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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Hurricane & silences

Having been through some big hurricanes before, I was prepared as possible for the weather that hit along the MidAtlantic states of the USA (and west to Pittsburgh PA, and north to the New England states).

We are somewhat rural, and we do not have city water or sewer; so if the electricity fails, we lose those modern amenities along with lights and computers and a stove. In Europe, and in newer developments in the US, power lines are more often underground. A wise idea, but not in our current infrastructure at my home.

So weather events–as the news media terms them–are significant to us. They alter our relationship with our house, our land, the earth. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it is pleasant to wake at dawn and hear no humming, no sounds of modern appliances at work. We note, instead, the noise of owls or wind or starlings. The rustle of grasses.

We miss hot water the most. That the well pump isn’t working and the water heater’s not heating: that means our standards of cleanliness necessarily fall. We can get used to it, but we miss it. Cooking on charcoal or a camp stove takes longer but isn’t really a problem for us, however. We can sleep in the livingroom by the fireplace if the cold weather sets in before the electricity comes back on to make the furnace fans operate.

We lost power Monday evening, and since then the human-made sounds are those of vehicles, chainsaws, and generators. And a pleasanter noise: my windchimes.

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When the winds were very high, I sensed the resolute structure of our house, which did not shudder, though the windows made some alarming sounds–a kind of whistle, a bit of rattling, the occasional thump.

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Days without electricity take me back ten years when my family spent a week on an island off of Nova Scotia. Our host lived off the grid by necessity–no electricity or plumbing on the island even though it had been inhabited since the mid-1800s. Tides, sunrise and sunset were our time-keepers. The natural sounds were restful and healing.

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So, too, the kinds of silence I experience when a large tree falls on the powerline, though the sense is less restful because of anxieties over family members, job, and the awareness that there are messes and expenses to deal with once we are reconnected to the 21st century. For a day or two, however, I feel my breath returning to a more animal pace and fullness. I watch things more closely. The line of water droplets beading irregularly under the porch handrail, the grass tassels’ subtle color variations as they move in a breeze, a toad’s progress across the patio slate, a few brilliantly yellow trees that kept their foliage despite the gale.

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Weather like this is refreshing, my sister says, even if frightening, because people need to be reminded that technology cannot control everything. The hurricane interrupted cell phone use, communication systems, transport networks, traffic, electrical grids. We ended up wet and cold and we needed to take shelter with friends and to share supplies and stories, to wait awhile before we hurry on our way.

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So here’s irony, that I am using technology to enter these words into a system that keeps them in an electronically-maintained, digitized data ‘cloud’ so people in the Netherlands or Norway, Seattle or Colorado, India or Britain can retrieve and read them…even though my theme is the joy of low-tech lifestyle (for awhile, at least). My power at home is still out, so I am posting these thoughts from a borrowed computer an hour from home; but I composed these thoughts at home, on paper, with a pen, by kerosene lamp. And I will be going back to that quiet, chilly environment later this evening to feed our pets and continue waiting for the valiant and hardworking utility crews to get to our backwater…

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My reading material during this ‘weather event’ has been The Ecology of Wisdom by Arne Naess, an excellent philosophical companion for study by lamplight. I was struck by his essay “The Place of Joy in a World of Fact” which is so life-affirming. Not playful–Naess is serious about joy–but sensible. Environmentalists need to get out and find joy in the environment, he says, not just focus on the joyless losses. He urges all of us to give up the “cult of dissatisfaction” and promote good causes by example.

“One may say, somewhat loosely, that what we now lack in our technological age is repose in oneself. The conditions of modern life prevent the full development of the self-respect and self-esteem required to reach a stable, high degree of acquiescentia in se ipso [self-acceptance].”

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What I feel when the power goes off is repose in myself. While it may not reside within me for long, the fact of its appearance–its existence–is gratifying, joyful, powerful. I do not require the fridge, the computer, the lights. I am an animal alive in an animate, changing, living world.

It’s good to be reminded, now and then.

A great din

My friend Ann sent me this link to an NPR story on cities (Adam Frank on “The City as Engine”).

Frank closes on a note similar to Mumford’s closing chapter: “We live at a moment when cities are poised to become the dominant mode of human habitation on the planet. But we don’t yet know if such a mode can be made sustainable for more than a century or two.”

An earlier observation of his got my attention, however. He says–

There is a word that applies to the sound of cities which almost never gets applied to nature: “Din.” The din of cities heard on the rooftop as a rising wall of noise is a testament to the true nature of cities as engines of organization and dynamos of disorder.

The first time I became aware of this din of acoustic entropy, I was sitting across from Manhattan on the cliffs of Weehawken, N.J. It was night and the great city was blazing from horizon to horizon. Its low rumble of noise flowed like a breeze blown at me from a mile away across the dark river.

The reason this stopped me is that just a fortnight ago, I heard the word “din” applied to nature.

One of my nephews had just arrived for a visit. He’s been living at Oxford, attending school for several years at that ancient and venerable British institution; and he grew up in England outside of London in the suburbs (Buckinghamshire). My husband retrieved Max at the airport in the evening, and they arrived at our place past dark. We live in a semi-rural area of eastern Pennsylvania where we are surrounded by fields, meadows, woodlots, state roads, and the inevitable housing development. And it is August, a lively time for insect life.

As we unloaded my nephew’s luggage from the car and walked him toward the door, he stopped and looked about curiously. “What is that great din?” he asked, “Is it birds, this time of night?”

Din?

He was referring to the cicadas and tree crickets (and probably a few tree frogs and the occasional flying squirrel). I suppose they do make quite a racket, though we are accustomed to the noise–the ‘dynamos of disorder,’ as Frank would say. When we explained, he remarked, “Oxford is quiet. But I do realize it is its own peculiar world.”

Nice to know there are pockets of organization somewhere: no acoustic entropy at Oxford.

Nonetheless, I treasure our noisy regional denizens and prefer their din to the roar of motorcycles, trucks, and  cars that speed past on the state road, although those noises have their own associations and dynamics and perhaps charm…the way I still find the sound of trains appealing because it reminds me of my childhood summers at my grandparents, I can imagine there are people who associate the rumble of vehicles and the great acoustic roar of cities with pleasant things.

Here is a photo of a cicada. A colleague says they are “the ugliest bugs in the world.” This one doesn’t look so awful to me.

Din, discord, or music. Ugly or appealing. To each his or her own.

 

Here’s a link to the tree cricket–one of several American varieties:

black horned tree cricket