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Inside a Room Built for Total Silence

Artists are increasingly interested in visiting anechoic chambers, where the only sound is your own body.

by Thomas Howells
Feb 20 2015, 10:00am

​Images: Thomas Howells

Noise freaks have been trying to raze heads and rupture eardrums with blunt volume in the name of art since the invention of amplification. But paradigms are shifting: Quiet, it seems, is the new loud.

"There's been a dramatic increase in the fine art use of sound—using and thinking about sound in new ways," explains Mike Wyeld, a sound technical instructor working in the Royal College of Art's animation department. "And the absence of sound gives you an experience you could not possibly have had before."

We're speaking a few days after I visit London South Bank University's anechoic chamber, the largest in London. Though designed for acoustics research and teaching, these rooms have become fetishised by avant-garde musicians and artists interested in sonic dynamics: from John Cage's inaugural trip to Harvard's chamber, an inspiration for his landmark 4'33", to Mark Fell's punishing ambisonic installation ​64 Beautiful Phase Violations at the University of Salford in 2013, and LSBU's new collaborative PhD with the Royal College of Music.

The university's chamber has also recently played host to students from the RCA, attempting to record unembellished, "pure" textual sound—lighting matches, peeling oranges, bursting balloons—as a way of understanding extremes of sensory perception.

Anechoic chambers, in case it needs clarifying, are built to harness total silence.

"In the visual arts we have negative space," Wyeld explains. "Negative space in the real world doesn't exist for sound, but it can exist in an anechoic chamber. For an artist, it gives you a new way to interpret what it is that you do."

Skip back 80 hours or so, and I'm met by the LSBU Acoustic Research Centre's Stephen Dance and Luis Gomez-Agustina, who agreed to give me access to their chamber in an attempt to experience this.

Silence—true silence—is an anomaly in everyday life. It simply doesn't exist. The closest you might get, Gomez-Agustina explains, would be in an empty field, without wildlife, on a completely still day. The ambient volume then would be around 25 decibels. The anechoic chamber, when occupied, is around 16. The body makes too much noise for it to get any quieter. "It's called breathing," Dance says.

On entering, I'm hit by an unmistakable feeling of pressure. The air feels dense, like my head is being gently squeezed. "It's an illusion," Gomez-Agustina explains. Everybody feels it when they first visit, but he doesn't know why. He pulls a digital barometer from his pocket. "The same as outside," he shrugs.

The room is totally covered in foam wedges, pointing inwards, the floor a metal grate suspended over them. It's both archaic and otherworldly, a retro-futurist scene in dull brown. As Dance pulls the door shut behind us, the atmosphere deadens. Any sound waves are deflected by the multifaceted foam and are effectively sucked into the walls. It's an oppressive sensation; much of our spatial awareness is defined by echo-location, and even with my eyes open the disorientation is irrefutable. We agree that I'll stay in the chamber for an hour with the lights out, to divulge myself of extra sensory distractions. I lie down on slabs of foam laid out as a makeshift bed; the academics pile out, and the technician pulls the door shut and flicks out the light.

It sounds paradoxical, but an experience as passive as lying corpse-still in darkness and almost perfect silence is a weirdly intense one. The unnatural context quickly forces my hearing to sensitise. As minutes pass, my breathing and internal movements become more pronounced.

Things that before were merely feelings—digestion, the relaxation of muscles—become audible. I hear the snapping of sinuses and a faint scraping sound as I raise my eyebrows and scalp shifts across skull. After around 45 minutes, Dance explained, I'd start to hear the blood moving through the capillaries around my ears. Eventually, there it is—a soft whooshing sound, the blood literally pumping around my head. The experience is hypnotic, even existential—I've never felt so aware of my body as a churning, organic machine.

The internet is awash with stories of visitors to anechoic chambers finding the sensory disengagement so disturbing that they suffer hallucinations and panic attacks (The Quietus' John Doran, in a 2013 visit to Salford's fa​cility to interview Mark Fell, claimed it left him in "near hysteria"). I experience neither. What I do feel is a mix of deep relaxation and temporal disorientation; the hour inside could have been ten minutes or half a day.

I'm still not really sure what I expected to gain from the experience. An obsessive interest in silence sounds like an invitation to disappointment, even if the intent is intellectual. That's disingenuous—I'm not about to start dissing John Cage—but a desire to isolate oneself wholly from our surroundings seems like an insular and unnatural impulse, one that perplexes even the department's staff. "That's one of the characteristics everyone wants to hear: absolute silence," says Dance. "But what for?"

"The anechoic chamber," Wyeld counters, "is a seductive tool for artists and designers working in sound. 'Imagine a space without sound,' is all I have to say and the students queue to attend. It's a magical place."

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