An audio version of this essay is available here.
I am, and have always been, a seeker of solitude. It is a contradiction to nature itself, since the human ear is endlessly bombarded by sounds within its frequency range, to say nothing of the memory of past sounds rebounding inside our skulls. To provide more confusion to this premise, I love loud movies, the boisterous fervor of sporting events and music of all kinds. As I write, Glenn Gould is playing (and humming along to) the Goldberg Variations. It is not a simple thing to feel completely alone on this planet.
The concept of noise tracks me as I pursue some untraceable instant when sound simply disappears from existence. It envelops me like a persistent fog that started at the moment of creation, whether that be from the vibrating dust of the Big Bang or my mother's screams upon my initial entry into the world. Either way, my ears have not rested for a moment, feeding my brain information that must be deciphered and interpreted, cataloged and indexed, forgotten and remembered. With each bit of aural data comes attached another element, a slight hissing of always there disturbance, a distorted echo of the constant madness inherent in sound. It is present in every screeching tire, trilling note and breaking glass, a restless unrest coursing to an interminable terminus. There is no escape, for it or us.
Even a silent pursuit such as reading yields a byproduct of noise. It is not written into the paragraph, or between its lines, but the impression of near-nothingness arrives with each word as if radiating from the white edges of the page. When we convert what we read into thoughts and ideas, the weight of its accompanying sound adds an unseen burden that we fail to properly account for in the process. It is difficult enough to plow through something such as this to then contend with rocks hidden beneath the row. We find ourselves stopping in the middle of a sentence, but why? The answer is that, no matter how peaceful the setting, we are distracted by the noise.
If I must live amidst the cacophony, perhaps it would wise to attempt to unmask its source. A simple conversation across a table is filled with the extraneous – while the person speaks, our minds unlock from the stream of words and ponder about and beyond. He uses his hands a lot when he speaks …. Does he think I'm stupid …? I think I'll have pasta for dinner. This is all so common and so distorting to the intended meaning that the message is often misallocated as useless information. The root cause is noise; noise in the setting, noise added during delivery (the hands, the perceived attitude) or after receipt (Yeah, pasta sounds good). Words are often merely adequate at describing our thoughts and feelings, but for most of us, it is all we have to work with. When the merely adequate is sabotaged by our inability to focus properly, then the intended idea becomes a misrepresented tangle.
It is said that no communication medium is as pure as radio. Unlike reading written works, we are relieved of the necessity to imagine tone or pace – the word is delivered in a complete, enunciated form. We get that with television and movies as well, along with the added burden of facial expression and body posture that demands further decoding. Radio is far from noiseless, but its noise is within a discernable range and of an obvious shape. We can account, and allow, for such distortion. Consider the impact of the War of the Worlds broadcast … compare Edward R. Murrow, our man in London, with Edward R. Murrow hosting Face-to-Face. Watch any of the current simulcast political pundits, and then simply listen. You will understand the difference when the added noise of the visual is removed.
The telephone is a radio, a form of communication that most closely approximates intimacy from a distance. The words travel directly into the holes in our heads, as if whispered in the dark from across a shared pillow. The truths are damning and the lies are sweet. There is no sentiment as unalterable and completely construed as that contained in a person's voice. It is of a construction formed out of the air and shaped from within, benefitting from the lack of any visual cues. Like radio, the telephone's noise is apparent and excusable. Like radio, its message is clear and unavoidable. Like radio, its expressions of love and hate are unremittingly stark. We are helplessly drawn to the sound and held captive by it.
As Glenn Gould continues to play and hum, the concept of the noise of existence plagues the baroque piano discourse, sticking to it in a layer of sonic film. The man is trying to speak to me through his fingers, using keyboard, hammer and wire string. I'm not quite sure that what I am hearing is him or me … or everything else. In seeking some sense of quiet, should I shout out for silence and add my voice to the din? Or should I just sit here, put out the light and turn my ears inward?