noisy meditation (on noise)

What is noise anyway? Let us try to define it for one finds out that quite a few definitions occur simultaneously, depending on the aspect which one examines.

Firstly, let us approach the so-called ‘common sense’, and then we shall have the majority’s (that is what our societies’ formation dictates we care about in the first place) feeling revealed about what noise is:

For most of the people, noise initially stands for anything audible that proves to be unpleasant for the ear – in other words, something must be sonically disturbing in order to be perceived as noisy.

Furthermore, something is called noisy not only due to e.g. an excess of volume but also as soon as one feels that it is inappropriate to the specific moment/circumstances.

Therefore, noise is a sonic phenomenon that exceeds a certain limit of endurance anyway.

These reactions are, needless to say, of a deeply subjective nature: what appears to be noisy for a person might not be for another, depending on everybody’s experiences, viewpoint – on everybody’s taste even. For example: a person living in a village, kept away from an everyday urban environment is likely to welcome a sudden sound (noise) as a pleasant surprise, to get thrilled with delight by its effect or at least – in case it is a recurrent phenomenon – to accept it without feeling under the threat of its potential impact. On the contrary, townsfolk end up being hypersensitive (at times hysterical) to necessarily exposing themselves to their continuously ‘sonorous’ surroundings; at the same time, they often mention in despair the deafening sound of silence.

But since everything is relative, the aforementioned “limit of endurance” varies depending on the context and so does the assessment of the volume and the unpleasant properties of the sound-source: What though piano-playing in a room can be noisy – beware of the clang-banging of a big band! Le Sacre du Printemps must have sounded very noisy at its 1913 première (which supposedly made Grandpa Saint-Saëns storm his way out), but nowadays it’s rather harmless. And the impact of a symphonic orchestra when performing outdoors is not strong anymore compared with the massive effect of say, a street-riot or a battle.

If we consider finally that when we talk about sound we mean our sound since establishing measures of noise can only concern humans’ ability of hearing (various animals, for instance, can be disturbed by frequencies which we perceive as silence and vice versa), we arrive at the following conclusions:

1. Noise, as we, human beings, determine it, applies to us and only to us and is existent as long as we interfere in its production. Nature is not noisy: that’s equally absurd with the allegation that nightingales make music! We name all things according to our values and for our own sake – our view of the world is solely our interpretation of it.

2. Sound is an earthly phenomenon – in other words, sound is ‘audible’ because of the existing atmosphere, the air surrounding us. There is no sound in space: however inconceivable it may ‘sound’, the Big Bang of the Universe occurred amidst absolute silence…

Let us now move on to the scientific point of view which, an indisputable reading though it may render, does not affect the majority’s feeling about noise (and that is science’s destiny…):

Acoustics makes a clear distinction between what is noise what is not – the criterion in fact is the amount of pitch definition. The more pitch grows indefinable the more it departs from sound, thus nearing noise – or, to put it more profoundly, the growing irregularity of sound-waves amounts to increased richness of overtones (i.e. the sound becomes more complex).

Acoustics, actually, also names various ‘colours’ of noise according to the ‘behaviour’ of the sound’s frequency spectrum,  e.g. white noise (where the ear hears all frequencies equally), pink, red, grey etc.

One realizes a divergence of views between common sense, which has no objective grounds save the comfort of a majority verdict and science, which rationalizes on the basis of its experimental nature. Which stand would art take?

In art neither the ambitious ideas count nor the startling means. They can be included as well as excluded, with neither option being a guarantee of a fine result. Anything can make up the material for a work of art – not even shit may be condemned a priori as inappropriate. This is inherent in the concept of artistic freedom and it underlines just as much that the parts compose but an unforeseen whole.

If noise is to be incorporated into a work of art, it shall be regardless of whether it is classed as such by common sense or science – it would be a personal choice either way (and what is noise anyway?).

And transmuted it will lead a new life into a valid result…because the end may not justify the means but the result does.