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Alarmism Is a Form of Noise (More on Prochnik’s ‘In Pursuit of Silence’)

The more I think about George Prochnik‘s new book In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise (out this coming week from Doubleday), the more he comes across as an abolitionist, rather than as a seeker. He’s running from noise, not making his way to silence. His related blog, inpursuitofsilence.com, is a great source of sound-related coverage, and a common theme throughout that coverage is the way that noise negatively impacts society, individuals, and nature. Yet it is all founded on a strong conviction on Prochnik’s part that the world is noisier than ever, which at times comes across like the opinions of those who believe that kids these days are more unruly than ever, or that the U.S. Congress is more polarized than ever, or that crime is worse than ever — opinions that seem civic-minded on the surface, but when poked at reveal an unproductive alarmism that is more about privileging the present that just so happens to be inhabited by the individual who is making the statement. (Privileging the present is different than idealizing the present; in these cases, privileging the present is rooted in a rote nostalgia-fication of the past.)

Despite Prochnik’s framing of the overall situation as “this new noisiness” (in his book’s introduction), it’s quite a simple operation to look to the past 50, 100, 150 years (and further) and locate strong evidence of anxiety about the relative (aural) volume of the world at those times. He cites such examples himself throughout the book, but their existence doesn’t seem to diminish his certitude that the planet is today at its loudest. (Just to posit one example, I can’t help but think that the reduction of light industry in many cities has made certain neighborhoods quieter, not louder.)

Such examples from the past are as entertaining as they are illuminating:

“In summer the noise of city streets, the cars, the elevated, the cries of children, the hand-organs, the flies, are not at all conformable to the supposed dignity of the court,” wrote Justice Frederic DeWitt Wells of the Municipal Court of New York City in his book The Man in Court, published in 1917.

“The 20th century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history’s record for all of them,” Aldous Huxley wrote in The Perennial Philosophy in 1945. (The quote came to my attention in Kyle Gann’s new book on John Cage’s “silent” piece, 4’33”. The title of Gann’s book essentially sums up the theoretical/philosophical framework through which I view Prochnik’s venture: No Such Thing as Silence. Gann attributes the insight regarding Huxley’s influence on Cage to Douglas Kahn, author of the excellent survey of sound in art, Noise, Water, Meat.)

And in Emily Thompson’s phenomenal The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (2002), she goes on at length about the experience of urban noise at the turn of the 20th century. She quotes one Dr. J. H. Girdner from his “The Plague of City Noises,” which he collated in 1896: “almost all the noises he listed were traditional sounds: horse-drawn vehicles, peddlers, musicians, animals, and bells.” Thompson then follows the elements of the sonic cityscape, and notes that within 30 years of rapid change, mechanical noise had largely supplanted what she terms “organic” noise: “Some were energized, others enervated; all felt challenged to respond to the modern soundscape in which they now lived.” Her book is cited by Prochnik in his book’s bibliography as one of the key texts that influenced his thinking, but my read of Thompson only strengthens my sonic relativism, while Prochnik seems to have come away from it all the more convinced that the world in which we live has never been louder. (An 1896 mention in The Review of Reviews of Girdner’s “The Plague of City Noises” refers to “the various sounds that tend to make metropolitan life unendurable” [emphasis mine].)

Here are some notes on recent entries from Prochnik’s blog:

He takes issue with a communal “boombox walk” to commemorate the cherry blossoms in Washington, D.C., even though it’s just a one-time thing and is relegated to an evening slot — today, in fact: April 3, 5:30 pm. (Prochnik’s take, “A Surreally Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come,” is at inpursuitofsilence.com; event details are at bluebrainmusic.blogspot.com.) The event seems to have its roots in the boombox meetup Unsilent Night composed by Phil Kline. Kline’s creation of secular quasi-choral music that replaces strong melodies with ambient tones might seem like a positive development, but I suspect Prochnik would view the involvement of boomboxes as a sure sign that sound is being unnecessarily introduced to a civic space. Now, it’s rhetorically suspect to criticize someone for an opinion they haven’t actually uttered, so to be clear what I’m really emphasizing here is Prochnik’s dismissive response to a one-time event, which others might see as simply an additional way to celebrate the arrival of cherry blossoms.

Prochnik’s blog’s coverage of the science of birdsong (“Songbird Genome Decoded,” inpursuitofsilence.com) is rightly concerned that increases in human-made noise have unintended impact on birds. (This isn’t merely true of sound. Birds have been discovered to follow highways the way they once followed waterways.) Yet his closing comment is evidence of the exaggerated language, the alarmism, he brings to such matters: “the tip of the language degradation iceberg our culture is now crashing up against.”

