapid cuts that create such an irresistibly frenetic rhythm that every juxtaposition feels like a chance to see every image anew. Such edits would be far less disorienting with a soundtrack, as it would render the footage more seamless via music’s ability to establish an overarching atmosphere. Ute Aurand’s diaristic films are often made more sentimental through music and quotidian sounds, but her 2020 silent film Glimpses from a Visit to Orkney in Summer 1995 uses extreme close-ups of flowers to express the range of feelings defining her time with poet Margaret Tait. Silence makes each brilliant flash of color—every gold and emerald and turquoise—a pure conduit of exuberant emotion.

In the context of film, silence helps us appreciate the beauty and gift that is our sense of sight. We need to understand silence as infinite in its capabilities, that there may never be a point at which it fully “finds its voice” or stops teaching us. Just as there exists a difference between hearing and listening, there is a huge gulf between merely looking and intently watching. Silence, when used effectively, ushers us into the latter.

The Sound Issue