A Disjointed, Open-ended Essay on the Significance of Noise

by: A. Martellacci

I have of late, become obsessed with noise.  Semantically, aurally, visually; noise.  All my sketches, paintings, sculptures and textiles are littered with disordered overdrawing and unsettling half dreamed images from deep within the static.  The last song I composed received a review of, “Why?”, from one of my most honest and unpretentious friends.  It was a .6 second loop of a loose bass string; split, layered, cut and re-layerd until it sounded convincingly like two chainsaws fucking in a small bathtub (I’ll spare your ears), for seven and a half minutes.  The arguments with friends about what constitutes art have become more and more difficult as my credibility as a creator of anything that could remotely be called “art” dwindles in their eyes.  Even I am beginning to wonder.  Noise.  What is it?  Why is it?  Why me?

The google widget defines noise:

Now, can we live with that?  Does that make sense?  According to my music critic buddy I suppose it does.  Apparently noise also suggests deliberate sounds made with an emotional quality.  Given some other honest friend reviews included laughing out loud, extreme relaxation, fear and even arousal, I’d say there was an emotional quality.  I certainly intended to convey extremes of emotion in the piece.  As for the technical definition of noise, I’d assert my composition readily complies.  It is comprised entirely from anomalous sounds generated by arranging otherwise discernible signals in “random” or usually meaningless ways.  I call this, music.  Though I forgive you if you don’t.  And since we’re using it as an example, I guess I better let you hear it after all.  Consider the quickly hacked together stock footage a bonus.

Visually, there are ways to experience noise as well.  Just ask any photographer during the photo editing phase.  Certain types of image noise are the bane of those who cannot afford their dream equipment (which is almost everyone).  I recommend letting this guy explain the types of image noise to you if you like maths. If you find yourself interested, Professor Guillermo Sapiro teaches a course on Coursera, by Duke University, called, Image and Video Processing: From Mars to Hollywood with a Stop at the Hospital. It’s a great image processing course, but enrolment cutoff is April 30.  Hurry.

It is fascinating how much can be said on the subject of grappling with noise.  Simply searching, “audio noise”, returns myriad ways to get rid of it; all of varying technical difficulty.

Anyway, where was I?  Ah.  Noise.  Yes. Sometimes it’s difficult to concentrate.  Last week a new friend accused me of having a noisy brain.  He is correct.  My fascination with noise (not to play too much the psychoanalyst) probably comes from being the sole, nearly feral, rural child of busy parents.  With acres and acres, and hours and hours I developed an affinity for listening and looking so hard eventually the object of my attention would lose context, then meaning.  Images and sounds without context are often the reality of lonely children.

It’s exactly like when one says a word over and over.  First there’s the word.  Potato.  It is connected to the image of a lumpy brownish thing.  Next.  Po-ta-to.  The discovery of the delightful texture of the word.  Po-TA-to.  PO-ta-to.  Po-ta-TO. Poe.  Tae.  Toe.  Potato, potato, potato.  As your delighted brain masticates away, the context is digested.  Once context disappears, the word becomes temporarily meaningless; aka, noise.  At that point, a creative mind can do whatever it likes with those syllables.

One can do the same sort of thing with a hill of ants or the sound of cars on a far away country road.  The noise in my mind comes from a lifetime hobby of trying to dissolve the meaning of everyday things; to render them harmless or significant as per my fancy.  It is therapeutic, in a way.  It allows me to take myself from any context and observe; strip away preconceptions.  As a child I used this power to anesthetize loneliness.  As an adult, I use it to empathize with others and reduce anxiety.  The therapeutic use of noise has not gone unnoticed by better minds either. 

In an August 2010 issue of, eContact, a publication of the Canadian Electroacoustic Community (CEC), sound artist and musician, Brenda Hutchison, tells the touching story of developing an interface to help her friend and fellow artist communicate after severe memory issues caused by metastasized breast cancer.  Ann Chamberlain’s memory was only three seconds long when she and Brenda (and Jean-Michel Couturier) began to collaborate on this compelling project.  A Wacom drawing tablet became Ann’s portal back into her beloved art world.  It’s a moving piece and some of the works to come from it are truly wonderful.  You can read the article here.  Ann’s previous work on memory is also profound and will require an entire post; may she rest in peace.

It figures the trail of this piece is tough to trace, but I swear I have a point.  The significance of noise is undeniable.  We have visceral reactions to it.  Agitation, anger, arousal, calm, giddiness.  We eradicate it in images and music like the hostile destroyer of order it may be.  We seek it in underground clubs and the depths of subreddits.  We re-insert it carefully into photographs.  Sometimes it can even heal us.  It is more than just a conversion error or a ghost of a sound in a recording.  It’s bigger than watching trails of ants form and reform, or losing time in a tree making the wind sing with the banging of hay wagons on stony roads.  Meaning is the background radiation noise creates for us.  The noise always exists.  We have to fight it to conceive our reality.

Noise is an ever shifting pool of ideas and innovation.  To me, inside noise exists all art; every muse.  It’s the ceaseless whizzing of the smallest particles of thought.  Even theoretical physicists are intimidated by fast moving, hazily defined points.  Sometimes I think if I just keep scribbling, something good will come out.  Sometimes I look at the scribbles and see something good already has.  In a world preoccupied with meaning; or worse, the deeply meaningful ironic rebellion against meaning, could it be useful to engage in a kind of… Zen nihilism? Generative oblivion?  Brain scribbling?  I don’t know what to call it.  The embracing of noise.  It seems like some real, ‘one hand clapping’, kind of shit.

Bonus:

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