Alex Braidwood's ongoing research into the relationship between people and the noise in populated environments.
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What is noise?
Noise is a highly contested term. It means a variety of things to different people and different situations. The law has one set of ideas about what should be labeled noise while neighbors have yet another. These distinctions exist in ways that are at times so specific it defies logic and other times they are paralyzingly general. Using a dictionary definition of a word such as noise proves to be of little value in the matter. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first entry for noise is “the aggregate of sounds occurring in a particular place or at a particular time.”1 This first entry essentially means that any sound is considered to be noise as long as it can be pointed to in some way in order to label it as such. Then there is also the idea of noise as it relates to a process or sequence by which it becomes interference and affects an outcome. The spectrum of noise and things considered to be noise, not just sounds, is dauntingly gigantic and what has been touched on so far makes such a small scratch in the surface that one could probably do away with it simply by licking their thumb and rubbing it for a moment. What this writing intends to do, however, is circle around a few aspects of noise in which there are specific areas of interest to extrapolate and use to inform investigations that look at what noise is or appears to be, how noise exists in our world, how we interact with noise currently and how we can understand different values of noise moving forward.
Many times, categorizing something as noise is arrived at through taste or preference. If something is pleasing, it can be described as sound or even music. If something is not, than it becomes relegated to the category of noise. One example that comes to mind is early rock music that was publicly labeled as noise by an older generation that was not its intended audience. It was loud, abrasive, and represented a new approach to music that involved amplification and distortion.2 Essentially, if you didn’t like it, you dismissed it as noise. It being the music and also the social movements that were happening around the music. For this discussion of noise, the goal is to avoid distinctions of taste or personal preference from the defining of the term noise as it manifests itself into the explorations so that the focus can remain on the implications of noise as apposed to an argument the deals strictly in aesthetics. That’s not to say the results of anything investigated or created shouldn’t be viewed with a critical eye. The intent is not to remove from critical discussion the systems being explored, the ideas the explorations raise, the results of the exploration and the analysis for additional areas of study. What is intended, however, is a removal of the requirement for something to be displeasing in order for it to be considered noise. If noise is no longer considered to be simply a category defined by personal judgements of taste, that brings about the question of looking into other ways in which noise gets defined.
Where the law is concerned, definitions of noise start to become either very specific or, in some cases, uselessly vague. For example, in the Construction section of the Los Angeles noise ordinance, it states that working between certain hours on certain days “In a manner as to disturb the peace and quiet of neighboring residents or any reasonable person of normal sensitiveness residing in the area”3 is a violation (my underlining for emphasis). This example is vague and requires a great deal of interpretation on the part of the inflicted as well as the enforcer. There are also many communities that have noise ordinances that determine not only specific sources of sound to be noise (leaf blowers are a popular offender in Los Angeles) but also define a distance at which the sound is in violation if it can be heard. For example, in Huntsville, Alabama a car stereo that is able to be heard from twenty-five feet away is in violation of the city noise ordinance.4 Interestingly enough, this only applies to car stereos meaning that if the cars, trucks or buses themselves are noisy enough to be heard from that distance, they are not in violation. What that signifies is that the community has accepted the roar and clang of industrial equipment as well as various modes of shipping and transportation. They, however, do not want to have their personal audio space invaded by other people’s “music” making the source and content of the violation very clear even if the enforceable aspect of it, the distance of being heard, is still difficult to pin down. Within these two examples of community noise ordinances, and these two examples are by no means unique, the language that is used and the values that are represented serve to draw out other important aspects for examination. By considering what these noise ordinances mean along with what they directly say, the importance of both context and expectation can be understood to be key factors in determining the ways in which noise is discussed.
A series of interviews that I conducted early on in my research revealed that people discussed what they considered to be a “noisy sound” in, essentially, one of two ways which are similar in nature to the previous examples of the law’s idea of what noise is. The subjects of my inquiries described either a specific sound such as a “neighbor’s dog that barks through the night,” “other people’s complaints” or the sounds of people working from the common area adjacent to a design studio. The other type of descriptions were less specific and used relative language such as “loud,” “high-pitched” or “screeching” in order to create more inclusive and broader categories for the defining of a sound as noise. The first type of answers, the specific descriptions that include sources, times and places the sounds occurred, reveal that context and expectation is incredibly important in what is considered to be noise. When asked to describe a noisy sound, many of the interviewees responded with descriptions of specific sounds that had disrupted something else that they had in mind such as sleep, conversation or focus.
