Garret Keizer On Noise And The Logic Of The Loud

by Thomas Brett

In his remarkable book, The Unwanted Sound Of Everything We Want (2010), Garret Keizer asks seeks meaningful answers to big questions about that most ubiquitous species of sound that surrounds almost all of us today: noise.  He wants to understand what our world sounds like, as well as how we would like it to sound, so he talks to lots of different people– from laypeople to specialists–visits National parks, motorcycle rallies, Canadian soundscape retreats and Dutch wind farms.  For Keizer, noise is unwanted sound–sound that is too loud, sound that disrupts and causes us bodily stress and even harm.  Noise is complex too in that it’s both a subjective (“That’s not music, that’s noise!”) and an objective phenomenon (measurable in decibels and capable of exceeding our threshold of safe hearing).  Noise registers difference, pushes our buttons, and demands that we take notice.  And of course, for many of us today, noise is omnipresent.  “Electric lights, recreational machinery, personal listening devices, earworms–all have contributed to a collective condition of cultural tinnitus” (247).*  Noise, then, is in many places a constant and ringingly intrusive sound.

Keizer’s view of the modern iteration of noise traces its origins to one of two sources, both of which represent species of human alienation: “a denial of the body, which manifests itself as a desire to abolish the physical limitations of time and space through speed; or, a denial of our equality with other people, a contempt for ‘the weak’” (217).

This is the heart of Keizer’s argument: our noise comes from living out of balance with the modest scale of human face to face, real-time interaction.  Furthermore, The Unwanted Sound builds productively on Canadian composer Barry Truax’s notion of “acoustic ecology” by tracing a history not only of noise, but of our gradual recognition of noise’s “modern din” (115) as a pollutant perhaps as toxic as car exhaust.  An important part of Keizer’s agenda here is to situate noise as an environmental pollutant in order to counteract the tendency of sound scholars to consider noise only “as subversive of
the reigning order” (97-98) and as a “cultural signifier that identifies one’s ‘tribe’ and its supposed inclinations” (125).  In
fact, Keizer returns several times to critique this notion (well-worn in academic discourse about sound) that noise and noise-making are, more than anything else, transgressive acts of resistance by the socially oppressed (162).  That they may be, but Keizer’s point is that we need to do more than simply theorize noise; we need to address it head on and deal with it.

So how do we deal with noise? We could start by trying to make to make less of it and observing the link between living quietly and living in a more ecologically considerate (or “green”) way–recognizing how noise is a by-product of our carbon footprint. Need an example?  Airplanes are our biggest polluters and also among the noisiest intrusions into our everyday lives.  So, we could begin by remembering that noise is ultimately an ecological thing.  “Take your ears” says Keizer, “into the parks, backyards, and village greens of America and listen” (232).

There are so many insights in this book, but here are a few of the most illuminating (in no particular order).  First, is Keizer’s assertion that “quietness is a form of wealth” (54). It’s expensive to “get away from it all” and those with the means usually manage to find (buy) peace through quiet.

Second, Keizer riffs on two meanings of jamming as either a multi-part conversation or as an interference (culture jamming) in the form of competing voices noisily disregarding one another’s utterances.  Which kind of soundscapes do we want for ourselves?

Third, Keizer articulates the downsides of amplification: “amplification tends to destroy intimacy.  Either it destroys intimacy by drowning out conversation, or else it counterfeits intimacy by making physical proximity irrelevant to social intercourse” (149).  Anyone who has ever rehearsed with a rock band will know what Keizer is talking about here.

Fourth, Keizer cites Composer Andrew Waggoner’s notion of “the colonization of silence” driven by commercial aims (28).  One of the noisiest varieties of noise is simply the ongoing buzz of the 21st-century capitalism machine vying for our attention, getting us interested in stuff, usually to the accompaniment in jingles or (more commonly these days) licensed songs.

Fifth, Keizer brings to our attention efforts around the world to take stock, study and value sounds.  The Natural Sounds program of the US Park Service (http://www.nature.nps.gov/naturalsounds) is an example of this.

Sixth, Keizer discusses  Keizer discusses noise maps and noise mapping (see for example http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4138936.stm).

Seventh, Keizer touches on Bernie Krause’s idea of biophany, which describes the sonic niches occupied by species within a particular ecosystem (64).

Finally, what about the inner life of noise, the noise we hear in our heads via earworms and plain old noisy thoughts?  We are all, Keizer says, “conflicted, compromised, and confused” (241). Ask yourself, “if your mental processes could be rendered as an audio track, would it sound like a piano sonata or a demolition derby?”

If all this does not yet seem useful to you, Keizer also include five appendices: a time line of noise history, a glossary of noise terms, a list of organizations that deal with noise, and most intriguingly, a set of practical considerations for noise disputes and a personal noise code.

Thank you Garret Keizer for writing such a passionate and grounded defense of why we should care about noise.

* “Earworms”, a term coined by Oliver Sacks, are “catchy tunes that…are, neurologically, completely irresistible” (127).