On Noise

Hello All

I hope this finds you well. I had an experience today that I wanted to share with you. I was on my way to university this morning, sitting on the train reading a kindle edition of a book about noise. It is called ‘The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise’, the author is Garret Keizer, and it’s really very good. It starts with the claim that “You might not be interested in noise, but noise is interested in you”.

When I reached university I walked over to my 9am tute, situated in a usually quiet area of the campus. Lo and behold, I was greeted by the sound of masonry drills and jackhammers: they were constructing a new lift shaft for the building. My students were all very game, and we persevered through the oppressive sound of mechanical noise. Keizer claims that “In a survey that asked people to describe the ideal soundscape, Canadian researcher Catherine Guastavino found that most respondents gave a positive rating to “the sounds of other people.” This is the normal rhythm of a tutorial: questions, discussions, the occasional shout, the occasional laugh. The sound of people learning together. It is a nurturing and usually silent environment, and indeed a university campus, as a locus of power, is often a very quiet place. This is particularly obvious of my university, situated as it is in a leafy outer suburb of Perth a good distance from the city center.

Some of the ideas within Keizer’s book kept popping into my head as we all gritted our teeth and persevered. Keizer claims that “As long ago as 1975, New York researcher Arline Bronzaft discovered that the reading scores of students on the train-track side of a public school were as much as a year behind those taught in classes on the quieter side of the building.” Silence, it seems, is a privelege. It is only when it is so obviously revoked, as it was today, that we realise its value. Keizer claims that we only notice noise when we did not choose it. He also claims that intermittent noises are more disruptive than a single, continuous one.

But, as the title of the book suggests, noise is the sound of everything we want. Production makes noise, transport makes noise, airconditioning makes noise, renovating a building makes noise. We, in our quiet little university, were disrupted by noise today. What must it be like to be stuck, by virtue socioeconomic factors or other restrictions, in a zone of inescapable noise. As a student with a former housemate prone to playing dubstep music at early hours in the morning I can empathise, but I always had a choice. Move out, create ambient counter-noise (my strategy) or insulate. The noise today dampened the spirits of my students and stifled their conversation. Fortunately it abated for a time while we were having a group discussion, but it never stopped for long.

University has always made me question my assumptions, teaching is proving to be even more illuminating. I can honestly say that I never would have thought that the sound of a jackhammer would do the same.

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