Paul Hegarty discusses this idea in an interesting way in his book Noise / Music: A History when he presents the idea that when a jet flies overhead while one is walking in nature, nature is not interrupted by the sound of the jet. Instead, what is disrupted is the expectation of what a walk in nature should be, an expectation which has been created and set a result of modern culture.5 This is an important distinction to make because it redraws the frame around the implications of noise as a violation of expectation, not forcing it to remain in the terms of a negative sounds as determined by volume, pitch, tone, texture or any of the other characteristics that tend to be associated with the use of the word. In the example of walking in nature, a bird’s call could be much louder than the distant roar of the plane flying overhead but for reasons of expectation, the bird’s sound is not considered to be a violation of the experience of the walk. As noted previously while discussing the law, the source of a sound also becomes important in the determining of what is to be considered noise. To continue the nature example, a technological interruption while in the context of nature is much more disruptive than a natural interruption because of how expectations have been set. While context remains an important factor, expectation is also very significant in a discussion of what noise is.
Thinking about noise as the result of an interrupted expectation within a specific context starts to identify one area of interest within the subject. This will inform experiments that through the isolation and potentially, the addition of noise within a variety of contexts, each with a different set of expectations to be violated, can begin to produce outcomes that work to become less expected as a result of the noise.
Why noise? Why Now?
There is a cliche in the audio world that talks about how as humans, our ears don’t blink. Our bodies are set up in such a way that we cannot turn off our exposure to the audio environment around us. Evolutionarily, this has helped us out a great deal. As George Prochnik pointed out in his book In Pursuit of Silence, animals have an inherent reaction to noise. When they hear it, they look in the direction of it in order to understand its source and meaning.6 By looking in the direction of the noise, the animal has taken an active roll in its own well being in the world. It is asking itself, is that sound something that I need to be concerned about? Am I in immediate danger? It tends to do this while also holding perfectly still in order to better focus its attention on the source of the noise and also to be as ready as possible for the next move that will be made.
As humans, we are a different story. We are in the process of evolving away from this act of self preservation. We have surrounded ourselves with so much audio and visual stimuli that we rarely notice when there is a subtle change in anything. We even work on individual levels to keep ourselves audibly isolated through the use of headphones in order to define the soundscapes of our own lived experiences. There is an intentional allegorical side to this observation as well. When a new noise, or a new interruption, is introduced into our space we no longer take the time to stop and analyze its impact or look at its larger meanings. We tend to either run towards it unquestioningly without consideration of its larger implications, make attempts to simply avoid or cover it up, or we ignore it completely, whichever best fits within our personal desires and world view.
Prochnik also discusses how the elimination of noise has become a luxury commodity in products as well as in lifestyle. High-end automobiles promote noise reduction while expensive architectural materials can work to keep noise out of one’s private home.7 Technological advancements are marketed as helping to streamline our activities and make everything more efficient. The buzzword that is “convergence” essentially represents attempts at the removal of noise from our daily lives. Is eliminating all forms of noise really worth striving for? On a recent episode of the Patt Morrison show on KPCC, a southern California NPR station, Patt Morrison commented that some people are starting to wonder if “new antidepressants might have wiped out a whole generation of artists.”8 In many ways, this discussion is about the affects of noise removal. During a lecture by the sound art group Matmos, Drew Daniel stated that “in a universe without friction, you just float into the void.”9 If there is no noise in the system, and everything just floats along smoothly as expected, where does that leave us as a culture?
We’ve created an environment where there is a great deal to filter through. Population is dramatically increasing and public spaces continue to become more and more dense within urban environments. That means more cars on the freeway, more people doing the thing that you also want to do and more one-sided mobile phone conversations in any public space with signal reception. We are in the midst of an economy that can, apparently, only be saved by more spending. As a result, the people who are trying to sell us more things are shouting at us in more ways and louder than ever. We have access to so many channels of information that just about any fact someone wants to prove true, can be proven true or at the very least they can find a few people who will agree with them. We try our best to find our own slice through all this stuff and in the process, we sometimes end up adding more to the pile. Sure, the internet has created a space where everyone has a voice but on the downside, the internet has created a space where everyone has a voice. It does not take too many conversations in the comment thread of an online video or a quick read through a series of status updates to realize that what has been produced as a result of accessible and social media isn’t always what Matthew Arnold would determine to be “the best that has been thought and said in the world.”10 What exists is not the culture building informational discourse that was envisioned. Out of all of these areas deemed noisy, what has developed is the equivalent of a great deal of clatter in a very small room. Are there different ways that we can refocus attention within a disrupted space? How can we go into a disrupted space with a variety of tools and tactics in order to extrapolate areas of interest for interpretation and experimentation? And, at a more basic level, if you are entirely surrounded by something, isn’t the natural tendency to want to figure out something to do with it?
