May 30, 2024

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What Is Noise? | The New Yorker

“Noise” is a fuzzy word—a noisy one, in the statistical sense. Its meanings run the gamut from the negative to the positive, from the overpowering to the mysterious, from anarchy to sublimity. The negative seems to lie at the root: etymologists trace the word to “nuisance” and “nausea.” Noise is what drives us mad; it sends the Grinch over the edge at Christmastime. (“Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise!”) Noise is the sound of madness itself, the din within our minds. The demented narrator of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” jabbers about noise while he hallucinates his victim’s heartbeat: “I found that the noise was not within my ears. . . . The noise steadily increased. . . . The noise steadily increased.”

Yet noise can be righteous and majestic. The Psalms are full of joyful noise, noise unto the Lord. In the Book of Ezekiel, the voice of God is said to be “like a noise of many waters.” In “Paradise Lost,” Heaven makes “infernal noise” as it beats back the armies of Hell. Public Enemy’s “Bring the Noise” marshals forces for a different kind of battle. At the same time, the word can summon all manner of gentler murmurs: “The isle is full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs.” Tennyson speaks of a “noise of hymns,” Coleridge of a “noise like of a hidden brook.” In Elizabethan England, a “noyse” could be a musical ensemble, such as the one that supplied a “heavenly melodie” for Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation pageant. Any hope of limiting the scope of the term evaporated when information theorists detached it from acoustics altogether and applied it to any ambient activity that hinders a signal. Noise has come to mean an engulfing barrage of data—less an event than a condition.

Other languages handle noise a bit less vaguely. In French, the most common term is bruit, which comes from the Latin for “roar.” That’s a straightforward description of what a noise sounds like, as opposed to a subjective assessment of how it might upset us. In German, Lärm tends to indicate louder noises, Geräusch softer, more natural ones. Russians have a range of words, including shum, which, according to Vladimir Nabokov, suggests “more of a swoosh than a racket.” When Osip Mandelstam wrote of shum vremeni—“the noise of time”—he captured an essential texture of modern life.

Noise is capacious enough to have inspired a small and ever-growing library. Alongside various cultural histories—Bart Kosko’s “Noise,” David Hendy’s “Noise,” Mike Goldsmith’s “Discord: The Story of Noise,” Hillel Schwartz’s nine-hundred-page “Making Noise”—you can read accounts of noise-music scenes (“Japanoise,” “New York Noise”), noise-based literary criticism (“Shakespeare’s Noise,” “Kafka and Noise”), and philosophies of noise (“An Epistemology of Noise,” “Noise Matters: Toward an Ontology of Noise”), not to mention practical-minded guides to reducing noise from your hvac unit or reducing the noise in your head. How noise relates to music is a much bruited topic in itself. Samuel Johnson offers an elegant resolution: “Of all noises, I think music the least disagreeable.” Music is our name for the noise that we like.

With a universal definition hovering out of reach, the discourse concerning noise often starts with the personal. My history with the thing is fraught: I hate it and I love it. As a child, I was extraordinarily sensitive to loud sounds. Family expeditions to Fourth of July fireworks displays or steam-railway museums routinely ended with me running in tears to the safety of the car. When, in early adulthood, I moved into the noise cauldron of New York City, I was tormented by neighbors’ stereos and by the rumble of the street. I stuffed windows with pillows and insulation; I invested in industrial-strength earplugs; I positioned an oversized window fan next to my bed. This neurosis has subsided, but I remain that maddening hotel guest who switches rooms until he finds one that overlooks an airshaft or an empty lot.

All the while, I was drawn to music that others would pay money to avoid. Having grown up with classical music, I found my way to the refined bedlam of the twentieth-century avant-garde: Edgard Varèse, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, György Ligeti. In college, I hosted a widely unheard radio show on which I broadcast things like Ligeti’s “Poème Symphonique”—a piece for a hundred metronomes. When someone called in to report that the station’s signal had gone down, I protested that we were, in fact, listening to music. Similar misunderstandings arose when I aired Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape No. 4,” for twelve radios. When I moved on to so-called popular music, I had ears only for the churning dissonances of Cecil Taylor, AMM, and Sonic Youth. I became the keyboardist in a noise band, which made one proudly chaotic public appearance, in 1991. At one point, my bandmates and I improvised over a tape loop of the minatory opening chords of Richard Strauss’s “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.”

