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What Is Noise?

🌈 Abstract

The article explores the multifaceted and complex concept of "noise" - its various meanings, cultural and historical contexts, and its relationship to music and sound. It delves into the personal experiences and perspectives of the author, as well as the broader discourse around noise in fields such as information theory, philosophy, and the arts.

🙋 Q&A

[01] "Noise" as a Concept

1. What are the different meanings and connotations associated with the word "noise"?

  • The article discusses how the word "noise" can have both negative and positive connotations, ranging from something that drives people mad to something that is righteous and majestic.
  • Noise can be seen as a "nuisance" and "nausea", but it can also be associated with joyful noise, the voice of God, and the "infernal noise" of Heaven.
  • The article explores how the word "noise" has evolved to encompass not just acoustic phenomena, but also any ambient activity that hinders a signal, including in the context of information theory.

2. How do other languages handle the concept of "noise" differently?

  • In French, the term "bruit" is used, which comes from the Latin for "roar" and is a more straightforward description of the sound.
  • In German, "Lärm" indicates louder noises, while "Geräusch" refers to softer, more natural sounds.
  • Russian has a range of words, including "shum", which according to Vladimir Nabokov suggests "more of a swoosh than a racket".

3. How does the author's personal history and relationship with noise shape their perspective?

  • As a child, the author was extremely sensitive to loud sounds and would flee from events like fireworks displays.
  • However, the author was also drawn to avant-garde and experimental music that others would consider noise, hosting a radio show featuring pieces like Ligeti's "Poème Symphonique" for 100 metronomes.
  • The author's issues with noise seem to pivot on the question of control - when noise occurs on their own terms, they enjoy it, but when it's imposed on them, they recoil.

[02] The Sociocultural and Political Aspects of Noise

1. How are perceptions of noise often tied to social and cultural biases?

  • The article discusses how the perception of certain sounds as "noise" has been used to dehumanize minority groups, such as the labeling of hip-hop as "Black Noise" and the historical European perception of Jews as a "peculiarly noisy people".
  • Colonizers often disdained the "weird sounds" of native peoples while overlooking the unprecedented levels of noise they themselves were causing with bells, trumpets, guns, and machines.

2. How do issues of power and control relate to noise disputes?

  • The article cites the example of the confrontation between Radio Raheem and Sal in Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing", where Sal's rejection of Raheem's music is seen as an expression of social fissures and power dynamics.
  • Noise is described as a way of "saying, 'The world is mine'" and exercising power by projecting sound into someone else's space, whether consciously or unconsciously.

3. How have efforts to mitigate and legislate noise levels been challenged?

  • The article discusses the complexities of measuring and enforcing noise levels, with the decibel scale accounting for various physiological and contextual factors.
  • Despite thousands of noise complaints, New York City's Department of Environmental Protection only imposed monetary penalties in a small fraction of cases in 2022, highlighting the difficulties in adjudicating what constitutes excessive and unpleasant noise.

[03] The Evolving Relationship between Noise and Music

1. How have composers and musicians incorporated noise elements into their work?

  • The article traces the incorporation of noise elements into classical and avant-garde music, from Wagner's use of anvils in "Das Rheingold" to the dissonant harmonies of Mahler, Strauss, and Scriabin.
  • It also discusses the pioneering work of composers like Varèse, Cage, Xenakis, and Ligeti, who explicitly incorporated noise and stochastic processes into their compositions.

2. How has the distinction between "noise" and "music" been challenged or blurred?

  • The article cites the Futurist painter Luigi Russolo's manifesto "L'Arte dei Rumori" ("The Art of Noises"), which celebrated the incorporation of urban sounds and rejected the music of Beethoven and Wagner.
  • It also discusses how jazz, rock, and hip-hop have embraced and transformed noise elements, with figures like Hank Shocklee of Public Enemy arguing that "music is nothing but organized noise".

3. What is the role of noise in the aesthetics and experience of experimental and avant-garde music?

  • The article explores the aesthetics of noise music, citing Stephen Graham's analysis of Merzbow's "Noisembryo" and the author's own experience of being "engaged in active, alert listening" during Francisco López's "VirtuAural Electro-Mechanics" performance.
  • It suggests that the appeal of noise music lies in its "insistence on otherness, on difference" and its ability to create a sense of "happy vacancy" and "peculiarly free" experience for the listener.
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