The In Pursuit of Silence blog launched in November of last year with a brief note about “No Music Day,” a daydream-turned-reality of former KLF member Bill Drummond. Since then the website has provided a steady stream of interesting subjects. They may often twist into opportunities for Prochnik to bemoan the amplitude of our age, but not always. He makes some great points in his critique of Choe Veltman’s recent New York Times story about sound installations in San Francisco (she focused on the Audium and the Sound Wave Organ, at nytimes.com), in particular her odd comment about how the relative size of eyes (big) and ears (small) in the Na’vis in James Cameron’s Avatar is evidence of how culture today places “a far stronger emphasis on sight than hearing.” (I’m not even convinced Veltman’s description of the Na’vis is accurate. But as a longtime San Francisco resident, I found the most peculiar thing about the article was that it appeared in what is purportedly a section devoted to local coverage for residents of the San Francisco Bay area. The same article would have made far more sense in the paper’s travel section.) Prochnik’s entirely correct when he writes:

Near the conclusion, the author notes, “As inventive as some of these works are, they have to compete with many other distractions. It’s possible to walk right through a sound-art installation without even realizing it.”But isn’t it precisely one of the keys to the beauty of works like these that they DON’T try and compete with all the other distractions — that they ask of the spectator sufficient attention and awareness of the environment NOT to just walk through them without noticing? There’s a hint of criticism here, which to me smacks of sighing that, when all is said and done, the problem with silence is that it’s not noisier.

On inpursuitofsilence.com the blog, as in In Pursuit of Silence the book, Prochnik’s extremism might best be exemplified by the manner in which he expresses something approaching jealousy of those who are physically incapable of — or at least hard of — hearing. In a gloss (at inpursuitofsilence.com) on a great post about the history of hearing aids (at hearingsparks.blogspot.com), Prochnik ponders how necessary hearing aids really are: “But with a third of Americans now suffering some degree of hearing loss, according to Johns Hopkins University, and more than a third of Americans inserting some sound-feed device into their ears for some part of the day, one would think that self-consciousness about hearing loss, let alone hearing aids, might begin to wan. The Deaf should be viewed as early adopters to a sonic landscape that, between rising noise levels and declining hearing, will be less and less coherently audible to anyone without technological enhancements.” When you’re so critical of unwelcome sound that you give the appearance of envying those who are hard, or even devoid, of hearing, I think you’re doing your business right along the line that divides essayists from polemicists. (I’m fairly certain that Douglas Kahn, who writes eloquently on all matters sonic, uses hearing aids himself, but I don’t recall him ever having written about his experience.)

Alarmism is its own form of noise — and that idea is something that appears to be lost in the often strident language that Prochnik employs. He’s aware of this issue himself. In the book’s opening, he writes “To effectively promote silence, how does one avoid becoming louder than the sources of noise one is protesting against?” There’s an almost Jekyll/Hyde quality to Prochnik — one moment he can write with stunning beauty about how Zen, along with other spiritual traditions, teaches us that noise is a mental construct, and the next he uses derisive language to mock portable MP3 players and the people who make a routine of carrying them (“a little round dial that fits seductively in our moist palms”).

The unfortunate thing is that Prochnik’s extremism may muffle the otherwise insightful observations that fill his book, such as how many domestic disputes are often actually about matters of noise, and how John Cage’s supposed experience of his nervous system in an anechoic chamber at Harvard was more likely an incident of tinnitus (something Gann notes in more detail in his book, if that’s of interest), and how military veterans who take solace in religion after experiencing war may not be seeking God so much as feeling the need to escape a world that doesn’t live up to the ideals of the one they had been fighting for. That last lesson is the one that lingered with me as I came to wonder, as I mentioned at the outset, whether Prochnik is moving concertedly toward silence, or running angrily from noise. (I mentioned in my previous entry on Prochnik’s book, at disquiet.com, how he points out an interesting debunking of a certain myth about Pythagoras.)

