The Sound of Silence Image

Manhattan music theory specialist Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard) believes he has quantified musical tones that drive human emotions. In The Sound of Silence, he employs this knowledge to provide “house tuning” to calibrate a sonic home space meant to alleviate stress and discord. Peter listens to every part of a home, determines the primary note/chord of a space and then adjusts it from a troublesome tone to a positive one by fixing a rattling pipe, or replacing a problematic appliance. People rave about the changes he brings to their lives, and it becomes fashionable to send their friends to him.

The technique derives from his sonic study of the city, using tuning forks to hone in on the sound of a particular part of the island. He uses his data from clients and from field studies to build a comprehensive emotional map of the city. Times Square is energetic, Central Park lethargic, the subway anxious. 

He is obsessively absorbed in his work and misses human connections being distracted by his own world of sound. His word of mouth business brings him to the home of a woman named Ellen (Rashida Jones) who has insomnia and anxiety in her apartment. She seems dubious of his method, but willing to try. The more seriously he investigates the apartment, the more amused she seems. He eventually suggests that her toaster is causing dissonance and tells her he will send her a new one.

“…employs this knowledge to provide ‘house tuning’ to calibrate a sonic home space meant to alleviate stress and discord.”

His tuning does not work for her,  the first time he’s failed to improve a space. The anomaly of her apartment is the beginning of a crack in his discovery and his life begin to unravel around it. 

It’s helpful to know that the short film this feature is based is entitled Palimpsest, which is defined as a medium that has been incompletely erased and written over, with fragments of the original image still perceptible. That concept rings true perfectly in this context and clarifies the film. Palimpsest is the perfect title and should have been retained for the full-length version of the film.

Obviously, the audio in this film is crucial, and the filmmaker delivers impressively. The background of the city soundscape is a character. Will Bates provides a beautiful classically inspired soundtrack.  

Sound is one of the most critical elements of all film. The visual experience can be effective in different modes from low-fi experimental grainy images, to darkness, or anything along that spectrum the director wants to use, but sound needs to be clear with good dynamic range no matter what. Save The Sound of Silence for when you can see it with high-end audio. The theater I was in was recently renovated with an insanely good Dolby ATMOS sound system, really bringing the experience of the film into focus. 

“Sarsgaard plays him to neurotic perfection, the unappreciated genius surrounded by fools…”

The sonic science of the film is fictional; disappointing for audio nerds. There can be no one chord that describes a physical space. The sound of a place changes with time, outside noise, wind, air pressure, temperature, the specific position of the listener, and many other factors. Air is a fluid, always changing. Peter’s obsession with sound is more the point, he surrounds himself with a buffer of silence and (pseudo?) science and thus insulates himself from a noisy world. As for his discovery: he wants to believe, which is death for the scientific method. 

The characters are compelling, but I would like to have known more about how Peter came to this place in his life, we get no backstory for him or Ellen.Sarsgaard plays him to neurotic perfection, the unappreciated genius surrounded by fools, just barely keeping it together long enough to explain the blinding truth he’s been shown. Jones is delightful as Ellen, who is drawn to Peter’s intelligence, but put off by his inflexible mania with his discovery.   

Part Tesla, part Quixote, Peter moves through the world fixated on realizing his idea, missing out on the essential harmonies of human interaction. He needs to believe the world is a machine that runs by set rules, that if we could know them, we could predict how life would flow. 

The Sound of Silence (2019) Directed by Michael Tyburski. Written by Michael Tyburski and Ben Nabors. Starring  Rashida Jones, Peter Sarsgaard, Tony Revolori.The Sound of Silence screened at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival.

7 out of 10

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