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tag: noise

The Comics of Noise Pollution, Circa 1930

Rereading Emily Thompson

I’ve been rereading Emily Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity for the first time since it was published, nearly 20 years ago, back in 2002. Each page is a trove of historical detail, such as the above 1930 Robert Day editorial cartoon. The next year The New Yorker would start publishing Day, and it would do so through 1976.

For all the advancement of our comprehension culturally of sound, it’s not like the early 1900s were the stone age. As Thompson tells us, the New York Times noted in 1926 that volume wasn’t the issue; “the nature of the [specific] sounds were.” That’s a distinction many today, in our over-quantified era, still find to be a revelation. Around that same time, for example, it was shown that “horse-drawn traffic was actually louder than automobiles or trucks,” even though modern vehicles were generally the source of citizen complaints (per Edward Elway Free, using a “Western Electric audiometer”).

At the turn of the century, back in 1905, Julia Barnett Rice “counted almost 3,000 whistles [of tugboats] in just one night,” leading two years later to the Bennett Act. Of course, once noise laws were set, matters of race and class came into play as to what was and wasn’t criminal. Thompson lays this all out in her excellent book.

Here’s another editorial cartoon reproduced in The Soundscape of Modernity. It’s from the same year, 1930:

The New Yorker published the piece by Otto Soglow: waterway gondolas replacing elevated trains, a louder firework to punish someone setting off a firework, a jack-in-the-box replacing a car horn. I immediately got the silent newspaper hawkers in the Soglow. Unclear to me was the garbage truck joke, which friends later helped me understand: gymnasts making quick, quiet work of the pails.

The silent picture joke still confuses me, all the more so because being the final panel, it serves as the punch line of a series of punch lines. This is the joke he chose to end on, and I understand it the least. Silent movies weren’t really silent. We just call them that. They had scores. Projectors were loud. They were often raucously attended. Perhaps the appearance in Soglow’s strip was a matter of instant nostalgia. Perhaps three years after The Jazz Singer, people were already regretting the talkie. Or perhaps the point is the lonely theater employee below the marquee: you could happily attend a silent movie in 1930 because the crowds were elsewhere.

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Sound Bites: Pandemic Playlists, Disliking Dislikes, Martian Noise

Recent reads (etc.) on sound

These are the sort of items I’d usually put in the This Week in Sound email newsletter (tinyletter.com/disquiet), but I’ve been super busy, too busy for a new issue, and so at a friend’s suggestion I am initially noting some here.

It’s good YouTube experiments with hiding dislikes. I’m not sure it’s just about creator ego or hate mobs. The interface is flawed. We’re used (post-Netflix) to dis/liking things to nudge the algorithm. Hiding lets users register taste without offending. (I wrote about this two years ago in “Speaking Privately to the Algorithm.”)
https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/30/22358992/youtube-hiding-dislikes-experiment-creator-review-bomb

“Getting ‘vaxxed at moscone and they’re literally playing Here Comes the Sun on the PA and I’m shaking,'”: Peter Hartlaub quotes local food critic Soleil Ho at the start of this piece about the playlist at Moscone Center, one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s major vaccination centers. Her tweet was the first I’d heard of the music there, as well. I’m still ineligible for vaccination, but have been following along as folks tweet (and otherwise share) their shots. The playlist originated, interesting, not for patients but for administers: “it was initially created for staffers arriving early for their first day of work.” (via Daniel Raffel)
https://www.sfchronicle.com/local/article/Here-s-the-story-behind-the-amazing-Moscone-16061677.php

Robocalls have altered our relationships with phones, both household and mobile. Good news: The FCC has been taking action. Less good: “A fine, even the biggest in the agency’s history, is unlikely to rein in robocalls. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest they haven’t been effective at all.” More good: “If there’s good news, it’s that the FCC isn’t limiting itself to fines. In a separate announcement, the agency detailed its new anti-robocall agenda. Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel has established a Robocall Response Team. Made up of 51 FCC members across six offices, the team will coordinate the agency’s anti-robocall efforts and develop new policies for it to put in place.”
https://www.engadget.com/fcc-225-million-fine-194419208.html

We’ve been back on Mars barely a month and already introduced noise pollution: “It’s so noisy that Dave Gruel, the lead engineer for the EDL (entry, descent and landing mic) system, said he’d pull over and call for a tow if he heard these sounds while driving his car.” (And, yes, I first read that as Dave Grohl, too.)
https://www.engadget.com/perseverance-driving-on-mars-sounds-063118359.html

