Tag Archive | Noise

Beyond the Grandiose and the Seductive: Marie Thompson on Noise

Dr. Marie Thompson is currently a Lecturer at the Lincoln School of Film and Media, University of Lincoln. Her new book Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism has just been published by Bloomsbury. We’ve been following each other on Twitter for a while(@DrMarieThompson and @AbstractTruth)  and I have become very interested in her ideas on noise. I’m David Menestres, double bassist, writer, radio host, and leader of the Polyorchard ensemble (“a vital and wonderfully vexing force of the area’s sonic fringes”) currently living in the Piedmont region of North Carolina.

Cover of “Beyond Unwanted Sound Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism,” By Dr. Marie Thompson

In her new book, Dr. Thompson covers a wide variety of ideas from Spinoza to Michel Serres’s cybernetic theory, acoustic ecology and the politics of silence to the transgressiveness of noise music, and many other concepts to show how we are affected by noise. Thompson is also the co-editor of Sound, Music, Affect: Theorizing Sonic Experience (Bloomsbury, 2013). Here is a conversation we had over email in February 2017 about Beyond Unwanted Sound.

David Menestres (DM): Why now? Why did you feel compelled to write this book? What do you hope this book will accomplish?

Marie Thompson (MT): I think my ‘academic’ interest in noise began as an undergraduate music student – I was interested in thinking ‘beyond’ distinctions of avant-gardism and popular culture and noise, as something that traverses such separations became an evermore appealing concept. So I’ve been circling some of these ideas for quite a while.

I felt compelled to write the book partly due to what I perceived as a gap between some of my ‘everyday’ experiences of noise and how noise was represented in discourse – particularly noise’s representation as an essentially negative phenomenon; or as a shocking, sublime, radical, overwhelming, transgressive force. Noise seems to be one of those topics that makes ordinarily quite progressive thinkers revert to quite uncritical and reactionary tropes – there’s something about it that ‘touches a nerve’. Consequently, much of the discourse around noise is underlined by an often-unacknowledged conservatism. I’ve always found the grandiose rhetoric of noise comparatively quite seductive but at the same time, more often than not, noise is quotidian and banal rather than overwhelming or sublime (which isn’t to say it can’t also be those things). Likewise, I felt like this grandiose rhetoric resulted in an amplification of certain sonic arts practices, while silencing others. I guess I was compelled by a desire to expand the (material and discursive) universe of noise while also trying to maintain some consistency in definition.

Quite simply, I hope the book will contribute something helpful to the recent discussions around noise in media theory, acoustic ecology and music.

DM: What is the difference between a subjective-oriented definition of noise vs. an object-oriented definition and how do both lead to the ethico-affective approach that you champion in the book

MT: When I refer to subject- and object-oriented definitions I’m referring, quite simply, to noise being defined either in relation to the ear of the beholder, or in relation to the sound-itself. [MT also defines her “ethico-affective approach” as a perspective that “recognises the entanglement of the ethical and the affective: affective relations are also ethical relations.” –ed.]

What I think is useful about a subject-oriented definition is that it remains open to what noise might be, what form it might take – it might be your neighbour hoovering, it might be a fellow travelers mobile phone, or it might be a buzzing wasp. However, subject-oriented definitions of noise are typically wedded to liberal notions of subjectivity and the politics that carries. Noise becomes an issue of personal taste – one person’s music is another’s noise etc. Subject-oriented definitions also struggle to account for noise that isn’t ‘unwanted’, ‘bad’, ‘negative’, and so on; and for noise that might not be perceptible, or noticeable.

Noise as Negative. Sound Cancelling

Object-oriented definitions which treat noise as a type of sound are helpful insofar as there is a consistency of definition and it does not assume noise to be a solely negative phenomenon; however, to my mind, they risk losing sight of context: a particular sound is noise irrespective of how it is heard, what it does.

The ethico-affective approach I develop can be understood to maintain aspects of both these definitional approaches. It maintains the separation created by an object-oriented definition of noise between noise and negativity, so that noise’s ‘unwantedness’ becomes secondary and contingent. It also maintains the contextual focus of a subject-oriented definition, so that noise is not tethered to particular types of sound or sound sources.

