Jul 18, 2012, 03:14AM

Can Noise Pollution Be Stopped?

A conversation with Garret Keizer, author of The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise.

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Noise is everywhere. Whether you suffer it, embrace it, or tune it out, it surrounds you: the incessant chirping of crickets, the static-y hum of power lines, the wail of inconsolable infants, the blare of subwoofers cruising through your neighborhood at night. The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise isn’t so much a sustained look at sound pollution as it is a collection of sobering facts, historical precursors to his own research, and empowerment tales: Garret Keizer’s extensive, erudite study is peopled by noise-abatement crusaders, public health experts, reformers, and regular everyday people who’ve either had more than their fill of noise attacks or who are modifying their behavior to make the world around them a slightly quieter place to live. The author even turns his inquiry on himself, musing on the noise required to generate the book, visiting a deafeningly loud paper mill and musing on the sonic destruction necessary: “Yet, this quiet occupation of mine depends on a great deal of noise: from the vehicles that bring my ink and paper up the interstates, the power plants that generate electricity for my lamp and laptop, the substations that see my Internet signals go through to New York—to say nothing of the travels I made to gather my material and the people I disturbed in the process.” All of which is enough to leave the reader to wonder: how much noise did it take for you to be able to click this link and peruse this article?

Public Affairs recently issued Unwanted in paperback, and I interviewed Keizer last week. 

SPLICE TODAY: The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want was first published nearly two years ago. What sort of reactions have you received, and how has your life changed, in the book's wake?

GARRET KEIZER: Since I don’t usually read reviews of my own books or spend a great deal of time online, I’m probably not as aware of the reactions as I might be. I do know that the book has received positive notices from literary writers and acoustical engineers whose work I greatly respect. No less precious to me have been responses from people who have suffered from noise, and the sense of helplessness that can come from noise, and who tell me that my book gave them some useful insights and some hope. Aside from a few laughs, what better gifts can a book give?

I’m not sure my life has changed very much in “the book’s wake”; I think the most significant changes came in the book’s construction. It increased my respect for the work of those who approach problems from a technically-based vantage point. It increased my appreciation for the labors of those who make their living through research, because my own research was formidable and at times frustrating, and because I rarely queried a scholar, in the U.S. or abroad, who did not send me a prompt and helpful reply.

I suppose the book also showed me the relative narrowness of my own plebian allegiances. I read the cultural theorists and the “prophets of dissonance,” listened to the anthems of the “born to be wild,” but I was always on the side of the single parent who needed to get up for work the next morning in order to hold the job that paid the tuition that enabled the child to take the course on “Transgressive Paradigms of Sonic Subversion in 21st Century Art.” And I still am.

ST: You interviewed a sound musician known as Meinkinder from Newcastle, England. Are you familiar at all with noise music culture, an international underground movement that values and builds upon the sounds that many consider noise pollution (the most popular artists include Wolf Eyes and Merzbow)? If so, what are your feelings about the genre?

GK: I’m not greatly aware of noise music culture, though I’m aware of it somewhat, and as you note, I’ve met some practitioners. Can art be made from noise? Art has some serious explaining to do if it can’t! Am I likely to take pleasure in such art? I don’t think

I’ve heard enough of it to say, though giving pleasure doesn’t seem to be its aim so much as demanding the listener’s full attention. If I understand them correctly, noise musicians are waging a war of resistance against our common use of music as “sonic wallpaper,” and as such I tend to respect their project.

A more interesting question for me, however, is this: Does noise remain noise once it becomes art?

I think that depends on the context in which the “noise” is heard, and it depends on whether your definition of noise is based on aesthetic criteria (e.g., “Atonal music is nothing but noise,” “Cacophony is no less beautiful than harmony” etc.) or on ethical criteria (e.g., “Who the hell are you to drive me out of my own backyard?”). For what it’s worth, I have no interest in the former and a great deal of interest in the latter. In other words, I have no interest in dismissing someone else’s music as noise, or in saying that someone’s artistic creation “isn’t really art” because it happens to repulse high-and-mighty me. But I do have a great interest in how noise is used as a weapon and in how the privilege of choosing one’s sonic environment is distributed along with other arrays of choice and forms of wealth. Shall I go to a Death Metal concert in L.A. or do a “silent retreat” at a Zen Center in Big Sur? Shall I eat caviar tonight or slum it at the hot dog stand down the street? Wealthy people get to make those kinds of choices. Poor people don’t.

