ISO Silence: An Interview with 20k Hertz Dallas Taylor

August 27, 2020

Twenty Thousand Hertz is a storytelling show that doubles as a philosophical study on how sounds sink into our psyches. Described as ‘the stories behind the world's most recognizable and interesting sounds’ each episode crafts an expansive narrative around the under-noticed and quotidian noises that comprise our daily soundscapes. Recently, host Dallas Taylor has been thinking a lot about silence, and seeking it out as a mental reset.

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On Air Fest:
Recently you’ve been enraptured by the idea of listening to silence. What captivates you about this sonic negative space?

Dallas Taylor:
Well, true silence and what we consider “silence” are two different things. True silence is terrifying, because it’s not natural. I’ve been in an anechoic chamber, and it’s so quiet that it’s oppressive. There’s no stimulus. There’s nothing to give you an indication of where you are in a space. But we usually use the term “silence” to mean “quiet.”

As a sound designer, the reason I’m fascinated by the idea of quiet is that all sounds can be built upon it with more clarity, and more understanding. It’s also important to have a baseline of natural quiet just to reset our ears. We’re so inundated all the time. Most of our history, by far, was spent among natural sounds and quietness, picking up on natural cues to be able to understand our world. Now, we’re inundated with sound all of the time, and it’s mostly human made. So I think it’s important for us to build on the natural world in a way that’s complimentary to it, rather than just going gung-ho with the sounds we make without any thought about how it blends into the natural world.

OAF:
Do you have a personal story about tuning into silence that you experienced recently?

DT:
If we’re talking about silence in the “quiet” sense, then yes, I practice quietness all of the time. I often sit listening to birdsong on my porch, or the wind. I just got back from a vacation on the beach, and sat out for hours just listening, and looking at the ocean. Something about the sound of water and surf is deeply embedded in our brains. It’s exactly what my brain needed to calm itself, with everything being so bustling and busy outside of that.

OAF:
I live in Brooklyn near a major highway and under a flight path. Early in lockdown with fewer cars on the road and airlines shut down I was really struck by the silence. And then a whole new world of sounds started to emerge like bird calls and my neighbors chatting and their chihuahua getting a bath. Curious if this newfound layer of sounds was something you noticed as well?

DT:
I’ve generally always gravitated towards places that are already quiet. A lot of people who grew up in cities find that bustle comforting. But I grew up on a lake, and my entire childhood was quiet, on a lake, riding my bike for hours out in the middle of nowhere. So even in major cities, I’ve always gravitated towards quieter places. But the thing that I notice less of is the sound of the constant whir of traffic. There was so much commuting going on before March, and then suddenly that whir silenced. So even in a quiet suburb, I noticed a distinct quietness.

OAF:
Is there a way being in lockdown has changed the kinds of stories you want to tell?

DT:
It hasn’t changed the stories that we want to tell, I just think people are more keenly aware of sound now that it’s quieter in general. So I hope that this lockdown does present silver linings. You can’t deny the bad stuff that’s happening to people, but I hope that we do understand how we want to rebuild the world when we go back.

I hope that this reset makes us more aware of how noisy the world is. I’m not saying that we need some massive restructure and government action, but the only way things are going to change is if people want them to change on an individual level. I think we just accepted sound for what it was before, and now we’ve been out of it for months, and I hope we can all sonically curate the world as it spins back up.

OAF:
Recently you produced a show about noise pollution and mental health. The relationship between how much sound impacts our wellbeing is a recurring theme for the show. When did you first start thinking about that connection?

DT:
It first came from being a sound designer. I’m also the Creative Director at Defacto Sound, where we utilize sound in order to nudge people emotionally. Whether it be a commercial, or a film, or a TV show, my team and I think about the textures that we use in order to nudge an emotional moment.

Dissonance is easy. Making things sound scary and dissonant is easy because you can almost throw anything at the wall and it will be dissonant. As sound designers, we achieve strategic influence when we make order from the chaos. So we can start to nudge people to feel happy or sad or tense or whatever the situation calls for.

The issue with the world is that it’s not sound designed, though I think it could be if people cared. But we basically have a cacophony of dissonance around us all the time. So as far as wellbeing, I think that maybe as a sound designer, I’m just more in tune with how much dissonance there is in the world. I’m not advocating for changing the entire sonic landscape of everything in the world. But as someone who uses sound to influence the way someone should be feeling, I’d like to see these sounds interact better.

OAF:
Wildcard question: if you could create a sonic logo for one person, place or food what would it be?

DT:
In Japan, there are different jingles that play to identify the different stops on a train line. In thousands of years, if we terraform the solar system, it would be cool to use sonic branding similarly. Maybe as you traveled the solar system, each planetary stop would have a unique sonic logo. What would the Mars stop sound like? Venus? You wouldn’t need to rely on any specific human language to identify the different planets, you could just identify them through their sonic logos. So Space X, shoot me an email when you’re ready.

OAF:
Also, congrats on joining the TED network! What’s next for Twenty Thousand Hertz with this new partnership?

DT:
Access and credibility. As soon as we became associated with TED, doors started to open up. Putting that brand association with Twenty Thousand Hertz gives us access to the top of the sound world. It also gives us access to a large thoughtful team that is mission-driven. TED’s mission is “Ideas worth spreading.” So by inviting us to join their family of podcasts, TED is taking up the baton of sound, and showing that they find these ideas worthy of amplification.

"The issue with the world is that it’s not sound designed. We have a cacophony of dissonance around us all the time."

Dallas Taylor