Posts published during December, 2009

In 2009, Americans took a variety of steps in response to excessive noise. We petitioned our representatives, wrote letters to the editor, drafted ordinances, destroyed property, intimidated or shot our neighbors, sued celebrities, and much more. In today’s year-end post here at Weird Vibrations, we summarize 2009’s most notable noise control stories. The review is organized according to where each item fits within the five branches of American government – legislative, executive, judicial, peer pressure, and vigilante justice.



– The city of Clio, Michigan passed an ordinance regulating roof-mounted wind turbines which, although “green,” produce a loud, annoying hum.

– In Venice Beach, California, the city proposed a lottery to deal with a plethora of street performers on the boardwalk. Local residents claimed they had become “captive listen[ers],” forced to hear music in their homes.

– In December, the CALM Act, which seeks to cap the volume of TV commercials, advanced from the House to the Senate. CALM stands for “Commercial Advertisement Loudness Mitigation.”

– A man in Mesa, Arizona wants to change local noise ordinances so that they apply to churches, which are currently exempt in all cases. According to the man, a local “Christian new-age church that plays rock music at weird hours” located 10 feet from his backyard not only disturbs him, but threatens to set a bad precedent for the entire city.

– New York City police raided a West Village club in a residential neighborhood after numerous noise complaints. A Greenwich Village Block Association member recalled that neighbors had dealt with similar problems in the past by simply purchasing the offending establishment in order to ensure a more quiet operation.

– The city of Devens, Massachusetts debated whether to shut down or fine a manufacturer of solar panels that recently moved to the area. Neighbors are demanding that the plant shut down operations at night.

– The Brainerd, Tennessee District Attorney asked police to shut down Club Deep Blue after a series of noise complaints. One neighbor claimed to have called the police over 300 times, to no avail. After the D.A. filed a petition, reporters found a sign on the club’s door reading “‘Closed due to racial descrimination (sic) within the Chattanooga City Government.”

– Noise complaints are on the rise in Columbus, Ohio, but for some reason police citations are down. Officers are at a loss to explain the discrepancy.

– A bishop in Phoenix, Arizona was convicted of disturbing the peace because the bells atop his newly-built church rang too frequently and at too high a volume. An attorney for the bishop claimed the ruling was a First Amendment violation. “We were living in a bell tower,” said one resident.

– One of her neighbors on the Upper West Side of Manhattan sued Madonna. From the complaint: “Madonna and one or more of her guests repeatedly dance and/or train in Apartment 7-A to unreasonably high-decibel amplified music.”

– The Georgia Supreme Court denied a claim by two University of Georgia-Athens students that a local noise ordinance restricted their freedom of expression with regard to playing music at parties. According to an article, a lawyer for the students said that “Volume should be constitutionally protected because it is to the artistic quality of music as light and shade are to paintings.”

– The city of Virginia Beach has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after the state court overturned its local noise ordinance. The ordinance, which relied on the concept of a “reasonable [listener],” was said to be too vague.

– Responding to resident complaints about last year’s concert, the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco placed “sound monitors” in nearby neighborhoods, who could in turn contact “sound consultants” to assess disruptive noise and fix it between days of the festival. A complaint hotline was also established.

– Guanabanas restaurant in Jupiter Inlet Village, Florida, has tried its damnedest to be sensitive to neighbors’ noise complaints. According to the owner, John Zimmerman, no one from Sunni Sands, across the street, has complained since a series of acoustic renovations three years ago. Zimmerman even consulted with the owner of nearby Castaways restaurant and the Barrons Landing motel, but some residents apparently remain unsatisfied.

– An Erie, Pennsylvania man threatened a hunger strike to protest the noise from a pet food maker called Dad’s Products Co. down the street from his home. Harry Davies, 62, who built a shed in which to carry out the strike, wrote in a letter that “I guess you could say it’s either the noise or me.”

– The author of a motorcycle column in the Philadelphia Examiner suggested that proposed regulations on motorcycle exhaust pipes in New York State are discriminatory.

– 2009 witnessed a spate of complaints about grunting in women’s tennis. Critics charge that the grunts are tantamount to cheating by distracting one’s opponent, while defenders say it helps establish rhythm.

– A weekly San Francisco drag party was canceled voluntarily after neighbors approached the local Entertainment Commission about its noise. The organizers claimed the pressure was homophobic: “”The Polk no longer welcomes gay businesses.”

– A Charlestown, Massachusetts resident wrote a letter to the Commander of the USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) complaining about the ship’s twice-daily cannon firing, a tradition that dates back to the 18th century. Most area residents seemed to feel that the firings should continue.

– An Arizona man was fatally shot after a confrontation with his neighbor over noise. “Now I have to take his body back and I had to tell his daughter that he’d never see his new grandchild,” said the slain man’s wife.

– Ashton Kutcher unleashed a viral video documenting his neighbor’s untimely construction work, which allegedly began some days as early as 7:00am. “I’m gonna lose it on this guy, I’m gonna lose it!,” said the star of What Happens in Vegas.

– A 46-year-old woman in Cambridge, Massachusetts spit on her upstairs neighbor while drunk, after the neighbor’s noise allegedly disturbed the woman’s parents on multiple occasions.

– A Tallahassee, Florida man was charged with assault after aiming a shotgun at two neighbors who had been doing construction work at odd hours. The suspect was specifically upset about their hammering.

