Tuesday, July 31, 2012

On the Displeasure of Noise

The Street Enters the House
Umberto Boccioni, 1911
It is probable if not unavoidable he who enjoys music detests noise. It is inevitable he who seeks beauty avoids it at all cost. This distinction is, alas, necessary, for every aesthete knows one or a dozen musicians who though they tickle Bach's ivories by day, by night nod, nay hoof, to the bozartian splooshing of the chart-toppers. What an unhappy education, discovering the vulgar reverse of their ennobled facade! Puzzling though this contradiction is, I pass it over at this time. However frustrating and offensive such bedlam may be, its disorder is the subject of musical criticism, here not my means or end. Instead I would focus on what we might call incidental noise, and such noise in particular as produced by man. I say this not just because the whining fits and starts of a weed whacker at this very moment vex me, but because the noise of nature is always appropriate. Rustling trees and booming thunder do not perturb because wherever they are, they belong. To rustle is appropriate for a tree and to tweet is appropriate for a bird, and so forth. More importantly, the sounds of nature are always appropriate to the place, thus babbling is appropriate to brooks, crashing to the shore, and so on.

Jackhammering, however, is not natural, but rather incidental to man's desire to live in a house. It is never appropriate to any thing or any place and therefore always disturbs. We could dwell with profit on the words we use to describe what noise does to us. It disturbs and perturbs, that is, unsettles us from the prevailing order and throws us into confusion. Noise annoys, that is, molests, harms, and causes aversion.  It irritates, that is, makes irate, and disrupts, i.e. breaks. Finally, noise itself, from its Greek origins means to make nauseas. Noise makes you miserable. Noise makes you want to be anywhere other than where you are.

I hope these meanings make noise seem a little less innocent. It's not just a little petty paper-crinkling. We need not invoke the power of music to observe the potential of sound. Let us rather just note then, that it is no small matter to break the silence. We ought, then, break it with some trepidation.

We break the silence to confess our love and our fear. We break it with heroic ballads and sweet nothings. We break it with sonatas and sonnets, couplets and concerti. With church bells we break it to sign the sacred and we break it with clock chimes to mark our portion of the eons. Hence, then, the infinity of displeasure through the seconds of a cell phone's half-penny speaker torturing five bars of Mozart so the caller can find out whether to record Law and Order. Hence, then, the dis-ruption from a man smacking his lemon lozenge over Beethoven's nightingales.

Focus is the mark of seriousness and appropriateness an apprehension of the nature of a place or thing. Noise, as we have defined and discussed, then, obstructs these virtues.

Yes, we all make noises, many of them unpleasant. Yet we ought not expect everyone else to welcome or deal with them simply because they are common. Imposing tolerance of common vices is no virtue, but refraining from displeasing others is politeness.

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