Interviews with creatives, Sound | 18 November 2021
Richard Bentley producing sound experiences and connecting people with quiet.
Sound artist interview.
“There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
John Cage, Silence, Lectures and Writings
We all experience sensory stimuli differently — for some the ticking of a clock is calming and reassuring, for others it can be irritating beyond measure. As John Cage said “there is always something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.”
According to neuroscientist Dr. Seth Horowitz of Brown University; true silence is non-existent, in “The Universal Sense,” he says “in truly quiet areas you can even hear the sound of air molecules vibrating inside your ear canals or the fluid in your ears themselves.” He says that humans are good at choosing what they hear, and we often ignore the sounds around us at a conscious level.
We began to consider silence and the sounds that we ignore or take for granted and asked two creatives who work with sound to talk to us about their work and thoughts on the subject. Our interview with Richard Bentley is below, the other was with Gilbert Lake and can be read at the link below.
Interview with Richard Bentley, Small Silence
Richard Bentley, Creative Director of Small Silence, talks to us about his connection with silent spaces. His work delivering sound based art projects, what silence means to him, and why quiet is beneficial to our health.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I wear many hats, but the one thing my roles have in common is listening; listening to silence; listening to the everyday; listening to others. I’m a lover of silence, a bit of a sound nerd, and have a passion for exploring the relationship between what we are hearing and our experience of those sounds. As such, I’m just completing a PhD looking at soundscape and how it can positively influence our experiences of silence. More practically, I wear the labels “Sound Artist,” “Lecturer” and “Creative Director” of Small Silence.
What is Small Silence?
Small Silence is a social enterprise that supports our connection with quiet, those often brief moments of stillness in the day. Silence can be so many things and we embrace this, focusing on positive experiences of stillness that nurture wellbeing and that are supported by environments free from distraction. Often silence is approached through the separate disciplines of environmental management, health, or the arts. We work to find ways of bringing moments of quiet into people’s lives that take a more holistic approach, drawing from all three disciplines. As a result, our work is varied, ranging from identifying, protecting, and promoting quiet spaces, to developing arts and wellbeing programmes and e-health initiatives that connect people with quiet spaces. We work with a range of partners to explore new ideas and develop inventive projects.
“Silence can be so many things and we embrace this, focusing on positive experiences of stillness that nurture wellbeing and that are supported by environments free from distraction.”
How did you arrive at what you are doing now?
Being a bit quiet and introverted, the experience of silence for wellbeing is something that has always been important to me. As a meditator and sound artist, the ideas that underpin Small Silence grew quite naturally from a combination of these two practices, the exploration of the exterior and interior sound worlds. But it was during an installation that I produced with local artist friend Mark Langley that I got a feel for the deep longing for positive silences that other people have. The installation was constructed in a shopping mall and offered a quiet space for people to chill out and soak up the soundscape of local quiet spaces. Many spoke to me about the importance of quiet in their lives, veterans who found the quiet of nature helpful in coping with PTSD, those that retreated to a quiet room in the house to think or be quietly creative, people with autism who become easily over stimulated by sound. It was these discussions that provided the impetus to found Small Silence and do something to help people connect with the quiet in and around themselves.
Can you tell us about some projects you have worked on?
On one project, we identified and certified quiet spaces to help protect green spaces in urban areas. We’re also developing a series of “Contemplative arts as wellbeing workshops” for NHS staff, developing a tranquillity trail for Reading University’s Harris Gardens and working with local arts and mental health groups to produce “Slow Media” for hospital patients.
I’ve really enjoyed developing tranquillity trails for gardens and green spaces. The audio tours were perfect for socially distanced visits to quiet spaces and their production required a wonderful mix of imagination, technology and research. We recently worked with our friends at Nature Nurture to produce an app based audio trail in Colchester that encouraged residents to spend time relaxing in the beautiful Borne Valley right on their doorsteps. Researching the area’s history, recording scripts for characters, producing sound and music for the trails was a lot of fun that was well received by local people.