DM: I’ve been very interested in the idea of noise as a weapon: the use of sound cannons to silence and sicken protestors, the use of the “Mosquito” device (which produces high frequency pitches thought to be audible only to teenagers in order to keep them from loitering), or the use of classical music to annoy young people.

You talk in one section about the noise of neighbors and the “policed silence of the suburbs.” I am also interested in the use of noise as protest. At the Women’s March in Raleigh on January 21, there were so many fascinating sounds: the sounds of thousands of voices bouncing off tall buildings, drummers, people leading chants with the crowd shouting back, the singing of classic protest songs (“A Change is Gonna Come,” “This Land Is Your Land,” etc.).

What do you think the role of noise will be in our current political climate? I can definitely see noise being used as a weapon by both sides: the government trying to use it as a weapon against the people and the people using noise to amplify their voice against the government. But there is a stark difference between these two sides: the use of sound weapons is clearly for their intended negative affect on people (both the physical effects of sound weapons and the psychological effects of the endless noise that comes from Trump’s press conferences and general bullshit), but I see the protestors intending to use sound in a positive way, to amplify their message, to make sure those in charge hear their voices, to ensure the message arrives intact.

MT: As a concept, noise seems evocative of much about our current political climate: be it the ‘noise’ of ‘fake news’, and ‘alternative facts’ (how does one determine ‘signal’ from ‘noise’, and who gets to determine that distinction); be it the ‘white noise’ of the Trump campaign administration (I recently saw a performance lecture with Barby Asante which effectively performed the ‘tuning out’ the noise of recently-bolstered white supremacy); or be it the collective noise of protest against the brutality of borders, white supremacy and police-state violence.

That noise can be both a force of domination and resistance is revealing of its ambiguity more generally – what I refer to as the ‘both-and’ of noise. Of course, that is not to conflate these uses of sonic force. One of the ways in which I’ve thought about this ethico-political difference in sonic forces is through the Spinozist distinction of power-over/power-to.  The ethico-political entangles ethical questions (good-bad) with political questions (power over/power to).

So, when sound is weaponized to exert authority, to bring people into line, by diminishing their capacity to act and do, then this can be thought of as an exertion of power-over. Likewise, when sound becomes a means of collective resistance, or of connectivity (I’m thinking partly here of various ‘noise-protests’ at prisons and detentions centres, where sound is used to traverse walls and borders) then it might be understood as an expression of ‘power-to’ – a (collectivized) body’s capacity to act, to be, to do.

DM: You talk in the book of the “conservative politics of silence.” How does this conservativism affect both how people perceive sound and how we relate to it? Is there something at the other end of the scale, a “liberal politics of silence” so to speak?

MT: To my mind, the conservative politics of silence informs a number of assumptions that are frequently made about what are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sonic environments; it relates to a preference for the simple over the complex, sameness over difference, past over present, predictability over unpredictability, the ‘synthetic’ over the ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean) and, ultimately, quietude over noise. This ideological framework underlines much ‘common sense’ about auditory experience, however it frequently remains unacknowledged.

We might consider a liberal politics in opposition to this conservative politics of silence, which recognises responses to sonic environments as ‘personal’ and therefore refuses overarching moral judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sound. However, I’m also wary of endorsing a politics that treats the individual, autonomous subject as the primary site of the political. Indeed, the conservative politics of silence that we see in the work of figures such as R. Murray Schafer is often indebted to a liberalism that prioritises control and the freedoms and rights of the individual – I’m thinking here of Schafer’s complaint that you can rid your private property of a physical intruder but not an aural one: “A property-owner is permitted by law to restrict entry to his private garden or bedroom. What rights does he have against a sonic intruder?” (1993, 214)

DM: One of the sections I particularly liked was the “What does noise do?” section where you delved into information theory through the work of Claude Shannon to show how noise was an essential part of a communications system, how noise can be a necessary, amplifying presence, needed to successfully transmit a message (voice over phone lines, data packets over the internet, etc.), how noise can enrich a system. I found myself thinking about this section a lot, often in relation to R. Murray Schaffer’s Platonic ideal state of silence. (“a Platonic, transcendent realm of a pure and ideal sonority, which paradoxically exists as undisturbed and eternal silence”).

