The value of noise

Having posted several times on the value of silence, I feel I ought to balance things out by writing about the value of noise. These thoughts likewise stem from my recent reading: Kay Larson’s book about John Cage, creativity, and Buddhism.

This morning, there were a few hours of intermittent sunshine; the air, still nippy from a recent cold front and some high winds, had warmed up a few degrees. I felt inspired to prune some shrubs and start the rather significant task of removing fallen branches from the lawn. I did not realize how big a job this will be until I started the work because the grass is long and the leaves provide a bit of cover. Every few steps, though, I encountered clumps of twigs, broken branches, sticks of all sizes. We won’t want to run a lawnmower over this mass of debris, and it will get caught in our rakes when we try to remove the leaves. The best way to rid the lawn of storm-downed branches will be the old-fashioned way: human power, gathering one or two sticks at a time. The fresh air streamed into my lungs, the sun shone on my back. I pulled on my husband’s old sweater and my daughter’s old coat and my son’s gloves and my own boots and started to work.

What I noticed this morning was noise. John Cage, a man whose later compositions often engaged with silence, also loved noise. His percussion pieces were scored for tin cans, plates, pipes and modified pianos, and he was prescient about the incorporation of electronically-produced sounds into music. I love reading about his experiments with noise, and today I recognized the music in everyday sounds very clearly.

Today’s noises:

Leaf-crunch. The damp leaves produce difference tones from the dry ones. Leaves of different species vibrate in a range of tones depending upon their thickness, brittleness, serrated shapes, oiliness.

Vehicles. The roads are not terribly close to the house, but when the trees are bare we get a range of vehicle sounds from as far as the highway. Large trucks still growl, wheeze, squeal, rumble, and beep as neighbors get trees removed from their properties and department of transportation crews work at street clean up. Cars drive past.

Somewhere, a leaf-blower. Several chainsaws in the distance.

Mockingbird–not all of them have flown south just yet. The buzzy twittering of starlings and small flocks of sparrows. Woodpeckers drilling at trees.

My breathing.

The sound of the nippers and hedge clippers, the sound that pruned branches make as they whoosh and scratch and shimmy earthward and get tangled in the shrubs. The different noises of a cut made on dead wood and on live wood. The snap of twigs. The silken whisper of long grass underfoot.

Creak and groan of the walnut trees as a stiff breeze hits the woodlot. A dog, barking. The hens, chuck-chucking in their run.

The telephone from inside my house. An overhead jet.

And it isn’t cacophony; it’s a kind of music, certainly. The randomness and the patternedness work together. As do the silences.

 

Here’s one of Cage’s most melodic works, “In a Landscape,” very apropos … very lovely.

YouTube/John Cage “In a Landscape” Stephen Drury pianist

 

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5 comments on “The value of noise

  1. Sigrun says:

    Dear Ann, I have to tell you this:
    what really opened meditation as something mind-blowing for me, was meditation on sound. Being able to view worries like sounds, like something that comes and goes, but never fill the world entirely, was really liberating. Without sounds no silence, and noise can also, as you point out, be a pleasure in itself.

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    • I tried a brief meditation on noise earlier today. I realized how attuned I have to make myself. Interesting.

      Re: John Cage, here’s an event I wish I could attend:

      Coming Up at Poets House
      Tuesday, November 13, 7:00pm
      Passwords: Marjorie Perloff on John Cage

      Renowned scholar and critic Marjorie Perloff discusses American composer and music theorist John Cage (1912-1992).

      Exploring his poetic texts, Perloff looks at his role as a central precursor of Conceptualist poetics. In such works as “Writing through Howl,” and the critical biographical “essays” on Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Arnold Schoenberg—essays largely constructed from the words of the artists themselves—Cage invented a new form of poem-critique that looked ahead to our own moment.

      $10, $7 for students and seniors, free to Poets House Members

      Like

  2. […] mentions John Cage’s work and approach to composing, and I think Cage‘s main point in so much of his work is getting us to listen, to see, getting us to be […]

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