I need to clarify that I am fully sympathetic to Prochnik’s personal concerns about noise, despite what my above statements might suggest. Like Prochnik’s, my hearing is sensitive — or, more to the point, I am sensitive to what I hear. Like him, I am very much the sort of person who is aggravated by sounds as seemingly tiny as the hard drive chatter on the Tivo in my living room, and by the throb of one particular fluorescent bulb that’s recessed into cabinets in my kitchen. When I bought my first iPod, I was stunned by how “loud” the hard drive was when I first turned it on (I was also a little unnerved by the device’s physical vibrations). When I switched from a desktop to a laptop years ago, my primary motivation was the relative quiet of the laptop’s internal fan. When I moved from one part of my neighborhood to another a year and a half ago, the noise level of the street was a deciding factor. (I liked one other house, until I noticed that a neighboring yard had a large cement structure that turned out to be a giant fish tank — just the thought of the sort of constant sound inherent in maintaining such a system nixed that option immediately.) I am very much the sort of person who has been kept awake all night thanks to a radio on a neighboring construction site that wasn’t fully turned off. But in the end, I simply don’t think of noise and silence as polar opposites, perhaps because I’ve read too much Cage and believe silence is an illusion.

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Top 10 Posts & Searches from April 2010

Fully half the top 10 most popular posts on Disquiet.com in the past month were not MP3 downloads (out of a total of 44 posts in April). It’s always a little rewarding to know people are checking out the site for something other than free music. These entries include: (1) the second in a series of probings of George Prochnik‘s new book, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise; (2) a questioning of the definition of the term “music industry” in Megan McArdle‘s essay “The Freeloaders” in the May 2010 issue of The Atlantic; (3) a critique of founding virtual-reality technologist Jaron Lanier‘s new book, You Are Not a Gadget; (4) a note on the arrival of the Apple iPad, focusing on the transition of software from small screen to larger screen; and (5) a look at the handmade retro-futurist musical instruments of Arius Blaze, as shown up top.

The other five most popular posts this month were in the site’s Downstream series of (legally) free MP3 downloads: (6) great old-school hip-hop instrumentals by Damu the Fudgemunk (cover shown at left); a (7) very different take on turntablism by Christoph Hess (aka Strotter Inst.), who treats his wheels of steel with sewing needles and rubber bands; (8) still yet another turntable fantasy, this time Achim Mohné‘s dust-inspired locked grooves; (9) music derived from recordings of backyards by Tristan Louth-Robins and Sebastian Tomczak; and (10) electronica-ly enhanced European free improv from the groups Diatribes and HKM+.

The most popular post of both the last 60 and 90 days was a piece on a handy little homebrew tape-loop device, shown below, developed by musician Marc Fischer, no doubt thanks to considerable push by Rob Walker‘s focus on the cassette tape as an object of consideration at his great murketing.com blog (and, more recently, as the subject of his “Consumed” column last Sunday at nytimes.com):

The top 10 (in fact 11, due to a few ties) search terms on this site for the month of April were: “performances,” “topic,” “ito,” “postclassic,” “best cds 2005,” “best cds 2007,” “biggs” (as in artist Brian Biggs, who contributed the first in what I hope to be a series of “curating Twitter” illustrations of sound-related objects), “black to comm,” “rss,” “The rest is noise,” and “vinyl.” Those first three items (“performances,” “topic,” “ito”) have been standard for a few months, though I don’t for the life of me know why.

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Quote of the Week: The Soundscape of New Orleans

From the essay “‘Under the Bridge’: An Orientation to Soundscapes in New Orleans” by Tulane Assistant Professor in Music Matt Sakakeeny, published in the journal Ethnomusicology‘s current issue, Winter 2010:

The “bridge” creates intimacy, enclosing parade participants, maximizing a sense of unity, and the concrete makes for spectacular acoustics, amplifying and multiplying the participatory sound, creating a sort of “unplugged” feedback loop: acoustic, but not shockingly loud, and made louder by the musicians playing at peak volume to compete with the sound of cars and trucks whizzing by above. Ideally, the sounds of the music, the crowd, and the environment work together to orient individuals as a collective occupying a shared space.

The essay, which is highly recommended, draws on soundscape pioneer R. Murray Schaefer’s idea of a “soundmark” (“a community sound which is unique or possesses qualities which make it specially regarded”) and Steven Feld’s extension of that idea, “acoustemology.” Sakakeeny quotes Feld defining “acoustemology,” a reduction of “acoustic epistemology,” as follows: “local conditions of acoustic sensation, knowledge, and imagination embodied in the culturally particular sense of place.” Feld has provided a more succinct definition: “a sonic way of knowing place” (cec.concordia.ca).

Sakakeeny writes about traditional New Orleans music without being beholden to tradition — that’s something many musicians in the city manage to do without getting much credit for it, but people who study the music often fall short. In the article’s second graph, he notes that members of the New Birth Brass Band played bits of rapper DMX’s “Shorty Was the Bomb” (actually “Shorty Was da Bomb”) during a second-line parade for a woman named Adrienne “Shorty” Chancley. (The second-line parade is the tradition in which brass bands play dirges to a funeral, and then celebratory music afterward.)

