Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing

And the act of reviewing everyday sounds as if they were record albums

This is a quick note in case you’re coming to for the first time, having read about my writing, research, and teaching in Rob Walker’s excellent new book, The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy in the Everyday (Knopf, 2019).

I’ll write more about Rob’s book in the near future, but in the meanwhile, one of the subjects he discusses in his book is my practice of reviewing the sounds of everyday things. (This specific page from The Art of Noticing is helpfully archived on, for reference.)

A sequence of such reviews appears here on the Disquiet website under the tag #listening-to-yesterday. These include the final moments of a dying lightbulb, the odd quiet of a usually bustling restaurant, and the background noise of a bank’s institutional authority, among many others.

Listening to Yesterday: The Quiet Meal

When a busy restaurant isn't


When time came last night to recommend a restaurant, I knew where to go: an Indian place I adore, but that I’m rarely ever remotely near. At the time of meal negotiations, the place was still 20 minutes from where we happened to be, which meant 20 more minutes of stomach growls audible over the sound of a revving car engine.

During the day, especially around lunch time, this place is a revving engine unto itself, a fantastically active machine of food and people and smells — packed with diners, rambunctious with dishes, busy with foot traffic. The restaurant is one long tall room. The cashier is at the far end, across from the entrance. Everyone has to line up at the counter to order and pay for food, which is then delivered to the tables. After you grab a table you wander back to the main counter area to snag dining utensils, napkins, condiments, and water. There’s a large, loud cooler, as well, filled with sodas.

Last night, having raised expectations considerably, with tales of curries, breads, and a wide range of tandoori treats, I welcomed my dinner companion to a nearly empty hall. Just two of the many tables were taken. One person stood at the counter, waiting for patrons — waiting for us. There are many restaurants where silence is a symbol of refinement, of gustatory virtue. This was not such a place. Like the spice of the food, it was at its best when somewhat overwhelming. Instead, yesterday evening, it was initially quite underwhelming.

The food was as good — as great — as always, and after it arrived and we started to eat, any concerns were put quickly aside, but between our entering the establishment and the delivery of the food, the quietude of the place caused a small degree of anxiety on my part. Maybe, for example it was quiet because there had been a change of management and no one ate here anymore. Some peaceful, well-designed restaurants provide privacy; despite the silence, sound doesn’t carry from table to table. In this place, with its high ceiling and tiled floor, the silence felt like a void. Not a vacuum, so much as a desultory cavern. The small talk at the neighboring tables seemed haphazard, and the noise of passing vehicles felt closer than it did during the afternoon — it’s not that you could smell exhaust, but the closeness of the road caused discomfort.

Oddest of all was an absent sound: the kitchen. I’d never noticed during lunch, but during the quiet of dinner I realized that virtually no sounds emanated from the kitchen, so far was it set back, through a tiny little window, from the rest of the room. Of course, as we ate, and talked, and spoke admiringly of the food, our voices helped fill out the room a little. Our chatter, the squeaks of a little boy one table over, a couple that entered soon after, discussing which of their favorites to order — slowly the place filled up, with people and with sound. It never achieved the beautiful chaos of lunchtime, but we all, collectively, through our collegial banter and the noisy activity of eating, breathed some life into the hall, and into each other’s meals.

(Photo by Simon Felton, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

Listening to Yesterday: Icon Disconnect

The assumptions of interface aesthetics


A rare instance yesterday of using Bluetooth to connect my iPod to the car stereo. This is a fairly new thing to me. I was listening to some broken electronic music, a release that was purposefully noisy and that worked hard to maintain the appearance of falling apart — crashing by design, but with the design as sublimated, as indiscernible, as possible. The track identification appeared, a bit magically to me, on the small screen built into the car’s dashboard. There were three line items, one each for the song title, for the artist’s name, and for the album title. Having that information easily accessible at a glance during the drive was pleasant, since the music was quite repetitive, exploring similar themes in nuanced but differing manners over the course of the multiple hours of the recording.

The data was correct, but the icons were humorously out of sync. The icon for track title was a flowery note, the purposeful if generic prettiness of the depiction having nothing to do with what was coming out of the speakers. The icon for the artist showed a human torso next to an especially old-school microphone, the sort associated with Cold War”“era newscasters and Jazz Age singers — despite there being no singing on the album, and despite the sound being certifiably digital. The icon for the album title was a circle, more specifically a circle within a circle within a circle, which meant it could have been intended to signify vinyl or CD or both, but in any case had little to do with download-only release that was actually playing.