Cosmic Radiation from the Big Bang- Sound Makes Up Our Universe

I was also thinking about Cosmic Microwave Background radiation, the residual signature of the Big Bang, the background noise that carried all the information that formed our universe. It seems like noise is an intrinsic part of our world, both human made and naturally occurring, and fighting against it seems like such a waste of energy.

MT: It strikes me that when Schafer and other acoustic ecologists talk about fighting noise, they’re fighting a symptom rather than a cause. In these discourses, there is much talk of noise and environmental destruction but very little on how these processes relate to capitalism and settler-colonialism. In that regard, while I don’t think fighting against noise in absolute terms is futile, I do maintain that there are still fights to be had against high levels of noise. While I am critical of liberal notions of privacy and control and the ‘right’ to silence, I do also recognise that noise can feel oppressive in some contexts. That said, more often than not high levels of noise is a symptom of bigger social and political problems – for example, of poor quality housing, and a lack of economic choice over where one lives.

Noise Pollution, Sociological Restrictions, Sound Intrusion. From the Hindustan Times

DM: One of the themes explore in the book is the idea of the parasite, based on the work of Michel Serres. How does the parasite relate to your idea of noise?

MT: I take from Serres’ figure of the parasite the idea of noise as a relational, transformative and ambiguous in its necessity. In Serres’ reading, the parasite changes things, for better or for worse. Either way, the parasite does something, it adds something to the mix. In other words, it is affective. And yet, there is no ‘mix’ without it. Parasitic noise is the ‘excluded middle’ that must be included: it is the necessary ‘third term’, which pertains to the necessity of the material medium/milieu. From this perspective, there is no original state of calm, which is then broken by noise. If there is mediation there is noise, if there is the relation there is the parasite.

DM: Could you talk some about “the poetics of transgression” as you call it? How does this “transgression” relate to your ethico-affective approach?

MT: The poetics of transgression refers to the centrality of ‘line-crossing’ narratives in accounts of noise’s use in the sonic arts and art more generally. It’s predicated on what Henry Cowell calls the ‘time-honoured axiom’ that noise and music are opposites. Bringing noise into music, or music into noise relies on the crossing of boundaries, of material and discursive borders. This ‘line-crossing’ is often accompanied by a rhetoric of extremity and radicalism, shock and awe.

While different notions of transgression have certainly been influential for various noise music practitioners, I seek to decentre it as a way rather than the way of understanding noise’s use as an artistic resource. I argue that the dominance of the poetics of transgression has risked reducing noise music to its most ‘extreme’ manifestations. In light of the ethico-affective approach to noise that I develop throughout the book, which understands noise as a transformative force and necessary component of mediation, I suggest that noise music can be understood as an act of exposure, which, rather than bringing noise into music (or vice versa) exposes, extends and foregrounds the noise that is within the techno-musical system so as to generate new sonic sensations. With this approach, I hope to make more space for noise music practices that do not fit comfortably with the poetics of transgression and its aesthetics and rhetoric of extremity.

Featured Image: Noise Music 

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(Dis)orienting the Bell: Aural Assault from A Game of Thrones to Richard Coer de Lyon

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Hear YE! Below is the introduction to the latest installment of Medieval Sound, Aural Ecology, by series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman.  To read their previous introduction, click here.  To read the first run of the series in 2016, click here.