By the way, I happen to be writing this answer while listening to Marvin Gaye. I love Marvin Gaye. These days I can’t seem to get enough Marvin Gaye. But if I blast his profoundly poignant cry of “Save the babies!”—which moves me almost to tears every single time I hear it—in such a thoughtless, feckless way as to wake your baby in the middle of the night, then in that context my music is noise and nothing else.

ST: One of the realizations that I came away from the book with is this: noise is inevitable, and the likelihood of being able to mitigate its effects is small. Realistically speaking, can you imagine a future in which your insights and recommendations are taken seriously and acted upon?

GK: If I’ve left my reader with the impression that little can be done to mitigate the effects of noise, then I’ve done my reader a disservice. In fact, much has been done and is being done, both technically and politically, to reduce the impact of noise on our health and quality of life. That said, the prevailing message of my book is not for me as its author to judge. Verdicts belong to readers.

“Realistically speaking,” as you say, I must acknowledge that some of my recommendations, not only for the mitigation of noise but also for the redistribution of wealth, are dicey propositions at best. Every struggle worth fighting is also a struggle against probability. To deny the odds against success is naive, but to accept the odds wholeheartedly and then turn around and write a book is absurd. Why bother? For that matter, why read? So much better to tweet, text, roll over, and beg. And buy, of course.

We must never forget buy. I refuse to accept this. What is more, you and I are able to have this dialogue because at least a few of our forebears refused to accept their era’s version of “this.”

ST: Would it be accurate to say that because noise compels us to greater socialization and, ideally, civility, noise—excessive noise—is a positive thing? And in saying that I'm thinking on micro and macro levels: government working with industry, neighbors coordinating with neighbors. Noise forcing us to take notice of and acknowledge one another in ways we might not if left to our own devices.

GK: I think it’s always important to make a clear distinction between saying that good can come out of things that are hateful and harmful and saying that, because it can, those things are therefore good.

For example, on what you’re calling the “micro” level, I’ve heard a number of people say that getting cancer led them to make all manner of positive changes in their lives, to set better priorities, to have more compassion, to reconcile with estranged friends, to appreciate the small pleasures of life. I don’t disbelieve what they’re saying, and I’d never disrespect it, but I’m not about to shout “Three cheers for cancer!” or hope that my liver biopsy comes back positive so I can figure out the true meaning of life.

On the “macro” level, I’m not willing to make my peace with racism or anti-Semitism because without them I wouldn’t have the Delta blues or The Diary of Anne Frank.

Now noise is not cancer, of course, much less racism or genocide, though it contributes to the stresses that can cause cancer, and it has been used as a tool of intimidation and torture. Can positive things come out of noise pollution? As your thoughtful question suggests, and the dialectical workings of history confirm, it certainly can. Is noise pollution therefore a positive thing? Only maybe, and only from a perspective that I don’t possess, don’t want to possess, and would sound like a madman if I pretended to possess. I’m Garret, not God. Let me sleep at night, let me have uninterrupted conversation with the people I love, let me read in some quiet and die in some peace. Small things to ask, but suitable to my small place in the overall scheme of things. But “ask” is the wrong word. I insist.

ST: In your research, did you come across many instances when noise annoyance led to injury or death?

GK: Not many, but still too many. I cite several cases in my introductory chapter, one in which a college student who asked her neighbor to turn down her music was shot dead for complaining; another in which a father whose children had been awakened by a neighbor’s loud party shot the neighbor to death. More recently, a court in Texas ruled that the state’s “stand your ground” law did not absolve a firefighter who shot a teacher he confronted over the latter’s loud party. (Oh, for a world in which firefighters, teachers, and college students had the same party, with a capital “P” and the word “Revolutionary” somewhere in its name!)

