Noise : A Human History of Sound & Listening
by David Hendy
(Profile Books, hdbk, 382pp)
A review by Andy Childs.
The Oxford Dictionary defines noise as a sound,especially one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance. British physicist G.W.C.Kaye has a more accommodating view, defining noise as sound that is out of place. No matter how you describe noise though, there is no doubt that the perception of noise is highly subjective. As opposed to sound of course which is defined scientifically as vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear and is objective. So noise is a sound and music is a sound and there are natural sounds and man-made sounds, sounds we can control and sounds we can’t.
Professor David Hendy, who has written more in this book than I’d ever thought possible about noise, concurs, in his introduction, with John Cage who in 1937 said : “Wherever we are what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating”. Hendy goes on to say that “if we open our ears to sounds that are usually dismissed as unmusical or unpleasant, or simply ignored as merely everyday and banal, we start reconnecting with a whole range of human experience that previously passed us by. Instead of worrying about the usual boundaries between noise and music, or cacophony and silence, speech and song, we need to discover the virtues of breaking them down”. So this extremely engaging book attempts to expand the definition of noise as much as possible until it pretty much encompasses the whole spectrum of sound and the terms often become juxtaposed and the whole idea of trying to specify what is a noise or what is sound becomes problematic. In order to allow himself free reign to explore the widest possible aspects of the social history of noise/sound Hendy himself, for most of the book, cleverly avoids the confines of a strict definition and just suggests that noise “can perhaps be thought of as a sound that someone somewhere doesn’t want to be heard”. Late in the book however, when discussing ‘An Ever Noisier World?’ he admits that “it’s always other people’s sounds that cause anxiety and stress, not our own – and that is because theirs is the sound we cannot switch on or off at will. That is precisely what makes it ‘noise’, as opposed to mere sound”. So for the purposes of understanding the various themes in this book, and even though it encompasses what most of us would call music (Albert Ayler anyone?) I prefer to adopt the definition of noise as a man-made sound.
This isn’t an impenetrable book about the science of noise, or even a comprehensive history of noise, but a determinedly non-acedemic, entertaining mix of social history, technology, science, sociology and other disciplines presented as a series of historical snapshots that illustrate how noise has been used to subdue, excite, entertain, annoy, frighten, drive people mad, soothe, communicate, and generally influence the way we behave; how natural sounds and man-made noise have co-existed, and how we’ve used noise, and sometimes the absence of it, to exert power and control over each other. Each of the thirty chapters chronologically pinpoints an historial development, invention or phenomenon that demonstrates the influence that noise has had on shaping the past. From the ancient cave drawings that seem to signify special acoustic qualities, through jungle drumming, religious bell-ringing, the noise of crowds, the throng of urban living, the noise of war and industry, to radio and the manipulation of sound in the modern world this is a breezy but immensely stimulating reinstatement of the significance of noise in shaping social history. Besides being an excellent read Prof.Hendy’s great achievement here, it seems to me, is to present a framework within which to further investigate and understand how noise/sound/music, whatever you want to call it, can be harnessed in a way that diminishes its negative status as out of place and re-positions it as a harmonising, inclusive force. The importance of what vibrates our ear drums and subsequently determines our behaviour is in some ways still being explored and utilised and as an example Brian Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ and his recent audio/visual installation at the Montefiore Hostpial in Hove seem to have re-ignited an interest in the tranqillizing and healing properties of sound.
The effect of reading ‘Noise’ certainly had me delving into arcane areas of religious history, books about first world war shell-shock, treatises on ‘silence’, the science of radio waves and other subjects too time-consuming to properly contemplate. So much so that this review regrettably appears weeks after an excellent serialisation has been broadcast in thirty fifteen minute episodes on Radio 4 and powerfully embellished with examples of the noises that Hendy discusses and dissects. When it gets repeated (on Radio 4 Extra?) I keenly recommend you hear it.
I am writing this in a place beyond the sound of traffic, people, music and the mechanical world. It isn’t, and of course never can be, completely silent. There is birdsong and the sound of the wind in the trees. The rest is noise.
Professor Hendy is a guest of ours at the Field Day festival in London on Saturday.