Aural Ecology

What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent. For example, some medieval musical theory, or musica speculative, such as Jan Herlinger’s “Music Theory of the Fourteenth and Early Fifteenth Centuries” in Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Agesdefined music as “contemplation that serves the moral edification of the mind” (293). Influenced by the work of Boethius’s De Musica, music is not just everyday music but “connotes harmony conceived broadly enough to encompass the relationships obtaining in the human body and psyche and governing the motions of planets” (293).  This kind of ecological harmony is explored in the work of Boethius, especially in his discussion of abstract qualities in the prelude to the De Musica, The Book of Arithmetic (as translated by Calvin Martin Bower)  “Indeed these things themselves are incorporeal in nature and thrive by reason of their immutable substance, but they suffer radical change through participation in the corporeal, and through contact with variable things they change in veritable consistency” (24).  For Boethius these “essences” are concordant with mathematical properties expressed in music. Thus, music was both speculative and moral, and these intertwining purposes derived from music’s phenomenological pleasures derived in the environment, “for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites” (Bower 32).

Boethius also comments on the psychological effects experienced in hearing music as they “affect and remold the mind into their own character” (Bower 34). Boethius gives examples of how certain groups of peoples, such as the Thracians or Lacedaemonians, delight in different kinds of music that harmonizes with their natures. For Boethius, music is transcendent in that it exists as a kind of eternal sound, but also an immanent sound, in that it appeals to various peoples depending on their nature and environment. Boethius’ speculations lead him to think about harmony and sound as available to reason and sensory perception. Thus the notion of harmony itself is “the faculty of considering the difference between high and low sounds using the reason and senses. For the senses and reasons are considered instruments of this faculty of harmony” (Bower 295).   Harmony (and disharmony in the form of noise) became a marker of the aural ecology for an individual or group.

The essays in “Aural Ecologies” also address the issue of unharmonious sounds, sounds that often mark dissonant critical identities—related to race, religion, material—that reverberate across different soundscapes/landscapes. In this way, this group of essays begins to open up the stakes of Medieval Sound in relation to what contemporary sound studies has begun to address in relation to cultural studies, architectural and environmental soundscapes, and the marking of race through the vibrations of the body.  —Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman


In the neo-medieval A Game of Thrones (2011), the medieval Saracen-inspired and violent Dothraki utilize bells as a symbol of victories in battle. Each time a leader or khal defeats a foe, he incorporates the bells from his foe’s shorn black braid into his own braid. Khal Drogo, khal of the most powerful khalasar in Essos, sports an uncut braid sensuously described by George R. R. Martin as “black as midnight . . . hung with tiny bells that rang softly as he moved. It swung well past his belt, below even his buttocks” (37).

Dothraki bells serve both a hypermasculine and deterritorializing function: esteem and prowess for Eastern men comes from the symbolic castration of their enemies and the eradication of civilizations. For the Dothraki, sexualized and territorial conquest is centralized around amplitude of noise made by an aggregate of bells adorning a phallic braid. Drogo is frightening because of his noise: he wears “[b]ells so his enemies w[ill] hear him coming and grow weak with fear” (802). In the pilot episode of Season 1 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and director Tim Van Patten emphasized the contrast in noise between the copper-skinned Dothraki and the white Valyrians of the Free Cities:

East disrupts West in this scene through a racialized auditory disruption of white silence.

The association of the Middle East with noise pervades Western culture. One need only recall juxtapositions of quietly carefully groomed news anchors in sterile American news sets conversing with correspondents struggling to be heard in earsplitting raucous streets embroiled in Middle Eastern crises in countries like Iraq and Syria.  See Aron Brown of CNN announcing the U.S. War on Iraq in 2003, for example:

However, this association of the Arab world with noise is not a new one. In medieval literature, noise played a crucial role in distinguishing Saracen East from Christian West. Bells and particularly the cacophonous noise they cumulatively make came to be associated with a violent imagining of the East in literature of the medieval period. The late medieval crusading romance Richard Coer de Lyon, centered on the exploits of the twelfth-century crusading king, Richard the Lionheart, situates the pealing bell as its central object. [Note: Richard Coer de Lyon is cited by line number. All quotations come from the widely-used complete modern version, Richard Löwenherz, ed. Karl Brunner, Wiener Beiträge zur Englischen Philologie (Vienna and Leipzig, 1913)].

