Noise

“Noise,” as a word, references both the little auditory ripples, wiggles, and waves that surround us and the more metaphorical “noise” that we ascribe to things like media or a crowded, overwrought curtain pattern. Both are pretty similar.

Twitter, for example, bears some resemblance to a street, where each car is sort of doing its own thing, or like a crowded market place, filled with words, many of which I do not care much about, jostling together. Many little conversations or rhetorical projectiles surf by: ideas, images, arguments, rage, humor, injustice, grilled cheese.  They’re all here through a combination of forces, many of which go far beyond me.

To get more specific, I think the busy street and the crowded Twitter feed have four main qualities:

1. Ceaselessness

2. Perceived Disorganization

3. Perceived Lack of Harmony

4. Overwhelming “Volume”

Music provides an easy way to understand this, as it’s more accessible than most nonhuman noise. Ceaselessness, quality one, implies an ongoing character to the sound or media. Twitter always updates. Small gaps of silence exist, but each moment, a new tweet fills the gap. Like Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata’s finale, with its breathless arpeggios, or one of Steve Reich’s pulsing rhythms, noise keeps going.

In the world, noise is always around us. As R. Murray Schafer writes in The Soudscape, “The best way to comprehend what I mean by acoustic design is to regard the soundscape of the world as a huge musical composition, unfolding around us ceaselessly. We are simultaneously its audience, its performers, and its composers.” Sound enfolds us into worlds, into cocoons of ambience, with its ever-present persistence. Reversing this, music also creates worlds, as Mahler argued or Brian Eno undertakes through his ambient music.

But all this has some sort of organization. Some sort of progress, in a sense. It also has harmony. So our next two qualities, disorganization and dissonance, become key fracture points. Take an an Olivier Messiaen piece, which deliberately tries to break traditional tonality in many places, or Cage’s 13 Harmonies, which doesn’t seem to go anywhere, and you get closer, for many people, to “noise.” Indeed, as Cage said in one interview, he prefers noise to the “talking” that most music does.

Sometimes, different world music strikes our ears in odd ways because it may not follow traditional, Western grammar and syntax. It is a different language. But noise lacks grammar and syntax, or at least it lacks the grammar and syntax we can understand. It is alien, and through that distance, it comes across as aharmonic and arhythmic.

Returning to Twitter, I suppose one might argue that it is aharmonic and arhythmic because it lacks an organizing hand. It’s a cluster of voices, in a variety of media, thrown together by a variety of forces. We don’t have newspaper ledes or 5-paragraph essays or whole canvases by a single painter; it’s a quilt stitched by many hands, with different agendas, different materials, different syntax, voice, and grammar.

More deeply, no ideology or purpose grounds these utterances. The #BlackLivesMatter tweets exist alongside angry tweets aimed at Anita Sarkeesian, or stories about Kim Kardashian’s latest shoot or a picture of cats. Lies exist alongside facts. Satire alongside news.

But noise only becomes “noisy” when the volume is too high. It floods in, assaults us, pounds its arythmic, aharmonic agenda against our temples. It hits us with cute cats alongside Syrian refugees. Pictures jumbled up with words, and videos, and hashtags, and emoticons, and all-caps yells, and snide one-liners–ceaseless and staggering.

I’m not the only person to look at media this way. Bruno Latour, for one, moves toward it. But I think we do gain something from studying noise. From sticking our eyes, and ears, and hands into the static and car horn cacophonies of Twitter and the street outside. I’m not quite sure what that “something” is, perhaps a better appreciation for noise, like John Cage, or a better ability to sift through it. I hope, however, that whatever we gain may reduce our anxiety and make us better listeners.

On Frasier and Leaving The Past Behind

I’ve been watching a lot of Frasier the last few weeks. Maybe it’s a hankering for something funnier than today’s formulaic television comedies, or it’s probably just that the show is wickedly entertaining.

from fanpop.com
from fanpop.com

The 90s powerhouse comedy features Kelsey Grammer as the titular Dr. Frasier Crane,a pseudo-intellectual radio psychiatrist trying to get through life despite his multiple character flaws. He’s joined by his equally pseudo-intellectual psychiatrist brother Niles, his retired cop father and his snarky British housekeeper as he weaves through a series of unfortunate shenanigans.

In the episode “Seat of Power,” the Crane brothers attempt to fix a leaky toilet to prove to their father they can do more than recite Faulkner and wax poetic on a particularly good vintage. Of course, they fail miserably and call in a plumber; in a twist, the plumber is one of Niles’s high-school tormentors.

Niles wants no more than to shove his foe’s head into the toilet, giving him a “swirly,” the torture he endured many time in high school. Frasier talks him out of it, instead urging him to tout his success: the “living well” revenge.

When that backfires (the plumber drives a Mercedes and has a fulfilling marriage), Frasier recommends Niles simply talk it out with the bully. Though Frasier ignores his own advice when he takes a toilet-water infused revenge on a second bully-turned-plumber, Niles comes to terms with his aggressor and moves forward, settling some 20 years of pent-up anger.

You may wonder what my point is, but I was struck with how well Niles and Frasier’s misadventure mirrored my own struggles with leaving high school resentments behind.

Continue reading “On Frasier and Leaving The Past Behind”

Kafka Quote

“We are as forlorn as children lost in the woods. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours. And if I were to cast myself down before you and weep and tell you, what more would you know about me than you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell.”

Franz Kafka in a letter to Oskar Pollak