Noisy Systems as a Way to Explore Noise
What can be found if the time is taken to stop and be aware of the various types of noise around us? The work and writings of Pierre Schaeffer, the developer of the theories that form the type of music known as Musique Concrte, explores sonic aspects of objects that were not intended for use in the creation of music. He worked through a process whereby he felt it was important to divorce the source of the sound from the sound that is made. Not only does this process create a sound that is to be considered in and of itself a new thing, what Schaeffer called the sonorous object,11 but, thought of in a different way, it also provides a new understanding of the original thing. It is in some ways a sonic portrait of an original source that is no longer directly related to the original source. Similarly, this is partially the intent behind the creation of a system developed to collect material in such a way as to produce a new story based on an original subject. This story then takes on the ability to become source material for additional exploration (feedback) or a subject to which questions can be asked (reflection and analysis). Within this system, information is captured from a particular place at a particular time and manipulated, recorded, and the individual pieces are eventually discarded in the interest of building up a new whole. This system of documenting a particular place, object or action allows for a different understanding of the source of the material through its representation and eventual reproduction. Unlike Musique Concrete however, the original context and the initial expectations that have been set within that context are important to the analysis and understanding of the eventual outcome.
As discussed earlier, an initial understanding of noise involves being a disruption within a given context and, in many cases, acting in violation of expectation. If we think of a system as a series of procedures or instructions that are defined in order to arrive at a final outcome, what happens if noise is injected into a system as an opportunity for disruption? By doing so, a system of recollection is created in which the results of the system enacted will vary in terms of its distance to the expected outcome. Some results may be direct contradictions to the expected while others may result in a foreseeable outcome. In addition, could these noisy systems then be utilized in order to further investigate not only the original context in which it was deployed but also itself as a system of investigation? What these questions have lead to is an interest in not only investigating how ideas of noise vary within a certain context or set of expectations, but also how a system can be developed to explore these areas wherein the system itself involves some level of noise during its execution.
The systems being explored follow a basic underlying structure with potential for variation. First, there is some form of input. This input could be fixed as in a recorded piece of video or it could be variant as in the case of a real time input such as the signal from some type of sensor. The input then is passed through some form of interpretation in which decisions are made. Decisions vary in size and impact on the input. They also vary in source. In some cases the decisions made are the result of a programmatic algorithm while in others the decisions are made through the introduction of participants or performers. In yet a third scenario, the interpretation may be the result of a combination of algorithm and participant wherein one controls the other. The intent of the interpretation phase is largely to produce variations, mutations and transformations of the original input. Once the interpretation is complete, a finished output is created. The material qualities of the output should be determined by the initial interest in the input material. Most commonly, the output material will be audio and visual content but in some cases, the resulting material could be numeric in nature.
This output then can be evaluated in three ways. First, the output should be evaluated apart from the system that created it in order to fully understand what the system has in fact created. This is an important stage of reflection that allows for the material output to be understood as a unique creation. It also provides a framework for the identification of findings as well as the development of additional questions. Secondly, the output should be viewed as the result of the system in order to evaluate the system itself. By focusing on the output, assessments can be made about how the system was developed, how noise was introduced and what might need to be adjusted for future executions. Finally, the output can be evaluated to determine its value as a potential piece of input material for the same system that made it or possibly another system made as a result of analyzing the system that created it. This consideration of output as input allows for a series of connections to be created in the development of a variety of experiments where each investigation informs and influences the next. Through the analysis of not only the output itself but also the output in relation to the system that created it, the noise the system embodied during the investigation and the place, object or action being investigated; the introduction and use of noise within the process of exploration can reveal new understandings of that which was being investigated.
Based on a True Story: A Mobile Noise Collection Prototype is an experiment created in tandem with the development of this article as a way to explore the ideas being discussed.
Below is an audio example of the results of the noise collection prototype in action. [Sketch] 2010_12_13 34.129036,-118.148212 by Formalplay
- “noise, n.”. In Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2010. http://oed.com/view/Entry/127655.
- Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New Ed. Routledge, 1981.
- “Los Angeles Police Department Noise Enforcement Guidelines,” n.d. http://www.lapdonline.org/special_operations_support_division/content_basic_view/1031.
- Doyle, Steve. “If you're driving in Huntsville, better turn down that car stereo,” November 21, 2010. http://blog.al.com/breaking/2010/11/if_youre_driving_in_huntsville.html.
- Hegarty, Paul. Noise/Music: A History. Continuum, 2007. p8.
- Prochnik, George. In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise. 1st ed. Doubleday, 2010. p67.
- Ibid,. p195-7.
- “Patt Morrison.” Patt Morrison. KPCC, December 8, 2010. feed://podcasts.scpr.org/patt_morrison. http://media.scpr.org/podcasts/pattmorrison/20101208_pattmorrison.mp3.
- Daniel, Drew, and Martin Schmidt. “Matmos” presented at the Design Media Arts Lecture Series, UCLA, April 13, 2010. http://dma.ucla.edu/events/calendar/index.php?ID=614.
- Storey, John. An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture. 2nd ed. University of Georgia Press, 1998. p10.
- Cox, Christoph, and Daniel Warner. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. Continuum, 2004. p76-81.