The violence that sometimes accompanies noise disputes is as understandable as killing somebody over a noise dispute is inexcusable. For one thing, human beings have evolved in such a way that noise elevates stress hormones. The australopithecine ancestor who evinced a stronger fight-or-flight response to a leopard’s growl than his sibling did was the likelier of the two to survive. (When people tell you to “get over it” in regard to a noise annoyance, they’re essentially telling you to lose five million years of evolution.)

For another thing, noise has a way of invading those domains that most of us feel a visceral drive to protect. It penetrates our most intimate living spaces and our very bodies (the bass throb of a neighbor’s stereo is inside you)—though we seem to have a hard time getting this through our visually biased heads. If I can’t see it, it must not exist.

So, for example, if someone drives by your house at night and throws an empty beer can through one of your open windows (which does little harm to you beyond giving you a piece of litter to dispose of when you wake up the next day), he’s guilty of a trespass, and if caught may have to pay a fine. But if that same person drives by your house and throws acoustical litter into your open window, waking you up and possibly making you unfit to drive safely to work the next day, that’s no big deal. If he flies over your house in a jet plane, well, his need to fly “for business” will always trump your need to study or to sleep for business. But, hey, if your business was anywhere near as important as his business, you wouldn’t be living next to an airport, right?

After all is said and done, we should remember that guns make one of the loudest noises on earth, and they impose the worst form of silence. Using one to end a noise dispute is only a little less self-defeating than using one to blow out your own brains.

ST: Your section on industrialization and the subsequent death of the work song was both fascinating and sad; try to start a sing-a-long on a work site or in an office today, and most people will look at you like you're crazy. Supervisors will think that you're not taking your job seriously.

GK: I’m glad you found this of interest. I should acknowledge for your readers what is clearly acknowledged in my book: that my awareness of the effect of industrialization on the work song derives from the pioneering scholarship of the Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. We have been led to believe (mostly by entities with a vested interest in selling us products and policies that go “boom”) that industrially generated noise is the raucous, emancipating expression of a dynamic, earthy, liberty-loving people, when it might as easily be construed as the oppressive, sensory-numbing narcotic of wage-slaves who hate their work and live mainly for their weekends. The issue here is larger than industrialization; we live in a post-industrial society, after all, but we still don’t sing while we work. The issue has more to do with the loss of connection to our physical bodies and to our proximate neighbors, to the drowning out of the human voice, and the stilling of the human hand on the drum. To the reduction of meaning to money.

ST: Do you see any encouraging signs that Loud America is lowering its tone at all?

GK: Yes, I do. In the chapter of my book entitled “Loud America” I write about Native

American activists trying to reduce the levels of noise encroaching on their sacred site of Bear Butte, which happens to be located near the town of Sturgis, South Dakota, home of the “World’s Biggest Biker Rally.” One of the activists I spoke to recently told me that a number of the bikers she’s talked to—including “patch-wearing” members of notorious “outlaw” clubs—have responded to her pleas with sympathy. Some have even pledged to ride alternative routes farther from the mountain and not to frequent bar and concert venues that have been built close to the mountain in recent years. According to her, not one of the riders she’s approached so far “has gotten in my face.” I find this encouraging. A foreign policy based less on generating “shock and awe” than on promoting fair trade and planetary health would also be encouraging. I suppose I’m saying that it would encourage me if our leaders could be at least as civil as bikers.

ST: What is the worst noise you have personally experienced? Was it something you could control?

GK: The loudest noise I’ve ever heard, which I describe in my book, came from a B-1 bomber flying at low altitude over the biker rally referred to above. It made me wonder how that same noise would sound in the ears of a soldier or civilian under aerial bombardment. But the worst noise? Probably the sound of my own mouth running even as I knew that silence, or silent listening, would be a better way to go. Is that something I can control? The answer will come only after protracted struggle. But I’m game.

  • Garret Keizer is something of a fuddy duddy. but, his struggle is noble. living next to bad musicians, perpetual construction, an airport, highway, or bar block will make you lose your mind.

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  • I'm not a real fan of Keizer's writing, but he cracked me up at the end of this very absorbing interview, with his self-deprecatory remark that the sound of his own mouth running might be the loudest noise he's ever heard.

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