I’ve also really enjoyed guiding people on soundwalks of quiet spaces. These have been a great opportunity to really listen to the soundscape, share expertise with participants and capture their experience of quiet. As part of this, we used the HushCity app developed by our friend Dr Antonella Radicchi at TU Berlin, that maps and analyses quiet spaces employing a citizen science model to find out more about people’s perceptions of quiet.
Can you tell us about your work in the ICU department at the Royal Berkshire Hospital before the first lockdown?
Anyone who has spent time in hospital will no doubt recall how alien the sights and sounds are there. The familiar rhythms and flows of everyday life vanish and patients are often left with an unnerving disjuncture from the everyday. We’ve been working with Consultant Nurse Melanie Gager and ex patients at the Intensive Care Unit at the Royal Berkshire Hospital to explore how this situation could be improved. We’ve engaged with local artists and arts and mental health groups to produce a menu of softly engaging art works for patients to immerse themselves in, that are all grounded in the sights and sounds of the local area. You can find out more here.
Has the experience of lockdown had an impact on work?
Like a lot of companies, we had to move a lot of our work online to engage with people. Our “Sounds of our town” project was one such response to the unusual situation, using social media to encourage participants to capture and share moments of quiet in their everyday lives. Throughout June 2020, people captured their favourite local sounds on their phones and share them on social media. People shared sounds of bells, fountains, sizzling frying pans, water resonating metal poles and a ton of natural sounds from the local area. They commented on how this project moved their attention away from the worry and uncertainty of lockdown and helped them appreciate the more positive aspects of this quiet period. It was also lovely to have something positive popping up on social media! The lockdown also underscored the importance of local parks, waterways and other green spaces, as accessible retreats from being cooped up at home. Protecting and promoting these quiet spots is both good for the environment and local people, so we’ll be working with our partners to do just this.
“"Our Sounds of our Town "project moved their attention away from the worry and uncertainty of lockdown and helped them appreciate the more positive aspects of this quiet period.”
To what extent does sound design feature in your work, or is your work more about recording sound?
It is a mixture of both. My personal practice has moved more to straight field recording with very limited post production. The more I listen to the soundscape, the more subtle interest there is, and often that is enough. However, for audio trails and other audio products there is usually a need to use foley effects (reproducing everyday sound effects) and a fair smattering of computer-aided sound design. I’ve had fun in my studio recently, producing sounds to create the impression of burrowing underground, lots of squelching, muffled rustling and creaking, and plenty of mess!
How do you think the soundscape within our homes affects us?
Sound design in homes often gets overlooked and we rarely appreciate just how much we are affected by it. The sound of the washing machine in our kitchen goes largely unnoticed as we become habituated to it but listening a bit more closely — its screaming spin cycle amplified by lots of hard surfaces would make clear thinking difficult and encourage tempers to fray easily. Of course, being mindful of the way in which sounds affect us is of great importance, as this can help us to come to terms with sounds we cannot change. Yet, we do need to consider how the design of our domestic soundscape supports our intentions. If we want to read, other speech sounds will be particularly distracting. If we want to rest, sudden changes in the soundscape will draw our attention and keep us alert. We need to create soundscapes that support the activities we wish to undertake.
Good sound design doesn’t just support our intentions, but, like putting on a favourite record that reminds us of who we are, sound design can support our aspirations as well. Do we design-in sounds to our homes that support the people we aspire to be? Alain de Botton makes a good point in his book, “The Architecture of Happiness,”
“To speak of home in relation to a building is simply to recognise its harmony with our own prized internal song.” How do the sounds we add or let into our homes support this “prized internal song?” What sounds calm us, uplift us and resonate with that version of ourselves we aspire to be? If good design can change our lives, we need to more carefully consider how sound can help support our intentions and aspirations. If we don’t, we are missing a trick.
“Sound design can support our aspirations as well. Do we design-in sounds to our homes that support the people we aspire to be?”
How do sound and silence affect our health? Are some sounds better than others?
