Sound and glory: The rest is not just noise

by Brooks Riley

Sound 3We are born into a noisy world. For most of us, it starts right off with the cries and whimpers of our own Mum as she tries to help us tunnel our way out of the womb. What from inside may have sounded like the couple fighting next door, explodes into the full-blown cacophony of voices and diverse environmental clicks and clacks of the natal experience, once you've made it through the birth canal to the outside.

You can't really see all that well yet, so what you hear is what you get: Voices, ‘Ooh, aah', ‘it's a girl,' the clatter of instruments the doctor is using, the slap on your bum to get you breathing, your own voice too, adding clarion outrage and high-decibel relief, and then the squeak of rubber-soled shoes as the nurse carries you to your mother's arms or your first bed ever. I was spared much of the clatter, my mother opting for anesthesia, allowing me to emerge into a deceptively tranquil world.

In the realm of sound, music gets the most attention, deservedly so. Music is nothing short of a human triumph, the bending of sound into methodical systematic arrangements that manage both to please the ear and to give the listener's brain a rush of emotion that it might otherwise never have experienced. It's right up there with language as a supreme accomplishment of the species, but its greatest achievement may be its uselessness. Music is an evolutionary luxury, serving no known purpose in the survival of the species no matter how often you hum along to ‘I will survive'.

Noise, belonging to sensual imput without intent, is etymologically compromised, left well behind in the rush to music. As distinct from the word ‘sound'', the word ‘noise' means that what is being heard is unpleasant or annoying (the word stems from ‘argument ‘and ‘nausea'). As a single word with an article, however, as in ‘a noise', it is neutral, a sound that may very well be satisfying to the ear after all.

These are noisy times. Some people never experience complete silence, only relative silence. A city always hums along, just below our level of awareness. Add to that the thousands of little noises that punctuate nearly every minute of our day, from birds to traffic to the clatter of dishes in the kitchen or the construction site nearby. Some noises are self-generated as we go about our daily routines. Others are imposed on us, by our environment, by our society.

Noises serve a double purpose. On the one hand, a noise occurs as a signal that something is happening. The more familiar the noise, the more likely that what is happening is in keeping with one's expectations–the hum of a car motor, the rush of water from the spigot, the toast popping up at just the right moment. On the other hand, a noise can serve as warning that all is not well–the new clicking sound embedded in the engine hum, the splutter of water from pipes with too much air, the horn that honks if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

There are noises that are universally liked, like the popping of bubble wrap, a triumph of auditory cause-and-effect gratification. Some sounds appeal for what they portend, money being sorted inside the cash machine, for instance, a sound that announces that you are flush enough to extract the desired sum. There are apps for sounds we like to hear, from the opening of a beer bottle to the shuffling of a deck of cards.

Nature is full of noises we like, from the rustle of the wind in the trees, waves breaking on the shore, a rushing mountain stream, and of course, the birds, some musical, some not. We tend to ignore the sounds of our environment unless a noise is unexpected. Only then do we listen.

Sometimes it is the absence of noise that commands our attention, the rare unexpected silence that comes when, say, a pause in traffic occurs. I call these silences ‘Tonlücken' (‘sound holes'), or Tonschneisen, (‘sound gaps', related to the word for a clearing in a forest). The most extraordinary Tonlücke I ever experienced was New York a few days after 9/11. This was a New York I didn't know, as though time stood still—no honking horns, no raised voices, a city holding its breath.

Of all the sensual triggers that lead to a madeleine moment à la Proust, noises are the least charged with meaning but not altogether unevocative. The bill-clatter of the stork next door lures me back to Cáceres, Spain where I first heard that sound (oddly similar to erasing words on a smartphone) years ago. The mournful wail of a locomotive horn or a ship's horn in the fog bring me back to a voyage or a train ride where I first heard them. A certain kind of siren that pompiers use makes me shudder as I recall the night our house in Paris caught fire. A cricket will always carry me back to old Virginia.

The power and beauty of noises reside in their brevity. Unlike music, no noise can maintain its attraction for long if repeated too often, not even the most beautiful noise I ever heard, two swans flying low overhead in the night. The deeply satisfying whoosh of their wings, unique to swans, will never be heard by me again, but has been carefully stored in my remembrance of things past, a three-second bite to be played again from time to time.

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