One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Search for Natural Silence in a Noisy World
by Gordon Hempton
Free Press, 2009
368 pps., $26 ($4.20 used on Abebooks.com)

Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear
by Steve Goodman
The MIT Press, 2009
240 pps., $35 ($25.20 on Amazon)

“As for cost-benefit analysis,” Gordon Hempton begins a climactic soliloquy to an audience of frowning Federal Aviation Administration agents, “we have three million visitors to Olympic Park each year. We’ve had two timber mills close. I have seen the poverty in the town of Port Angeles. I live there at the park. To be designated the world’s first quiet place and to develop quiet tourism in that area – let me tell you, I do a lot of traveling and it is so noisy. There is a tourist need for this quiet place. It would be a tremendous benefit.” [1]

Hempton is a professional sound artist with a Utopian environmental streak, and he arrived in Washington D.C. with a mission. His conversation with the FAA concludes a cross-country funeral for a time when you could still hear yourself think, damn it, a death he’d like very much to undo. He blames noisy machines and an etiquette deficit for the deadly din, but is pitching his one square inch of silence campaign in an effort to turn things around and restore some peace and quiet.

[2]

The proposition is simple: reroute a few planes each day, and the Hoh Rain Forest in Washington’s Olympic National Park will be perfectly free of man-made noise, especially the mechanical kind, at all times. According to Hempton’s empirical calculations – and he is an impressively-credentialed listener – the Hoh is the last place in the United States where this condition might yet be possible. But if one place can reach that state, perhaps visitors will awaken to the value of silence, and spread the word.

Hempton’s mission is deeply sincere, and he can be convincing. His field recordings in national parks are among the loveliest I’ve heard, infinitely more attentive to species and their spaces than garden variety “nature sounds” recordings. (The book comes with a CD that aurally annotates each leg of his trip.)

The most urgent argument in the book is that human beings are not the only sonically-aware species on the planet. When a given ecosystem gets noisy, animals that communicate through sound must either compensate or leave. A substantial body of research attests to these ecological effects; Hempton gives us a visceral sense. Further, for species that instinctively associate loud noise with predators, industrial sound will always compel them to flee – there is no potential to rationalize the source, as there may be with humans. Without question, sound needs to be folded into any environmental conversation that wants to consider other species.

Unfortunately, in the move from awareness to political action, things get murkier. Except for brief passages where he admits a nostalgia for the quaint aurality of trains, baseball, and local restaurants, Hempton paints all human sound as a blight. If you’d never lived in a city, you might think they existed to steal your hearing – thank goodness the trip doesn’t run through New York. Bluntly, the wholesale dismissal of urban space for containing too much human sound is a brash move when more than half the world’s population lives in such places.

The reader may want to know: What options exist for urbanites? This isn’t really Hempton’s concern. During the meeting with the FAA, however, something predictable happens, suggesting that perhaps it should be: the conversation turns to money. Flight patterns cannot be rerouted, the FAA reps insist, because even a brief deviation from a straight line costs precious minutes, which means burning extra fuel, which means significantly higher ticket costs in a climate where even pretzels are a luxury.

Hempton fantasizes that airline passengers might be willing to pay more for the knowledge that their flight was not disrupting a delicate serenity below. Even if that were true, this moment in the book compels us to reflect on the entire journey: the journalist drove a rattling VW bus across the entire United States, with a brief intermission to fly back to Washington state from Chicago, and at the end shipped the bus back coast-to-coast to avoid it breaking down on the way. The amount of noisy travel time logged in the name of silence here was tremendous. And that is not to mention the equipment – cell phones, laptops, noise meters – that had to be manufactured and shipped, nor the importation of gas, and so forth. I mention these things not to paint Hempton as a hypocrite, which I have no reason to think him, but to suggest that in a globalized, capitalist world, human noise (and pollution more broadly) is a consequence of everything we undertake – including activism. There are simply too many people on the planet, with too many modern tendencies that speak to plenty of legitimate needs, to think that we can return to a noiseless Utopia. Even the success of Olympic Park as a mecca for quiet-seekers would be self-defeating, once too many people showed up. The only way around this would be a capitalist dystopia in which everyone was isolated, all the time, in their own soundproof pod, a future that Hempton is too much of a humanist to be tempted by.

The challenge thus becomes creating a thoughtful and ethical soundscape, one that doesn’t bother portraying human sound as unnatural since we all know it’s inevitable – one that thinks about the modern sonic environment like an architect and a good citizen.