But what distinguishes Sakakeeny’s article isn’t that he can hear the hip-hop in the jazz — it’s that he hears that jazz in the real world, and how the sonic properties of the world shape the music, not just the audience’s experience of and participation in the music, but the way the music itself sounds. His understanding of music’s role in life in New Orleans helps him hear the music not as sound that takes place, but as sound that makes something of the place, acoustically, in which it occurs. Music isn’t merely a message transmitted from performer to audience; it’s a space-defining invisible-yet-physical force that interacts with (helps define, yet is defined by) the space in which it happens.

The “bridge” he’s writing about is one of the most tragic urban-planning actions in the history of New Orleans, when the construction of the I-10 highway forced the removal of a stretch of a historically black community alongside Claiborne Avenue, lakeside of the French Quarter. As Sakakeeny puts it politely, “by design or default” the construction separated the tourist-friendly Quarter from the primarily black neighborhoods on the other side of Claiborne. Whether or not you believe in ghosts, that socio-geographic history helps explain why this broad stretch of concrete remains, to this day, a place where celebration, such as the one Sakakeeny writes about, takes place frequently and naturally. To take a second-line parade under the bridge is to reclaim that territory, not just physically but, as Sakakeeny writes, sonically.

He covers a lot of ground in the piece, including the proper tempo for a second line (around 100 to 124 beats per minute — anything slower loses people’s interest, and anything faster is too tough to keep up with), and the noise-abatement issues in the Tremé neighborhood, long home to musicians: “differentiating between what constitutes ‘noise’ or ‘music’ in New Orleans has everything to do with the way one is oriented towards sound, and those who hear music as noise have been effective in enforcing silence.” (Recent readers of this site will likely draw a comparison to George Prochnik’s new book, In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, which I’ve written about a few times: disquiet.com, disquiet.com.)

Here’s an image from the article, ragged in its reproduction but still useful in setting the sense of place, showing the Rebirth Brass Band alongside the bridge in November 2006:

Full article at scribd.com (and as a PDF). Read either version carefully, as some of the pages are out of sequence.

More on Sakakeeny at tulane.edu and at his rootsofmusic.blogspot.com blog.

In related news, my thoughts on the debut episode of the HBO series Treme (a series that Sakakeeny notes in his essay) at disquiet.com.

More on the journal at uillinois.edu. This essay in the current Ethnomusicology issue also looks quite interesting, in regard to the cultural roots of copyleft, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet: “Composition, Authorship, and Ownership in Flamenco, Past and Present” by Peter Manuel.

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Past Week at Twitter.com/Disquiet

  • Lao New Year celebration at Civic Center in San Francisco: minor chords on massive Casios are traditional, as in Russian & Thai festivities. #
  • Military aircraft just shattered unusually sunny day with its jet engines. Not sure if the sound lingers in the sky, or just in my ears. #
  • The bus is oddly quiet. Something should penetrate my iPod’s chamber music. My entire neighborhood has decided to make it a 3-day weekend. #
  • Favorite new-to-me phrase: “festina lente,”Latin for “to make haste slowly.”#
  • Neat insta-rewind: Play MP3 in Quicktime in Firefox to the end; hit Command/Backarrow & it plays backward with no clipping. #
  • RIP, pop provocateur Malcolm McLaren (b. 1946). Tonight: Duck Rock & Fans. Here he is on 8-bit as the new punk from 2003: http://is.gd/bkyzg #
  • Garbage truck rumbles past clumsily, continues for a block, turns down another street. Someone else’s sonic Thursday morning is my Monday. #
  • Q: “What is that sound/Where is it coming from/All around”–Billy Bragg … A: The hum of the industrial carpet cleaner a few houses down. #
  • The office printer at various points during the day performs a hypnotic, deeply modal qawwali-like drone for minutes at a time. #
  • Wondering what sound on a given morning triggers the activity of noting sounds. Today: hard drive, airplane, bus, ice in glass of coffee. #
  • Both @bandcamp and @soundcloud are great web platforms for musicians. I just wish the latter had “clickable tags”the way the former does. #
  • Morning sounds: hard drive, fridge, bus, shower, heater, plane overhead. Each truly ordinary but in combination a kind of ambient cacophony. #
  • From George Prochnik’s book In Pursuit of Silence: “I was as tired of hearing myself complain about noise as I was about the noise itself.”#
  • Lovely quiet after long, intense rain. Is the water-logged street quieter, are our wet walls thicker, or are there just fewer cars out? #
  • Sunday morning = new Ava Mendoza album. #
  • There are mornings when the refrigerator sounds like a body shop for hovercraft. This is one of them. #
  • Just saw flick Staten Island, with great Seymour Cassel as deaf mute deli worker in trouble with mob. Great handling of his lack of hearing. #
  • Washing machine is sound of industriousness. Birdsong reminds me I need to clean the yard. #
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Quotes of the Week: Silence & Deafness