The physiological effects of sound and silence on our health are well documented, with plenty of peer-reviewed studies to highlight their impact. Exposure to unhealthy levels of noise increases risks to our health and can cause a significant reduction in life expectancy as a result. The benefits of quiet may include reductions in heart rate, blood pressure and minute ventilation along with increased neuroplasticity (how well the brain can adapt to new tasks). However, these common, relatively easily measured indicators give only a partial and superficial picture of the value of silence and quiet spaces.
My research has been exploring some of the more hidden benefits of spending time in quiet. One such benefit is that it can enable people to zoom out from their day-to-day activities and change their perspectives on life. This pause helps us to connect our recent experiences with our life stories, something psychologists call “Narrative Identity”. Integration of experience into this wider story is important for our mental health and wider human development, and time spent in quiet can support this.
As for sounds that support wellbeing, that’s a difficult question to answer. As individuals, we have a very personal relationship with the sounds we hear. Some people will love the sound of a vintage motorcycle engine, or the happy screams of children playing in the garden, others not. There are a few near, universally liked sounds, mostly found within the category of “natural sounds,” such as moving water and birdsong. Yet even these are dependent on the person and the context. The “Marmite” group of sounds is often the sounds of human movement. For some people, in certain situations the audible presence of others is homely, reassuring and pleasing. For others and at other times they are a distraction or annoyance. There are all sorts of factors that influence this perception such as our familiarity with the sounds, how secure we feel, whether their presence makes us feel self conscious. It’s a fascinating area to study, partly because there are very few certainties.
Are there any interesting ways you engage with sound in your home?
I have a studio-come-study which I can shut the door to and hide away in if my daughters are squealing at the latest twist in some animé love story. The studio also comes equipped with big speakers that can drown out pretty much any sound in the house if needs be! Very handy! Otherwise, I’m a big fan of bells, church bells drifting in through the open window, bells in clocks, meditation bells; I even have a mindfulness bell that rings every fifteen minutes on my computer. They bring me back to myself and remind me of what is important in life.
Do you think our relationship with sound has changed after being in lockdown?
The absence of transport and construction noise that was cherished by many over the first lockdown was quickly forgotten as the noise returned and we readjusted to its presence. However, it brought sound to our attention in a way that would have been impossible to do in any other way. I hope that if people found the absence of this noise congenial, they would get behind initiatives to protect quiet from the encroachment of intrusive and overbearing sound.
Most of the missing sounds from the village where I live, I had no real love for, civil aircraft circling for Heathrow, chinook helicopters from RAF Benson, traffic noise from local roads, construction noise from the small housing developments dotted about. I didn’t feel any nostalgia for the loss of these. I did miss the sounds of traction engines which are common, people enjoying themselves outside, the thwacks and shouts of sports being played on the green, children in the play park and the hubbub of chatter and laughs billowing out of local pubs.
“I hope that if people found the absence of this noise congenial, they would get behind initiatives to protect quiet from the encroachment of intrusive and overbearing sound.”
Have we reached a point where some people now need to escape the silence? If so, how should they do this?
If by silence you mean loneliness and an absence of people around, then we need to help and encourage people to come together wherever possible. There are also people living with mental illness that may need to escape the silence. However, for many people in our distractable economy, silence is often unbearable because it reveals our restlessness and feelings of “unsatisfactoriness.” The aches and pains of the body, the chatter of thoughts, uncomfortable emotions, these are things that we generally try and escape from by interrupting the silence with noise. Escaping silence may be necessary at times but becoming familiar with our own noisy silence can be much more rewarding in the long run.
What can we do to enhance our experience of the sounds around us?
Quite simply, pay attention to them. We live so much of our life on autopilot, taking very little notice of the sounds around us. But they are often much more intricate and beautiful than we acknowledge. Paying attention to things is a way of caring for them, and caring is a step towards feeling grateful which can in turn nurture happiness and freedom.
We hope these two interviews provided you with new insights on the impact of sounds in our lives, their influence on our wellbeing and how they can improve our sensory experiences. Thanks to Richard for taking the time to answer our questions, we really appreciate it!
Best wishes and listen well,
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