Obviously, my issues with noise pivot on the question of control. When the noise occurs on my own terms, I enjoy it; when it’s imposed on me, I recoil. This bifurcation is typical, even if I represent an extreme case. Garret Keizer, in his incisive 2010 book, “The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise,” observes that the noise/music distinction is ultimately an ethical one. If you elect to hear something, it is not noise, even if most people might deem it unspeakably horrible. If you are forced to hear something, it is noise, even if most people might deem it ineffably gorgeous. Thus, Keizer writes, “Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ performed at the Gramercy is not noise; Gregorian Chant piercing my bathroom wall is.”

“Unwanted sound” is the basic definition. An act of aggression is implied: someone is exercising power by projecting sound into your space. Sometimes the act is unconscious: people don’t realize how loud their speakers are, or they assume that everyone loves their music as much as they do. Sometimes, though, it is a gesture of undisguised brutality. Late one night in 2002, I asked some frat-boyish neighbors to turn down their thumping techno. They responded by turning it up. When I complained again, one of them began shouting “Fucking faggot!” and hurling his body against my door. I lacked the presence of mind to remark upon the irony of homophobes blasting techno—in Chelsea, of all places.

We seldom reject the sounds of people we like. Disputes over noise expose social fissures. The classic cinematic study of music, noise, and violence is Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” in which Radio Raheem brings his boom box inside Sal’s pizzeria, blaring Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Sal says, “What did I tell you about that noise?” Radio Raheem protests, “This is music. My music.” Minutes later, he is dead, the victim of a police killing.

“I bring you I.P.”

Cartoon by Jason Adam Katzenstein and Eliza Hittman

The perception of hip-hop as “Black Noise”—the title of a 1994 book by the pop-culture scholar Tricia Rose—is part of a long history of sonic dehumanization directed at minority groups. The word “barbarian” originates from a disparaging Greek term, bárbaros, which appears to evoke the alleged gibberish of foreign peoples (“bar bar bar”). The musicologist Ruth HaCohen has tracked long-standing European perceptions of Jews as a peculiarly noisy people. “Lärm wie in einer Judenschule,” or “noise as in a synagogue,” remained a popular German expression into the Nazi period. (Mandelstam inverts those perceptions in “The Noise of Time,” relishing the intricacy of “Jewish chaos.”) Colonizers who disdained the weird sounds of native peoples overlooked the fact that they themselves were causing unprecedented levels of commotion—bells, trumpets, guns, cannons, machines. Noise enables power. As Keizer writes, it is a way of saying, “The world is mine.”

Amid the hubbub of urban life, silence is a luxury of the rich. They can afford the full-floor penthouse apartment, the house that sits on a quiet acre. They can install triple-paned windows and pump insulation into the walls. They can, if they choose, become Proust in his cork-lined room. For the rest of society, noise is an index of struggle. Hendy’s “Noise,” which is based on a 2013 BBC Radio series, documents the ruckus of tenement living in eighteenth-century Edinburgh and the altogether hellish clamor inflicted on ironworkers in nineteenth-century Glasgow. A doctor wrote of a group of Glasgow boilermakers, “The iron on which they stand is vibrating intensely under the blows of perhaps twenty hammers wielded by twenty powerful men. Confined by the walls of the boiler, the waves of sound are vastly intensified, and strike the tympanum with appalling force.”

The colossal cacophony of the Industrial Revolution prompted some of the first serious efforts at noise control. Often, these amounted to crabby élitism. Charles Babbage lamented the “organ-grinders and other similar nuisances” who were degrading the productivity of “intellectual workers.” Charles Dickens signed a letter claiming that writers and artists had become “especial objects of persecution by brazen performers on brazen instruments.” But the New York anti-noise activist Julia Barnett Rice, who founded the Society for the Suppression of Unnecessary Noise in 1906, transcended upper-crust narcissism by arguing that people of all backgrounds were suffering from excessive noise in schools and hospitals. She intuited what scientific studies later confirmed—that noise can inhibit learning and complicate health issues. It can also, of course, cause auditory damage, in the form of tinnitus, and hearing loss.

Attempts to mitigate and legislate noise levels run up against the challenge of adjudicating which sounds are excessive and unpleasant. Measuring loudness is itself a tricky business. The decibel scale, like the Richter scale, is logarithmic, and it accounts for quirky neural responses to changing stimuli. A twenty-decibel sound is generally perceived as being twice as loud as a ten-decibel one, yet the actual intensity is ten times greater. Furthermore, the decibel scale is customarily weighted to factor in additional peculiarities. We are more sensitive to upper frequencies (a soprano is more conspicuous than a bass), to indoor sounds, to nighttime sounds. With all these complexities, noise codes, where they exist, are difficult to enforce. In 2022, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection received nearly fifty thousand complaints but imposed monetary penalties in only a hundred and twenty-three instances.

