Ruminations on Noise

I was recently contacted by an associate who's working on quite the interesting project. I'll keep things on the DL until everything is announced, but here's the basic premise: use recycled "noise pollution" to create pieces to be played through recycled boomboxes creating a striking sonic and visual image. The boombox setup is not a boombox, but instead two large walls of boomboxes wired together.

Two things struck me as interesting--first off, I was working my way through R. Murray Schafer's The Soundscape, so the idea of "noise" and our sonic world was already keenly on my mind. It's a must read for anyone working in the electronic medium. While some of the research is a bit dated, the ideas are fun, the prose is interesting, and it is informing my listening.

The second was the use of boomboxes as the playback system. We're talking lo-fi systems, cobbled together, not matching at all. Something about that just tugs at my mind and says screams "YES!" It shows the power of nostalgia and my wish to make something beautiful a bit dirty. This from the guy that sheds a tear every time he sees someone pull out a pair of stock Apple in-ears.

I decided, very quickly, that the piece would be a soundwalk, of sorts. I've also grown more and more intrigued with how sound and music is perceived between people. Coupled with some of the ear cleansing and soundwalk assignments from Schafer, and a form started to coalesce in my brain.

I recorded some of the areas in Stockholm I frequent--a local galleria where I shop; the subway; a pedestrian tunnel underneath the pendeltag, or above-ground commuter rail; the construction outside KMH; a hallway outside the studios of KMH; and one incredibly unique recording of several people playing a hammer song on a cast bronze canon! This canon to be exact.

I chose the locations because of they all incorporated different ideas of "noise pollution." I had a long conversation with my brother Marty about what exactly noise pollution is. I had said I wanted to steer away, at least slightly, from the sounds that most think of as pollution in urban environments. I live near an airport in Stockholm, the smaller Bromma airport, and so the sound of engines, autotraffic, and planes overhead are "keystone" noises in my life--a phrase used by Schafer to describe sounds that are more or less always in your life and make up the majority of the sound we hear. The same can be said of subway travel--after living in Brooklyn and now in Stockholm, the sound of the metal wheels grinding on the rails don't bother me like they did the first time I jumped on a subway.

Marty brought up public playing of music by stores and by people with bad headphones pushing the sound to 11. That is also an irritation for me, as the cacophony of mixed music because a blur and a distraction. We also talked about voices--the roar of a crowd can be quite loud, either in the streets or at an overpopulated restaurant or bar. In the US, the sound of people didn't bother me. My ears would flit between conversations, pick up interesting bits here and there, or ignore the conversations entirely, letting them drift into the background noise. In a coffeeshop, like I use at the beginning of this new piece, conversations would either be attended or fall into a background and forgotten. It's like the phenomena discussed by Schafer in regards to airplanes: people in Vancouver were normally describing far fewer airplanes being heard than were actually flying overhead. They weren't attending to the sounds, so it fell far back and joined the landscape.

In Sweden, the human voice is a bit different. There's no flitting between conversations. My Swedish is incredibly poor, especially in understanding it when spoken. Attending to any conversation takes all of my focus, and even then it's picking up one or two words. Worse than that is the general frustration. I practice with Rosetta Stone, read Swedish whenever I can, and practicing pronouncing words constantly, and yet I feel as though my grasp of the language doesn't improve. When I'm in dense situations, such as the subway, hearing many independent conversations (more here than in NYC, as the cellphones work just fine in the tunnels), I feel that frustration keenly. Instead of choosing to attend or ignore, I'm forced to ignore and feel incredibly frustrated by my inability to understand the language.

Swedish, in most contexts, has become noise.

I feel the separation between myself and people here. I feel more alone in a crowd because I wonder if I can even communicate with them if I want to.

Then, I hear English.

No matter what I'm doing (often times reading), I immediately stop and attend to the conversation. You can call it eavesdropping, I call it spiritual release. Here are people that, if I want to, I can connect to without barrier.

This is one example of what one person (myself) considers noise. It's specific to my current location and understanding. Another example comes from living in the country as a kid.

How many of you have been able to sleep when several crickets have decided to go crazy on the music, repeatedly, right outside your open window? What about with mice scratching in the walls? And in the summer with cicadas and other loud insects it's almost unbearable, especially when combined with the heat and humidity. What some see as unique experiences, full of life and interest, became an annoyance to me as a child.

Now that I hear those noises much more rarely, they've become nostalgic.

Even over time, sounds can move from noisy annoyance to sweet nostalgia.

As I sit in my apartment during the day, I'm realizing just how much air traffic there is. I had told a friend that it seemed like the traffic from the airport was light, only a couple airplanes an hour. But now, as I'm taking more time to sit and concentrate on the sounds, I realize that's not true. The roar of the engines is pretty constant, drowning out the sound of cars. The only sound more present, constantly, is my fan, which runs ceaselessly even in the winter. The Swedes know exactly how to build a home for the cold, but it feels too heavily sealed for me, a man that's spent more time in old, drafty home and apartments than in new, thick walled Northern cities.

I've learned a lot about my own listening habits and the sounds of my environment. I try to do a lot of these activities at least once a year, just to acclimate myself. I've also incorporated some into my teaching (any students remember going outside the PAC at UMKC, closing your eyes, and drawing a picture of sounds around you? And me walking around beeping my phone...).

This piece was an exploration into what I consider noise to be, and, interestingly to me, I think I produced something that turns "noise" into something I consider to be quite beautiful. Some reactions right now are "eerie" and "creepy" thus proving just how different we can perceive music. I guess some people really love closely packed sine-wave drones while others equate them to their use in horror films. I'm gonna blame Jerry Goldsmith and his score to Alien. Great score...

I digress. I strongly encourage everyone to check out R. Murray Schafer's book, as well as try some of his listening assignments. Some of my favourites listening exercises (not distinctly all Schafer's):

  • If you live in a city, pay attention to and note every time you hear a bird. How many did you hear? What types?
  • While sitting in your room, concentrate on the sound around you, and try to sing all the pitches you hear. Is it just 60Hz? Are there other pitches and drones in your life beyond the florescent flicker? Improvise with the sounds.
  • If you have a phone that transmits data, put it up to the cable of your headphones and start surfing the web, or downloading something. Listen to the rhythm of the data transfer. You can also do this in some cases with an external hard-drive (but not always). 
  • Listen to and write down every sound you hear outside your window for 30 minutes. 

These are a few I like to do on a regular basis. The second one I did almost every day working at Earl Girls--the air compressor was tuned roughly to an E, with harmonies that sounded more minor than major. I'd often hum or whistle tunes to it while filling confetti canons tanks with air. The only music I sketched during that time was something for oboe and piano...which ended up with a whole lot of E minor work in it

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