Transmitted BBC Radio 3, 24 February, 1997. listen
Noise…Loud outcry, clamour, or shouting: din or disturbance made by one or more persons: strife contention, quarrelling…Common talk, rumour, report….A loud or harsh sound of any kind…Origin uncertain: Latin nausea and noxia have been proposed…(Oxford English Dictionary)
The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices
That, if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again
Caliban expresses the affinity between sound and magic. Our world today is as full of noises as Caliban’s island, though these noises have a technological rather than a magical origin. Industrial noises, mechanical noises, the noises of cars, computers, clocks, refrigerators, every kind of movement, process, along with all the manufactured and reproduced noises that we employ to divert and instruct and arouse ourselves.
Our world has become noisier and noisier. Perhaps our first response to this saturation of noise is to seek remission from it. When noise does not have a specifiable purpose, it stays below the threshold of meaningfulness and significance. Noise means meaninglessness, though it did not yet for Shakespeare, in which the word noise was not so closely associated with the noisome and the noxious as it is for us. Perhaps we escape from noise by relegating it to the condition of the meaningless, the deathly.
But there are some in our century who have become fascinated by noise, by its powers of seduction and address. Artists, writers and composers began early in the century to hear the music in noise, and to hear noise pressing into the condition of voice. Noise doing its level best to speak.
Aristotle writes in his essay on sound and hearing that a voice is a sound that issues from an animate or ensouled being. What if the noises of our world were conjuring this sense of animate origin? What if noise were beginning to claim the rights and attention due to voice? We are surrounded by so many noises, and so many voices, and our noises and our voices are so promiscuously blended with each other, that ours is becoming a world of universal, crowded utterance. In the 1970s, a Latvian psychologist called Konstantin Raudive caused a minor media sensation with his claims to have detected and recorded in the static between radio stations the voices of the dead, speaking to the living in strange polyglot babblings. He recorded 70,000 such voices. The phonograph had allowed us for the first time in history to hear the dead speak; now the radio was letting us speak to the dead in real time. Perhaps, our mechnical apparatuses for the multiplication, amplification and transmission of sound have begun to give a voice to the impersonal dead, to the dead world of matter. Is noise the medium of a new animism?
In James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in 1922, Leopold Bloom stands in a newspaper print-room, and hears a new kind of voice:
Sllt. The nethermost deck of the first machine jogged forward its flyboard with sllt the first batch of quirefolded papers. Sllt. Almost human the way it sllt to call attention. Doing its level best to speak. That door too sllt creaking, asking to be shut. Everything speaks in its own way. Sllt.
Sound has always had associations with the sacred. Any sound that has been detached from its source, whether by concealment, technological mediation, or by amplification, will carry a sense of unseen power, power that is the greater for being unseen. In the course of a meditation upon the experience of losing his own sight, John Hull writes:
The ability to close the eyes represents the power one has over things that are seen, the power to exclude. Hearing, however, is always receptive, whether to sound or to silence. You can look away, but you cannot listen away. You cannot turn the ear aside the way you can look aside….
[Sound] suggests that over which we have no power, which comes or does not come, which mysteriously starts and just as mysteriously finishes, to which we are always open but must remain attentive. This must be why it was always considered impious to look upon God but permissible to hear him. Sound is transcendent.
Previously, the power of sound derived from the richness and unmasterability of natural sound. Romantic poets and thinkers found an escape from the oppressive egotism of the eye and its associated forms of consciousness in the image of the Aeolian Harp, whose strings would be brushed by the wind. The modern world substituted for this organic interchange of noise and speech, the noise of mere contingency, the random concussions and grindings of one thing upon another, in the disenchanted world of modernity. But what if all that dead noise had begun to come alive again? What if we had begun to surround ourselves with a new mysterious kind of enchantment (enchantment – literally, bewitchment through song, through incantation), with a world that borrows our speech, everywhere addresses us.
Children communicate in the secret dialects of mechanical noise; the chattering and gargling of machine guns, the whine of aeroplanes, the squeal of tyres, the creak of hinges, the whooping and brayings of sirens. Such noises appropriate and humanise the mechanical – but perhaps they also testify to the already anthropomorphic nature of mechanical noise; to mimic a machine is to mimic a machine’s mimicry of utterance, to borrow back our borrowed voices.
But our noise is never wholly ours. There is always something inhuman about sound. We cannot rid ouselves of the suspicion that sound constitutes a world apart from us, a living world.
The phone rings; we answer it. Before we answer the voice transmitted to us on the phone, we are addressed by and must answer, as well as answer to, the phone itself. The phone speaks to us. When we invented a machine to free us from having to answer the phone, we called it an `answerphone’. Strange word; it must first have meant a machine that answers the phone, but by now means a phone that answers itself. Hello? Who’s there?
The programmes will listen to these noises, and try to evoke the new modes of hearing being formed in response to the omnipresence and insistence of noise.