– Several Durham, North Carolina residents posted signs on their street stating that speeding vehicles would be hit with paintball guns. As of August, no shots had been fired.

Few frustrations match the one that involves lying in bed, dead-eyed in the night, as the neighbor dog’s ten-billionth bark pierces the thin psychic veil between sanity and bloodlust.

People kill other people distressingly often over noise.

Plenty of evidence implies that the planet is noisier than at any other time in human history. What now?


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Increased CO2 emissions caused by marine shipping have made the ocean less acoustically absorbent. As a result, animal sounds travel further, creating an underwater cacophony that may affect marine life.

The journal Nature Geoscience published a letter online yesterday suggesting these findings.

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Snow, Philadelphia, 12 19 09

Snow, Philadelphia, 12 19 09

Sixteen inches of snow this weekend. The present artwork is to be filed under “horror.” It was recorded in the morning. The sensibility is kind of an urban interpolation to The Thing.

In it, I walk around the block, getting chased by wind chimes. FYI, my shoes are the rhythm section.

An Appeals Court judge in my home state ruled this month that police officers cannot give out speeding tickets based solely on the sound of a passing vehicle, unless they have some kind of specialist’s credentials as listeners. The ruling overturned two previous decisions against Daniel Freitag, who got a ticket in 2007 while driving on business in his Navigator SUV. The full ruling is here.

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Putting sound in the workplace is a two-edged sword; it inspires efficiency, but also, at times, insurrection. Cuban cigar factories have a centuries-old tradition of employing readers, who sit at the front of the factory room announcing their way through a stack of printed matter, to entertain the labor force.

Cigar Factory Reader

The practice continues today. A BBC piece from last week describes how the readings, the content of which includes the newspaper, self-help books, modern novels, and classics, “help[s] workers pass away the day.” The repetition of the job makes it easy to concentrate on other information and, in turn, alleviates boredom with the original task. (Which, as you might imagine, can be immense.)

The factory owner is arguably the main beneficiary of the reader’s work, since he’ll end up with more cigars to sell. For their part, the workers are – for both better and worse – mentally shielded from their shitty jobs.

But the segment also suggests an educational benefit. Cigar factory employees often have little or no contact with literature elsewhere in their lives, so the readings offer them access to useful information about the world. What the report doesn’t mention is that reading to laborers was an idea originally organized in prisons. The modern tradition of factory reading stems directly from that history. From the Cuban Heritage Collection:

In 1861 activist and intellectual Nicolás Azcárate proposed reading to prisoners in jail as part of their rehabilitation. His idea was implemented and, since many prisoners rolled cigars to earn wages, a direct link to the cigar industry was established. The wages, received by prisoners at the end of their terms, were managed in the meantime by the prison administrators and used in part to replenish the book fund.

This is liberalism in a classic sense. But education had effects beyond rehabilitation:

Factory readings became popular, attracting passersby who stopped to listen outside. Several newspapers dedicated articles to the subject and published reading lists. But the custom also had detractors who claimed it encouraged revolutionary ideas. They were not entirely wrong: tobacco workers became the best informed working sector and vital in the fight for independence, both inside Cuba and in Tampa, where they organized in support of the Independence movement.

What other stories about sound and labor are you aware of?

Thanks to ST for the original link.

Chris DeLaurenti, field recording specialist and member of the Phonographer’s Union, was on KUOW‘s “Weekday” program yesterday to discuss many of the most important issues around the study of sound. This post is a listening guide to the discussion, and serves also as a pretty decent primer for understanding how and why sound is useful as a type of analytic material.

“Sound Studies,” while increasingly common in the academy, still lacks basic definitions. This post is part of an ongoing effort to provide clear, descriptive expositions of what the study of sound encompasses – as an art form, as a humanistic science, and as a general philosophy.

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Speaking of film, as we have been, Melena Ryzik interviewed Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-winning sound designer Alan Robert Murray yesterday.

The pursuit of authenticity apparently knows no bounds. Says Murray:

We went and recorded a lot in South Africa and tried to be accurate to the background. My recorder went to the shantytowns. We found circa 1990 phones that we believed would be in Mandela’s office. We went to Robben Island — the jail door you hear is actually Mandela’s cell door. We got to record in his cell, which is kind of eerie.

and …

In South Africa, we recruited 25 guys, professional players that they rounded up in Cape Town, and we had a professional rugby coach there. We got them together and we set them 25-30 yards apart and said, O.K., you guys run into each other as hard as you can. And I mean, it was just brutal what we got back.

Ryzik professes honestly that sound design is a mystery category, Academy-wise, that it’s “one of those categories that make people lose their Oscar pool.” Murray, like most people who deal with sound professionally, is obviously used to the association of invisibility with nonexistence that accounts for such a lack of awareness. (He starts the interview by saying “thanks for noticing. A lot of people just think the sound happens when they shoot the movie.”)

Coming up: a sound studies primer

Precious, out for about a month now, was a tremendously complicated movie to attend. Audience members were divided on how to respond, vocally. How should people react to difficult art? Loudly or quietly? And if loudly, how? This problem took on an ethical dimension, and the sound of the theater became one of the key ways that viewers experienced the movie as a document of race and racial difference.

Amina Robinson

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One of the buzz safety issues this holiday shopping season is toy volume.

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