Geeta Dayal surveys the past and future of music at Mills College, which has been home to such musical mavericks as Pauline Oliveros, Darius Milhaud, John Cage, Fred Frith, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Laetitia Sonami, and Roscoe Mitchell, in light of the institution ceasing to grant degrees.
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/30/arts/music/mills-college-music.html

You know how with each successive generation, ties to ethnic and cultural heritage diminish? It’s true of birds, too. “As the population of the critically endangered regent honeyeater plummeted over the years, some young birds could no longer find older ones to teach them to sing, a new study reports.”
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/17/science/bird-honeyeater-australia.html

The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast, a new book from Jennifer Lucy Allen, is due out in later this year (May in the U.K., where she is based, and July in the U.S.). Allen received her PhD, with a thesis titled Fog Tropes: The social and cultural history of the foghorn 1853 to the present day.
https://www.hachette.com.au/jennifer-lucy-allan/the-foghorns-lament-the-disappearing-music-of-the-coast

Whale song can be used “to map undiscovered faults through tectonic sound recordings of the sea,” Geoff Manaugh notes from paper in Science. https://www.bldgblog.com/2021/03/cetacean-surroundsound/

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When a Noise Force …

... meets an unsuitable playback medium

20131106-deadwood

Noise music has an indeterminate quality, a quality that defies common conceptions of sonic reproduction. By striving for a level of volume, intensity, and texture that veers toward decay, noise music challenges the listener — especially the listener to recorded noise music — to locate the proper listening environment. When a sound is intended to signal a destructive force, how can its “proper” reproduction be gauged. This live performance by the Scotland-based musician Deadwood, aka Adam Baker, has the unique ability to sound like it is shredding your speaker even when played at a very low volume. If noise music played quietly is a form of ambient music, that is not to say that the sound cannot still do damage.

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/dead_wood. More on Deadwood, aka Adam Baker of Edinburgh, Scotland, at blotchcreek.blogspot.com.

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Pachinko Fury

A field recording with a warning label

20131103-pachinko

I’ve regularly said that a multi-floor pachinko parlor in Tokyo is by far the loudest, most aggressive sound I have experienced in person, and I’ve said that as someone who has seen Metallica, Danzig, Fugazi, Slayer, Godflesh, and Napalm Death live in concert, just to name a few bands famed for their volume. The closest I’ve come to the pachinko parlor intensity was probably a Dinosaur Jr. show that was so loud people walked out of the concert hall, though the lack of enthusiasm may also have been because Nirvana was the opening act on that tour, and Nirvana, then still on the rise, was the portrait of a tough act to follow. In any case, as mentioned here recently, Seth S. Horowitz, author of The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind, is currently in Japan and making binaural field recordings of what he witnesses. His latest item from that information-gathering trip is a pachinko parlor, which he tweeted about earlier this evening:

His description of the track, six minutes of white noise so dense with treacly pop music, mechanical fury, and crowd chatter is as follows: “In-ear binaural recording of a soundwalk through 3 floors of the Maruan Pachinko Tower in Shibuya, Tokyo at 11 AM. WARNING: Incredibly LOUD. Use low volume to listen.”

Track originally posted at soundcloud.com/universalsense. More on Horowitz at neuropop.com. Image found via wikipedia.org. Image found via wikimedia.org.

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The Ambient Music of Lou Reed (RIP)

From metal machines to a score for tai chi

Lou Reed, cofounder, singer, and songwriter of the Velvet Underground, passed away today at the age of 71. He was a key figure in the pre-punk era of rock’n’roll, which stripped artifice in favor of rudimentary chord progressions and urban narrative. But because contradictions are at the heart of culture, Reed and his band also provided an important bridge between the worlds of rock’n’roll and contemporary art.

Much has been made of Reed having said, “One chord is fine. Two chords is pushing it. Three chords and you’re into jazz.” The comment is often referenced in favor of rock music that has an distinct disinterest in melodic, harmonic, and structural complexity. But one chord, at least in the metaphoric sense, also provided the foundation of some of Reed’s least rock-like recordings, music that aspired to an ambient state: his 1975 noise classic, Metal Machine Music, and his 2007 collection of contemplative soundscapes, Hudson River Wind Meditations.

The latter is a collection of meditative recordings — white noise in contrast with Metal Machine Music’s white heat — that he composed for his own tai chi practice:

The former is one of the most debated albums by a major rock musician. Many see it as a prank, an album of sonic violence that goes beyond merely challenging the ears of its audience. Such dismissal doesn’t explain why Reed returned to the music decades later, or how industrial rock, free improvisation, and noise music made good on the once isolated manifesto. That said, the perception of it as a prank assists in setting Metal Machine Music alongside John Cage’s 4’33”, another perennially reviled work: a wall of impenetrable sound to match Cage’s transparent silence:

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