As in Dothraki warrior culture in A Game of Thrones, bells gain symbolic power in the romance through replication and accumulation. Richard Coer de Lyon features pealing bells in two crucial episodes concerned with the East and a maternal rather than phallic male body: 1) the exorcism of Richard’s demonic Eastern mother at Mass with a sacring bell (l.221-34); and 2) the appearance of Saladin’s demonic mare arrayed in clamorous bells attached to her crupper at the climactic battle of Acre (l.5532-49, 5753-8). Drawing on both medieval treatises on the function of bells and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of the refrain, I argue that the bell—initially a symbol of Christian order, the West, and patriarchy—becomes a disorienting aural force associated with chaos, the East, and maternity.

Early on in the romance, the king’s men try the piety of Richard’s mother, Cassodorien of Antioch, a bewitching foreigner whose only apparent fault is that she cannot remain in church to hear Mass, by physically restraining her during a service. To the shock of the English parishioners, at the ringing of the sacring bell, Cassodorien breaks free of her male captors, seizes two of her children, and flies through the church roof never to be seen again:

And whene þe belle began to ryng,

And when the bell began to ring,

The preest scholde make þe sakeryng,

And the priest was about to do the sacring,

Out off þe kyrke sche wolde away…

Out of the church she tried to go away…

Out of the rofe she gan her dyght,

Out of the roof she began to make her way/transform,

Openly before all theyr syght…

Openly before all of their sight

— Richard Coer de Lyon, 221-5.

At this striking moment of contact between queen and masculine material object, the bell is forever altered, (re)oriented on a trajectory that transmogrifies it from a symbol of priestly power to a chaotic symbol of maternity and the East.

Sacring Bells in Aberdeen, Scotland. Image by Flickr User rethought (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sacring Bells in Aberdeen, Scotland. Image by Flickr User rethought (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Medieval thinkers conceptualized the church bell as an agent for revealing both foreign and demonic threats from within the community.  In The Rationale Divinorum Officiarum of William Durand of Mende thirteenth-century French liturgical writer and bishop, William Durand,xplains the significance of the pealing of bells– “when the bell rings . . . the people are unified with the unity of faith and charity” (51) –but also expounds on this exorcising function of the church bell:

[T]he bells are rung in processions so that the demons who fear them will flee . . .  They are so fearful when they hear the trumpets of the Church militant, that is the bells, that they are like some tyrant who is fearful when he hears in his own country the trumpets of some powerful king who is his enemy (51).

Durand conflates the demonic with the East, both qualities embodied by Cassodorien who hails from Antioch (near the border of Syria and Turkey). He also imbues the bell with an emasculating quality; it renders even a tyrant fearful. The measured sounding of the church bells forms a tonal refrain, an aural sequence to familiarize Christian space.

The purpose of the aural refrain, for Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, is to deterritorialize and then reterritorialize unfamiliar space. In A Thousand Plateaus, they explain the refrain/‘ritournelle’ as a threefold place of disorientation, the familiar, and escape:

They are three aspects of a single thing, the Refrain (ritournelle)…. Sometimes chaos is an immense black hole in which one endeavors to fix a fragile point as a center. Sometimes one organizes around that point a calm and stable “pace” (rather than a form): the black hole has become a home. Sometimes one grafts onto that pace a breakaway from the black hole (312).

The bell was arguably the most important and pervasive aural symbol in medieval Europe, one whose refrain regularly demarcated Christian spaces in times of chaos. Sound theorist R. Murray Schafer has called the medieval church bell “the most salient sound signal in the Christian community” in The Tuning of the World (53), and a unifying force “acoustically demarking the civilization of the parish from the wilderness beyond its earshot” (55).  Yet, as the bell multiplies through contact with Cassodorien and Richard wanders into the wilderness or black hole of the East, its sound is layered and its signification coopted by the East and transformed into a disorienting force that decenters Saladin’s enemies.

