Say That Again? Making Sense of Noise

November 23, 2014   •   By Lawrence English

NOISE IS A BALL of untied pieces of string, cut at various lengths, which we can only perceive holistically. It is a complex interweaving of fabrics, fibrous at the edges, caressing and combining alongside one another. Once we begin to tease these threads, to pull them away from the ball, it becomes clear that each thread is itself a microcosm of complexity. The threads bear the marks of their individual histories and of their origins. And they contribute to the wholeness of the ball, if only by their sheer presence in it. Once all the threads are removed from the ball, lying piled in front of us, the complexity of patterning and interconnection persists, albeit in a different form. Noise, even when paired back to its root threads, and rearranged, dominates and confounds our abilities to conceive of and probe it.

Nowhere is this complexity better represented than in the two books under review. Both Greg Hainge’s Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise and Hillel Schwartz’s Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond seek to push beyond the macro-conditions of noise (such as the social, cultural, physiological, psychological, and sonic) into a micro-view, discussing the details of these individual threads, and how they accumulate into the contemporary understanding of noise.

In 2013 we marked an important punctuation in the modern development and recognition of noise. A century ago, Italian futurist and poet Luigi Russolo delivered the Art of Noises, a treatise aimed at, among other things, re-evaluating classifications for music and sound. What is musical and what role might noisy sounds play in this new imagining of music? Rooted in political upheaval and desires for a new Europe, Russolo’s manifesto created one of the most important early 20th-century cultural markers, which drove forward the modern conversations and musings about noise. In many respects, his manifesto opened up a cultural gateway, one that brought recognition to an aestheticized noise. A noise that was infectious, spreading from music to visual arts, cinema, and, broader still, into 20th-century philosophy. It is fitting to see a growing number of texts, dedicated to this zone of entanglement, that attempt to tie knots between the various strings that are our ball of noise.

Echoing Russolo’s triumphant industrial explosions, Hainge’s Noise Matters begins with a manifesto of its own. He calls us to attention and dares us to ready ourselves for a viewing of — and listening to — noise that promises to illuminate the darkest edges of today’s noisy world. And yet Hainge is quick to point out that the experience is likely to be fraught with challenge and uncertainty. That’s why he seeks to insulate our fears within a framework that reassures us that here we are in search of questions as much as answers; just like in helioseismology, the unshielded experience may be too much for us to bear. Hainge prepares us with a philosophical safeguard whereby we can examine that which eludes or exceeds our unfiltered senses.

This is a remarkably simple way to approach the phenomenon of noise; it allows for a series of microscopic views (yet he keeps the macro ever present) and for a close examination of the core tenets of noise, frequency, and presence across a range of media and senses. Hainge haunts us with the presence of seemingly absent noise through eerie dialogues on Electronic Voice Phenomena. He also provokes us to consider our sensory sensitivities with respect to frequency through an exploration of noise’s effects on contemporary photography and other visual arts.

Hainge sets out broad terms of engagement. Recommending an approach to noise as a subject of fascination rather than a phenomenon for eradication, he states that for noise to be recognized, understood, and ultimately theorized, we must understand its “unwillingness” to be known in any absolute way. Seeking to understand noise through a reductive lens, Hainge thus suggests a method of studying noise through what it is not. Noise pushes incessantly beyond, below, above, and outside our ability to perceive it, and Hainge recognizes that a priori assumptions about noise must be reduced and ultimately discarded for a new perspective to be attained.

Peering into the white out of noise, he utilizes a range of examples including Sartre’s Nausea, retro-typographies, Lynchian and Japanese horror cinema, and photography to place noise beyond the audible, into the visual spectra, as well as within the frameworks of information theory, politics, and popular culture. Through these diverging, yet sympathetic references, Hainge creates an imaginative and provocative rendering of the noise of now: a multimodal, multidisciplinary conception of the frame through which noise can be brought into focus. As the title of the book suggests, he ultimately offers an ontological understanding of noise (one rooted in the relational conditions of contemporary culture) and refuses to shy away from the holistic in favour of an easier, compartmentalized summary.

There is no resolution here, or summary of findings around noise, nor should there be. In his final chapter, Hainge notes that it would be fitting to conclude with a provocation to others to continue to flesh out his ontological incursions into noise. He calls on us to ponder his examples and to consider how we can begin to engage with noise, not shun it. Hainge’s investigations reveal a full color spectrum hidden within white noise; it’s now for us to push further and remain restlessly attentive to the ever-growing mass of noise around us.

By contrast, Schwartz’s Making Noise sets out a chartered exploration of noise’s historical roots. “Making Noise” is a fitting metaphor for the key provocations noise brings to the conscious mind. This wandering, complex, and at times confounding collection of narratives is nothing short of affecting: like the experience of noise itself, the book frustrates, excites, confuses, and fatigues, but above all compels. In page after page, Schwartz weaves together an incredibly dense examination of noise as it has evolved in time. He maps out how individual moments, stories, and ponderings have come to merge, one frequency after another, to create an absolute white noise barrage.

Schwartz’s recounting of Socrates’ experience of cicadas as pleasurable (rather than oppressive or caustic) echoes his argument that aesthetic appreciations of sound, media, and transcription ebb and flow over time. Schwartz seeks to position noise through our desires for repeatability and facsimile, through our fears of the obtrusive and overwhelming, our aspirations for political progress, and ultimately our recognition that some things are beyond our abilities to understand them as mere statistical data. He calls for a qualitative approach to noise, one that embraces the quantitative, but is sympathetic to the human condition — to us as socially engaged individuals dealing with these matters though all manner of perspectives and lenses.

In his holistic approach, Schwartz trawls an incredible array of data, mythology and narrative. He investigates everything from the loud expressions of orgasm to the exasperations of shell shock victims. He summarizes the works of people such as Joseph T. Tykociner, which recast investigation into sound in cinema and examines the development of industrial phenomena that encapsulate the depth to which noise infiltrates our lives. Schwartz explores the rollercoaster and the steam boiler, seamlessly uniting such mechanical developments with the growth in theoretical understandings from researchers such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg whose contribution to an epistemological and ontological root for noise in the 20th century still resonates today.

What makes Schwartz’s book such a powerful read is its ability to address noise not just within a given historical context, but to thread that context into a wider network of activity. He exposes how this concept has evolved across millennia, and shapes a guide that helps us to recognize our persisting limitations when it comes to the perception of noise today. He pushes the reader to jump over chasms of connectivity, compelling us to position ourselves historically.

These two books complement one another. They flesh out a multiplicity of tools for a better comprehension of noise in the contemporary environment. They share a restless desire to provide a novel reading of noise, and a fascination with it. Rather than abhorring noise, they relish in its ability to be unclear and, at times, unknowable. There are few areas so central to our being that remain so largely under-theorized: with these two volumes we can recognize a growing tenor of voices that may become a chorus in the coming years.


Lawrence English is a composer, media artist, and curator based in Australia.