The icons didn’t alter what I heard, but then again there’s no such thing as a fully neutral medium. I wondered, as I drove around, what other forms of cultural bias were programmed into that display, what other aesthetic assumptions about entertainment and pleasure were at the root of the network of businesses and technologies that we refer to, in a broad generalization, as the music industry. I wondered why this electronic music I so enjoyed sounded purposefully broken, and whether it felt broken because only something broken could serve as a trenchant critique of — as an icon of dissent in regard to — how the music industry functions.

Listening to Yesterday: Post-Industrial Birdsong

Hearing danger you can opt to not see


There’s a small wildlife habitat in a toxic harbor across the city from where I live. It’s a brief strip of ecological consciousness-raising that juts out into a part of the bay that bears the residue of generations of shipping and other industrial activity. The salt marsh emerged decades ago when a planned port on the minuscule peninsula failed to materialize. Government agencies and non-profits collaborated to build on the marsh’s natural momentum. Now eager birders can take morning strolls amid the carcinogens, in clear view of discarded buildings.

I took a walk there yesterday. The habitat proved to be a long, narrow path between an anonymous bit of land and a modest port. Along the path were large concrete blocks that served as benches. The concrete was a smart design touch. It brought the warehouse vibe of the encompassing area into the naturalist fold. It suggested that, through creative reuse, the materials of the error-ridden past might just yet be transformed in the service of a more considered, sustainable future.

The view during the walk was instructive. If you looked straight ahead you saw the path and small batches of brush, perhaps the passing freighter, and then the land across the bay. If you looked left or right you saw evidence of the ongoing if quiet functional use of the marine infrastructure. If you looked back, the path bent enough that you didn’t see the large-scale power station. Birds sang out in stereo, a large flock of seagulls on one side, and a type I couldn’t identify on the other. They sang out in seeming willful ignorance of each other, and of the other sounds that lingered in the air: helicopters, planes, the light roar of ships, the pounding at a construction site at the foot of that power station, and the excited chatter of avifauna aficionados. Of them all, the diggers were the most confrontational, the most out of step. They rumbled for short stretches and then paused, just long enough to lull you into a pastoral daze before someone flipped a switch and they rumbled again.

There was no firm border between where industrialization ended and the natural habitat began, nor a clear sense of which encroached on which. You could turn away from the view you didn’t desire, but the sounds of the ships and the diggers, much like the legacy chemicals, were pervasive — except that the chemicals remained invisible in the soil and water alike no matter where you looked. Several years ago, a simple sonification experiment was developed to raise awareness of the toxicity in the air of a commuter tunnel. A piece of narrative sound was made that produced in jarring tones the relative density of toxins; the length of the piece matched the average length of time a vehicle might spend in the tunnel. You heard what you would breathe; it was quite effective in making an important environmental impression. Along the path at the wildlife habitat, the industrial noises provided a spontaneous form of sonification, a reminder of dangers you couldn’t see.

(Photo of the location by Diane Yee, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)

Listening to Yesterday: The Silent Office

A place of productivity in the off hours


Traffic was quite intense on both sides of the park yesterday. It was the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, which meant that while lots of people left the city, many also flocked to it. Car traffic was so bad that some seemingly well-conceived plans unravelled, and I found myself stranded for a few hours. Entirely by chance, where I found myself stranded was in a parking space directly across the street from a small office that I rent. So, I went inside. The noise of traffic quite suddenly gave way to an encompassing silence.

It was possible that I was the only person in the three-story building yesterday afternoon. The gate was locked, which it never is on regular weekdays, and often isn’t on weekends. The front door to the building was locked, which it only is on weekends. The front office was empty and dark. I took the stairs, and heard no one on the second floor, or on the third and top floor. Nor was was elevator, a creaky old thing in which I was once stuck for a few minutes, evidencing any sign of use.

My building is fairly quiet during the week, when the offices, most of them keeping their doors closed, might emit the occasional sound of someone speaking up while on the phone to make themselves heard, or of music, or of furniture being moved around. Yesterday, a holiday: nothing. I settled in at my desk and wrote a bit, then took a break from writing to read. I played music for awhile on the stereo, and eventually turned it off. Without any typing or page-turning or my taking notes with a pencil in the margins of a hardback book, the room was silent. The hallway was silent. The floor was silent. The building was silent. The building was so silent that I stopped reading and writing simply to take in the silence, the peculiar experience of this place of work exuding no aural byproduct of productivity.

The building was so silent that later in the day I wondered if the church next door had neglected to ring its bells, which seems especially unlikely given that it was a Sunday. I had no memory of the bells ringing, despite my having spent a considerable chunk of my stay just sitting and listening. I hadn’t just listened to the silence. I had listened for the silence. I wondered if the silence inside the office building had become so prominent in my imagination that the idea of silence had, in turn, blocked out the outside world.

(Image adapted from a photo by walknboston, used via Flickr and a Creative Commons license.)