Tuning in to the Static

I do, too, Charlie Brown. I do, too.

Several years ago, they built a new apartment building across the street from my own. At night. Needless to say, the construction noise made it hard to sleep. It took me a while to find a solution to deal with the clamor. First I tried music. But if I played music loud enough to drown out the din it became the reason I could not sleep. Then I tried drones. They worked a bit better, but the random, loud construction clatter still cut through the even, calming tones.

Then I decided to fight noise with noise, with the self-titled album by Surface of the Earth, which band member Paul Toohey proudly declared “sounded like an army of noise”:

Instead of adding to the annoying sounds, Surface of the Earth seemed to absorb them, converting the noise into signal.

“Sound sculptor” Alan Lamb‘s recordings of the wind blowing through high tension telegraph wires, turning them into huge Aeolian Harps, also did the trick:

Classical composer and iconic iconoclast John Cage embraced this paradox in 1937:

Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at 50 m.p.h. Static between the stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them, not as sound effects, but as musical instruments. (quoted in Gann, 2010, p. 56)

Italian Futurist composer Luigi Russolo promoted this shift in perception even earlier in his 1916 book The Art of Noises, an expansion of his 1913 manifesto of the same title:

The constant and attentive study of noises can reveal new pleasures and profound emotions.

I remember that the performers that I had employed for the first concert of noise instruments in Milan had to confess this truth, with deep wonder.  After the fourth or fifth rehearsal, having developed the ear and having grown accustomed to the pitched and variable noises produced by the noise instruments, they told me that they took great pleasure in following the noises of trams, automobiles, and so on, in the traffic outside. . . . It was the noise instruments that deserved credit for revealing these phenomena to them. (quoted in Gann, 2010, p. 85)

I did not play the albums very loudly, so I was not always sure exactly when they ended as I drifted off to sleep. Was that still the CD or the hum of the refrigerator, or maybe the susurrus of car tires on the streets below? In my drowsy state I was now aware of the music in the common household and urban sounds I usually completely tuned out. Once my ears were opened to noise I began to hear its music all around me.

So as James Brown said, “Give me some static”:

Gann, K. (2010) No such thing as silence: John Cage’s 4’33”. New Haven: Yale University Press

Thanks to Michael Blair and Joe Bucciero, authors of the 33 1/3 edition for Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth, for calling my attention to the Peanuts comic strip.


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