Noise is All Around Me

Noise is All Around Me
Robin Rimbaud – Scanner

Noise is all around me. I just opened the newspaper this morning to discover a review of Noise: A Human History, a new BBC radio series which explores the British Library’s sound archive, opening listeners ears to Neolithic sites in Orkney and prehistoric caves in France. Apparently many of these caves were tranquil places until noisy humans brought life to them with their movements. I turn to another magazine on my desk, British music journal The Wire, with a feature on German composer Jakob Ullman, whose works test the very limits of audibility. It seems that his elegiac and contemplative compositions were rooted in a childhood trauma where the East German government tortured local agricultural peasants by playing recordings of marches exceptionally loud, 24 hours a day, non stop. “I was a little child and I was so afraid of this kind of musical noise that I started to hate it…You cannot compete with the noise of the world. Impossible. The less loud music is, the better I can hear it.”

Then last week I watched a DVD documentary on John Cage and a scene focused on composer Christian Woolf roaming around Cage’s old ramshackle hut in Stony Point, New York. It seems that despite Cage’s desire to live this utopian dream and living off the land, he missed the noise of New York City and returned there six months later.


Yet it’s curious how noise is commonly linked to a negative response, as something annoying and irritating, and many times this is true. The sound of your neighbour drilling late into the evening, above the volume of your conversation at home is deeply frustrating. Living beside a street filled with car sirens for many can damage their mental health and affect behavior in a detrimental way.

For myself I am fascinated by the noise that surrounds me. It offers a frame within which I operate. Do people wear headphones to avoid the noise around them, or just to avoid speakers to others whilst commuting? I rarely ever wear headphones outside of the studio as I enjoy navigating through my sonic landscape with a clear channel. In not shutting out sounds I allow my ears to exercise their natural function.

It’s widely acknowledged now that the acoustical properties of spaces can produce very strange effects. French scientist Vladimir Gavreau famously made experiments on the biological effects of infrasound, that’s below the normal level of hearing. He discovered that his laboratory was vibrating in unison with a defective industrial ventilator in a building some distance from his.  This was caused by extremely low frequency sound waves that literally induced pain in him. It’s obvious that an undetectable, and mentally disturbing, phenomenon such as this could be construed as paranormal.

Similarly when architect Bernard Tschumi designed French art school Le Fresnoy, he conceived of a building without a centre, a new structure wrapped around another already existing development. What now exists now is a sense of the in-between, a place between past and present, beginning and closing conversations between different times and places. Visiting artists, guests and Professors of which I have been one since 2009 have all spoken about the ‘ghosts’ resident in the building and one writer even went so far as to write a story inspired by this resonance.

Whilst in residence there I made a work, In-Between, that explored an experience that utilises all the mysterious noise that resides in Le Fresnoy, from the drone of the air conditioning, the hum of electricity, the ductwork for heating and ventilation, as well as the movement of bodies within. In my research I believe I discovered the source of this unsteady feeling resident inside Le Fresnoy.

Sound frequencies have been known to cause all manner of surprising responses in recipients, as Gavreau reported. In recording the ventilation system that snakes its way through the entire building I found low-level 17 Hz near-infrasonic tones registered throughout. The presence of these tones can lead to feelings of anxiety, uneasiness, sorry, fear and pressure, and especially that sense of a chill down the spine. In the past people have commonly attributed these sensations to ghosts whereas in fact it is an unconscious response to the physicality of sound.

Resonant frequencies at 18 Hz also have the ability to alter sight through the vibration of the eyeballs, thereby causing grey abstract shapes to seemingly appear in view. So noise makes us see differently too. So noise is interference. It resonates all around us. Not only through our eyes but our eyes and touch, and as a composer I’m drawn to musical tools that software offers to enliven sound. I like to corrode sounds with decreasing bit rates, so that they collapse into ruin, whilst erosion tools saturate and demolish the sound.

Thinking about noise, I recognize that much of the music that has accompanied me as I grow up has been reflective of this noisy environment. Early recordings by industrial acts such as Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Einstürzende Neubauten frequently echoed our modernised society, taking the raw materials around and applying them in a creative manner, so hammers, engines and metal would feature in the character of the music. And remember many years earlier composers Edgard Varèse and George Antheil had been using car horns and sirens in their controversial works. Not that audiences or critics particularly liked them though of course.

More recently the works of artists such as Ben Frost, The Haxan Cloak, Raime, and Tim Hecker have embraced noise as a musical force that I have found much sympathy with. In their recordings harsh noise often collapses into a meditative heartbreaking drone, producing a kind of blissful ecstasy especially in a live context. It’s as if these works are exploring a cartography of our time, combatting the digital, tearing apart the harmonies from inside.

When I collaborated with American artist Mike Kelley on our installation Esprits de Paris at Centres Pompidou in Paris in 2002, we were both drawn to ideas circulating around recording the dead, capturing spirit voices from beyond. We chose a number of recognised ‘haunted’ sites in Paris and recorded these on both video and a digital recorder.  However we deliberately the lens cap on the video camera, and the microphone was turned off on the audio recorder.  So in the machines, then, in essence, recorded themselves and not the sites they were situated in.  In post-production, to accentuate the white noise elements sound playback levels of the tapes were radically raised so that whatever natural hiss was present on the tape stock was be accentuated.

As such this white noise, this nothingness, this unwanted detritus, became the main focal point, with meaning brought from under the surface of invisibility. Our disembodied relationship to these abstract and ambiguous sounds meant that we have a kind of tabula rasa situation, where the listener is free to interpret as they wish.

Noise can be a comfort, a presence. Despite never watching television at home I find myself switching it on in hotels as I travel, almost as a matter of habit. Even in countries when I understand nothing of the language it’s the presence rather than the absence that I enjoy. Silence for me can be troubling and uncomfortable.

Today noise is spoken of in many other contexts – the noise of information via social networks, the noise inherent in a video image, but ultimately we are speaking about control. Noise for many is uncontrollable and that in itself can be troubling. A river of noise flows through our lives and I think it’s invaluable at times to simply sit on the virtual riverbank and marvel at the current, the tide of our lives.