On Music In Its Context: Noise Musicians Improvising In The Subway

The Union Square subway station in New York City is a pretty loud place. As the N, R, L, 4, 5, and 6 trains pull into the station there’s some serious, 90-plus decibel metallic screeching happening when the cars hit their breaks and come to a stop.

Given this noisy soundscape, I was both surprised and not surprised to encounter two noise/free-improv musicians holding forth on the 4, 5, and 6 platform. One guy plays the saxophone, the other an electric guitar fed through some effects pedals. Their music is noisy, ad hoc and chaotic, the sax player ripping through atonal lines, squawks and wheezes, while the guitarist strums a constant rhythmic drone in the upper octaves of his instrument. Sometimes it’s not even quite clear how their parts relate to one another. And while there are moments of melody and space, for the most part this isn’t easy listening material. It’s intense.

Their music making is a perfect example of the importance of hearing music in its context of production. I’ve watched some listeners look at these musicians and shake their heads derisively, as if saying: “Why on earth are you making noise in this already noisy place?” But another way to listen to them is as commentators on our environment–interpreting the industrial sounds around us and transforming them into a variety of music. It’s in this way that music has always felt like a kind of alchemy.

Not everyone is buying it though–some folks just plug their ears and shake their heads as they walk by. But I gave the guys money because their music and choice of performance venue made me stop for a moment and think.

On Our Din And Roar II: How Noise Is Not Always Bad And Quiet Not Always Good

On my last blog post, I may have inadvertently given readers the impression that I wear earplugs wherever I go, so intent I am in the pursuit of some kind of urban quiet. (One worried family member even weighed in: “When you wear the earplugs, do you miss any cautionary sounds–like the sound of an oncoming car?”) Not so! In fact, as I sat in a Uruguayan bakery this morning, it occurred to me that I often flee silence in a deliberate pursuit of noise. And like I said about choosing to be a percussionist–it’s complicated!

But not that complicated. I go to this bakery regularly not because the hot beverages are relatively cheap (though they are, as are the pastries) but because the space offers a level of noise that’s conducive to writing. (Kind of like the subway, where I’m typing these words on a phone.) At the bakery there’s always ambient noise in the form of espresso machines, patrons talking among themselves (in Spanish) and several large screen TVs showing music videos and football matches (also in Spanish). For some reason–including the fact that I don’t speak Spanish, for one thing–all of this ambient sound adds up to just the right degree of din that I can easily tune out. In other words, being surrounded by a mix of different noises helps me concentrate on something else entirely.

And this is what was perhaps misleading about the ear plugs post. Plugging one’s ears means shutting out the sounding world around you. And I do this sometimes–though the shutting out is really just reducing the world by about 33 decibels (if we’re to believe Heroes Earplugs’ health claims). But what’s even more interesting to me is how we shut out or filter the sounds of the noisy world around us simply by concentrating–entering a state of focus that itself benefits from that same noisy world. It’s as if the noises let one part of you know that you’re ensconced in conviviality (noise indexing the lively embrace of social life), which then frees another part of you to relegate the sounds to a background hum and just coast on them.

The Sound of Vuvuzelas

I hate it when I go to a vuvuzela concert and then people start playing football!  It’s so annoying!” – YouTube viewer

In last month’s Wire magazine, Marcus Boon wrote a thoughtful end piece on the phenomenon of vuvuzelas at last summer’s World Cup in South Africa.  If you remember, vuvuzelas are those small plastic horns that many South African fans blew at the football matches, creating an unbelievably loud (around 120 decibels) and insistent communal drone buzz.  It was, as Boon points out, noise in the signal of the Word Cup TV broadcasts; television couldn’t filter out this insistent sound of the people just enjoying themselves.  And while here was much talk of banning vuvuzelas from the games, the sound of these instruments was also a reminder of the sonic power and affect of noise, as well as how drone can bring people together.  But what does the vuvuzela drone-noise signify exactly?  It’s hard to say.  Here’s is an extended excerpt from Boon’s take on the sound:

“I cam to think of it, perhaps naively, as the sound of the global South, the buzzing hive sound of the people of the world, contaminating the otherwise clean hyperspace of the globalised spectacle of soccer, now trademarked and sold to us by FIFA.  A reminder that (. . .) if you listen to the messages of global capital, they will always be accompanied by their subaltern support, the global multitude (. . .)

To me, it was also a reminder that drone music is not a technique invented by the minimalist avant gardes, but one of the sounds of the people, spanning a very broad historical and geographical continuum, from the bilbical horn that blew Jericho down to the sound OM that gave birth to the universe in the Hindu scriptures, on to all the various folk musics that rely on sustained tones.  Drone music is easily configured as a collective technique, if only because playing sustained tones together is a simple method of amplification in a non-electronic culture–for example, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, where monks blow massive mountain horns simultaneously to produce the raw blast of sound that invites the deities to the ritual.”

From YouTube, here is an informative video on the vuvuzela put together by Dr. Dan Russell, a physics professor at Kettering University:

Garret Keizer On Noise And The Logic Of The Loud

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).

Reading About Silence

I’ve been enjoying George Prochnik’s recent book, “In Pursuit Of Silence.”  He articulates sentiments of many who live in densely noisy urban places: What is the effect of noise on our body-minds?  How does silence heal?  And how can we pursue the idea of silence in the midst of noise?  As a frequent headphone wearer and lover of all kinds of canned, mediated, electronically-reproduced, immersive sound, the book has me thinking about what my listening habits may say about me.  Prochnik’s book is not the only meditation on the noise-silence continuum.  I’m curious about Garret Keizer’s “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise” and George Michelsen Foy’s “Zero Decibels: The Quest for Absolute Silence.”  You can read NY Times reviews of all three books here: nytimes.com/2010/05/18/books/18silence.html