I’m about half of the way through the book In Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise by George Prochnik. Due out in early April from Doubleday, it’s a series of essays that collect related anecdotes, trivia, historical references, interview segments, and personal reflections tied to particular themes, such as the purpose of hearing, the purpose of noise, the role of sound in the retail environment, and so on. It’s packed with fascinating information: about how there’s no way Pythagoras could actually have heard at a blacksmith’s shop what has become received wisdom about the history of Western tuning; about the relative “tunings” of various cities around the globe; about how aspects of Hitler’s commanding voice may have, as much as the substance of what he said, been the source of his charismatic force; about how the San Francisco Chronicle was the first newspaper to rate restaurants by a “noise-rating,” and that was only a decade ago; about the role of hearing in combat as described by a veteran of the U.S. military who happens to be credited as a guitarist on the debut album by Nirvana. (There’s a lot in the book about conflict, which makes it a good counterpart to Steve “Kode9” Goodman’s Sonic Warfare, recently out from MIT Press.)

Prochnik is, by all appearances, a curious and creative reporter — he accompanies a patrolman in Washington, D.C., who responds to noise complaints, and visits various religious sites, including a Quaker meeting in Brooklyn and a monastery in Dubuque, Iowa. He tells a funny anecdote about seeking out an accomplished astronaut, only to learn that the experience of the silence of deep space mostly involves being inundated by instructions from mission control.

Early on in the book, Prochnik talks about a friend of his, a painter, who as a child was deaf for a period of months. The friend is named Adam (no last name is given, which is an unfortunately common occurrence in the more personal anecdotes in the book, should you want to learn more about the individuals), and Adam believes that the experience is a key reason he pursued visual art; he says of his deafness stint:

“Sound imposes a narrative on you … and it’s always someone else’s narrative. My experience of silence was like being awake inside a dream I could direct.”

Prochnik gets deeper into Adam’s experience in this paraphrase:

“His memories of that time are vivid and not, he insists, at all negative. Indeed, they opened a world in which the images he saw could be woven together with much greater freedom and originality than he’d ever known.”

This portion of the book appears midway through the introduction, and it’s wisely placed. Much writing on silence after John Cage has focused on the word’s inherent contradiction: there isn’t any true silence — the absence of formal evidence of sound (conversation, music) is in fact an illusion, a thin scrim that amounts to little more than a consensual societal hallucination. Through that scrim of perceived silence the full world of sound (nature, industry) can be heard, at least by those who make the effort to pay attention to it. The reference to deafness, and it’s the first of many in In Pursuit of Silence, provides a tabula rasa for the subject that many books on sound neglect. (There’s video of Prochnik speaking on deafness and related things at MIT at techtv.mit.edu.)

My primary critique of the book at this juncture is that the title seems misleading — the book is, at least at the halfway point, less about pursuing silence than about escaping noise. This isn’t merely a matter of how the book has been packaged. Prochnik’s sensitivity to sound as an irritant (“I’m scared of becoming a noise crank,” he writes on its first page) leads to situations in which zealousness may have yielded mistaken, or at least less-than-nuanced, interpretations. For example, the omnipresent iPod is seen here as a symbol of society’s embrace of 24/7 sonic immersion. However, I believe it can just as easily be read as evidence of a pursuit along the lines of the one that Prochnik himself has embarked on: an entirely personal attempt to block out the noise that the world imposes on us.

His book-related blog, inpursuitofsilence.com, features tidbits about the energy produced by noise and the apparent genetic predilection among humans for beats. If the stats in Google Reader are to be believed, I am as of this evening the sole RSS subscriber (via Google Reader) to his blog, and I highly recommend signing up.

Note: I usually post my “Quote of the Week” on Disquiet.com on Saturdays, but I took yesterday as a computer-free day and, entirely coincidental with the activist tone of Prochnik’s book (I didn’t start reading it until after lunch), a recorded-music-free day, as well (except at the gym, where I played Fescal’s forthcoming album, Lethal Industry, for at least the 20th time, a familiarity that to my mind qualifies it as background listening). It was a TV-free day, too, until about 10pm, when I succumbed to the wiles of a documentary about Sun Studio.

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