Richard battles Saladin, Luttrell Psalter, BL42130, 4v

Richard battles Saladin, Luttrell Psalter, BL42130, 4v

The bell resurfaces once more as Richard prepares for his epic battle against Saladin at the gates of Babylon. In this climactic battle with a second pairing of mother and son, reimagined in the form of a demonic belled “mere” and her “colt” summoned by Saladin’s necromancer, bells occupy a central place of prominence on the mare’s accoutrements. In 1192, Saladin reportedly sent two new horses to Richard after his horse was slain in battle (For an overview of this event, see page 73 of Sir Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, Vol.3: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades).  The mare, as one of only two mothers in the romance, uses the same aural symbol to assault the English Christians that they had used to exorcise Cassodorien. As Saladin’s mare proudly strides onto the battlefield, the poet emphasizes the deterritorializing effect of her cacophonous bells:

þerffore, as þe book vs telles,

Therefore, as the book tells,

Hys crouper heeng al ful off belles,

The mare’s crupper hung all full of bells;

And hys peytrel, and his arsoun.

From the armor, too, and the saddlebow,

þree myle men my3ten here þe soun.

For three miles men could hear the sound.

Þe mere gan ny3e, here belles to ryng,

His mare began to neigh, her bells she rang

Ffor gret pryde, wiþouten lesyng.

With great pride, it is no lie.

–Richard Coer de Lyon, 5753-8.

Fascinatingly, Brunner again diverges in this passage from Caius 175, and changes “þe mere” to “his mere,” further stripping the demonic mare of her agency.

Whereas the church bell is a singular symbol of order, symmetrical and “acoustically demarking” space with its meted refrain, the bells of the mare are multiple, discordant, chaotic, and cacophonous, designed to disorient rather than to unify (see Schafer 55). The medieval illuminator of the Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335) similarly emphasizes the clamorous quality of the belled mare, and distinguishes Saladin’s mount from Richard’s by the vast array of bells attached to its crupper and the noise these bells suggest.

The noise, suggested in the Luttrell Psalter by the movement and detail given to the crupper bells, can be heard on a smaller scale in the following video clip of a horse merely walking noisily with a smaller bell-laden crupper:

One can easily infer the discordant sound a running mare might make with a crupper “hung all full of bells.” The poet suggests that the noise encompassed an aural disturbance of three-miles and disrupted the Christian crusaders. The bells also serve an insidious maternal purpose: they serve as a trap to lure her colt to abandon Richard and “knele adoun, and souke hys dame” (kneel down and suck his dame)(Richard Coer de Lyon, 5547).   In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari suggest the layering of sounds, particularly maternal sounds, can disrupt and deterritorialize space. In their discussion of the reterritorializing effects of layered song, Deleuze and Guattari provide the strikingly maternal example of Debussy’s Sirens, which, they posit, integrates voice with orchestra to make the voices of child and woman inextricable from “the sea and the water molecule” (340). In much the same way in Richard Coer de Lyon, the mare’s imbrication of voice over bells seeks to make the dichotomies of the romance—mother and son, east and west, chaos and order, demonic and angelic—implode as the demarcated boundaries between them are dissolved in her cacophonous demonic lullaby.

Daenerys, Created in ArtRage Studio by Flickr User Happy Snapper 80 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Daenerys, Created in ArtRage Studio by Flickr User Happy Snapper 80 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

While A Game of Thrones and its HBO counterpart pick up on the resonances of medieval noise to differentiate between East and West, noise is gendered differently. In RCL the threat signaled by the sound of bells is that Richard will be emasculated by his inability to cut ties with the specter of his mother’s influence and disambiguate himself from the Eastern Saracens she represents. However, in Martin’s series, the Dothraki bells, like much of Dothraki culture, exist only to be subsumed under Daenerys’ imperial ambitions for an Iron Throne the Dothraki neither care about nor want. Daenerys’ bell, affixed to her hair after the death of Drogo and the dissolution of his khalasar, becomes a symbol of cultural and racial appropriation Martin stages under the guise of (white) feminism. That is, the issues noise signals have changed from the challenge of excising Christian West from Islamic East (a fear literalized in Richard’s cannibalistic consumption of Saracen flesh) to cultural appropriation (the devouring of Dothraki culture for the benefit of white colonialism).

Featured Image: Proceso Khal Drogo by Flickr User Orgita Sucubita, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thomas Blake is Assistant Professor of English at Austin College.

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