The book that takes us there remains to be written. (If it arrives as a book at all.) But in the meantime, Steve Goodman offers an opening. The appeal of his new monograph, “Sonic Warfare,” is to consider the politics of sonic frequency in addition to volume, specifically within capitalism.[3] Though the distinction between volume and frequency may seem merely technical, it certainly has its consequences. Differently pitched sounds do different things to bodies, within the audible spectrum as well as above and below it. Unfortunately, the recent history of research on the effects of frequency has largely taken place within the military and industry for the sake of coercion. Paranoid Cold War technicians failed to find a sonic magic bullet that might paralyze the enemy’s will, but modern security forces make liberal use of illiberal technologies like the Mosquito, the LRAD, and the Rumbler. This is an addition to Muzak and other vaguely musical decorations meant to keep consumers docile.

If noise, for Hempton, is the consequence of neglect – a mound of radioactive garbage that humanity refuses to stop feeding – for Goodman it is itself an ecosystem in need of tending. He argues that the human sonic environment has been polluted not only by sound that moves bodies through space (a “sonic architecture of control”[4]), but by sound that conditions people for things that haven’t even happened yet – a creepy futurity that fills us with dread. Instinct and culture here are separate but complementary domains: Noise above 80 decibels activates a low-level fight-or-flight response in the human body, making us jittery, and the effect is enhanced through specific sounds: “burglar alarms, ring tones, alarm clock, fire alarms: a whole directly affective asignifying semiotics of emergency, a call to action, the inducement of a state of readiness, initiating a kind of technical antiphony. Wake up! Run! Beware! Respond! Act!” [5] Noise suddenly sounds less like a pollutant and more like a deliberate form of control, rewarding some while limiting others.

In less intentional moments, sound may also behave like a virus, moving among hosts. Earworms, for example, extend the ubiquity of sonic logos (Goodman suggests that corporations are well-attuned, these days, to sonic branding) long after they’re played aloud. This type of virus is a mild but not insignificant problem for the host, who during infection may pass the worm on to others. Meanwhile, the viral metaphor is an apt description for modern music distribution, in which piracy and traditional control are harder and harder to tell apart. To his credit, Goodman does not commit to an equation of pirate resistance with liberation – like a virus, sound mutates, and will certainly have unintended effects, both good and bad. The book ends with a strong rebuke to the techno-optimists: “The military makes nonstandard use of popular music, while underground music cultures make nonstandard use of playback technologies, communications, and power infrastructures.” [6] Once technologies exist, they are politically up-for-grabs.

However, he is sensitive to the fact that sounds are not only made to control, but also to empower. Special consideration is given (a la Kodwo Eshun and Paul Gilroy) to figures in black music who thematize race as an ongoing history of alienation, including the least-literal-luminaries of free jazz, Detroit techno, and DJ culture, and who offer their art in all sincerity as a means of short-circuiting the system. Deep bass, for example, felt more than heard, can be euphoric, resulting in the precise opposite effect of crowd-scattering security devices.

Still, as much considered attention as it pays to artwork, “Sonic Warfare” is neither a piece of music appreciation nor a map, through music, to liberation. Rather, it offers frequency as a much-needed addition to the field of sonic ecology, and draws our attention as ecologists to the realm of human relations. It is in fact tempting to say that, despite their often profound differences as writers and philosophers, Hempton and Goodman actually complement one another as sonic ecologists. They share, if nothing else, a defiant stance toward the predatory tendencies of capitalism. And Goodman’s gesture toward frequency is one that cannot be taken too seriously by someone like Hempton. Simply put, this is because other animals hear at different frequencies than we do – a dBA reading says little about how human noise affects bats, since the bulk of their communication occurs too high in the frequency band for us to pick up with our ears.

The trick, now, is to develop a sonic ecology sophisticated enough to tell us something about the interworkings of biology – not just human biology – and capitalism.

    Footnotes

[1]
Hempton, p. 311

[2]
Hempton, CD accompanying “One Square Inch of Silence.” Track 5.

[3]
Hempton measures everything in dBA, a variation on standard decibels that assigns different frequencies specific weights according to how loud we hear them, rather than as absolute pressure in the air.

[4]
Goodman, p. 64

[5]
Goodman, p. 66

[6]
Goodman, p. 194

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