Idle Thoughts on Silence, John Cage, Sound Design, and 2001: A Space Odyssey

I don’t know if John Cage ever saw 2001, but I expect if he did, he’d have loved how Kubrick used silence. As I said in my main 2001 article, the bulk of the plot of the movie takes place during a long silence, 46 minutes without any accompaniment music. There is dialogue, and there are sound effects, but both are scant, and the latter is often indistinguishable from background noise anyway. The only relief is for the intermission. (Some versions of the film omit the intermission; I think the length of that silence alone is reason enough to include it.)

But during the long silence, there are different types of background noise. They get less comment than the soundtrack because they’re less obvious, but Kubrick’s types of silence are as carefully chosen as his music. In the first half of the “Discovery” act alone, there’s:

  • The electronic hum of the ship
  • Frank’s oxygen supply hissing, and his breathing, during his spacewalk
  • Dead, echoless silence while Frank and Dave conspire against Hal
  • White noise as Hal reads their lips

The white noise even carries on when the intermission begins, a little of the tension of the film carried into the real world.

The weight and tension and meaning in the silence in these scenes is as significant as any music could be.

Consider the later scene, as Dave re-enters the ship without his helmet: we sense the vacuum of space because while we see a jet of gas, and we see Bowman tossed around like a ragdoll, and we see him pull the lever to close the hatch, we hear nothing. Just for those few seconds, and bracketed by probably the two noisiest effects in the film (alarms in Dave’s pod, and oxygen rushing into the airlock), sound is totally absent from the film.

These scenes are pretty much a demonstration of the philosophy behind John Cage’s (in)famous 4′33″: there’s no such thing as silence, and the world is full of interesting sounds if we just listen. And in complete silence lies death.