Emergency warnings—foghorns, locomotive whistles, ambulance and fire-truck sirens, air-raid sirens—fall into a special category of necessary, life-saving noise. Car horns are a borderline case: sometimes they stave off disaster, but more often they foster road rage. Matthew F. Jordan’s “Danger Sound Klaxon!: The Horn That Changed History” studies one of the most purposefully obnoxious noises of modern times—the “aa-ooo-gah!” honk that became ubiquitous on American roads in the early twentieth century. In a free-for-all traffic environment, drivers alerted pedestrians and other vehicle operators by using the horn incessantly. Ads for the Klaxon—invented by the electrical engineer Miller Reese Hutchison, and introduced in 1907—boasted of its ability to “cut through and kill musical sounds.” Raw panic was the aim. During the First World War, the Klaxon was used to warn of gas attacks; it then declined in popularity, partly because traumatized veterans reacted poorly to its squawk.

We humans have a high tolerance for noise, despite our ambivalence. In some way, we seem to require it. Other species feel differently about the never-ending sonic havoc of the Anthropocene. Caspar Henderson, in “A Book of Noises: Notes on the Auraculous,” points out that when our species stayed mostly indoors during the early months of the covid pandemic the animal world reacted with apparent relief: “Birdsongs regained qualities that had last been recorded decades before, when cities were quieter. The white-crowned sparrows, for instance, extended their sounds back down into lower frequencies . . . and their songs became richer, fuller and more complex.” Birds also sang more softly: they “had been ‘shouting,’ just as people raise their voices on a construction site or at a noisy party.” Their stress levels likely declined. Noise is another dimension of humanity’s ruination of the natural world.

The inexorable advance of technological noise in the twentieth century—cars, airplanes, helicopters, pile drivers, lawnmowers, leaf blowers, home stereos, stadium sound systems—left the impression that the world was getting louder year by year. This may well have been so, but in recent decades there has actually been a levelling off, or even a decline, in certain types of noise. Jet engines are less thunderous than they were in the seventies. The increasing popularity of electric vehicles has brought about a situation in which cars can be dangerously inaudible to pedestrians. (Artificial engine noise has become a feature of electric models.) People now routinely listen to music on laptops and headphones, reducing incursions of bass.

These modest gains are offset by the rise of informational noise, which further blurs the meaning of the already confused parent word. Chen-Pang Yeang’s “Transforming Noise: A History of Its Science and Technology from Disturbing Sounds to Informational Errors, 1900-1955” is thick with mathematical equations, yet it still tells an interesting story even for those of us who will skip the more technical pages. Beneath the vehicular roar in the years around 1900 was a simmering new electronic sound, native to the telephone, the phonograph, the radio, and other forms of transmission and reproduction. Yeang describes this noise as “disturbances and fluctuations of electrical current due to the movements of microscopic charge carriers in electronic tubes and other circuit components.” Such sounds weren’t aggressively unpleasant, yet they hampered the communication of messages, verbal or musical. Scientists and engineers set about studying this electronic sizzle and figuring out how to reduce it.

The investigation soon intersected with ongoing inquiries into the movement of gas and liquid particles. Einstein’s papers on Brownian motion, between 1905 and 1908, not only established the existence of atoms; they also helped to systematize the discipline of statistical mechanics, which describes patterns of random fluctuations over time, also known as stochastic processes. Defense work during the Second World War adapted those insights to military ends: devising uncrackable cryptography, resisting signal jamming, reducing interference in anti-aircraft radar systems. Claude Shannon, the founder of information theory, took an even more significant step by demonstrating how a signal can cope with a “noisy” channel—literally or figuratively—if it behaves in a noisy, stochastic way: by spreading itself across a broad spectrum, it transmits more effectively. That insight underpins modern cellular and wireless communications. It was a curious extension of the logic of the Klaxon: in a world full of noise, you punch through by making noise at a superior level.

Soon enough, the concept of stochastic noise, often simplified to the point of vanishing, achieved currency in a dizzying array of fields. Noise studies of recent decades examine perturbations in the stock market (the economist Fischer Black’s paper “Noise”), unreliable patterns in decision-making (Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein’s “Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment”), and irregularities in political polling (Nate Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise”). The proposed corrective for such errancy is, very often, the dreaded algorithm. Kahneman and company argued that algorithms, being “noise-free,” can “outperform human judgment.” Machine-learning protocols in artificial intelligence, meanwhile, rely heavily on stochastic processes. The ultimate import of much of this work is that humans are themselves randomly fluctuating particles whose behavior, in aggregate, can be forecast by probabilistic methods.

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