Posts tagged with governance

The third installment of the ongoing podcast series, Bangkok is Ringing, is up now at Triple Canopy.

Or listen to it right here:
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A.N. and I met a musician while walking around the Mo Chit neighborhood last week. Mo Chit is the last stop on the SkyTrain, right next to Thailand’s largest weekend market.

To play legally, street musicians in Bangkok must be licensed. The licenses restrict when and where one can play – unlike some cities, the subway is not at all fair game – but they also protect musicians from getting hassled by the cops or anyone else.

The fellow we met was blind – music is a common vocation here for people with disabilities. Like many people from the rural Northeast, he came to Bangkok because he was no longer able to make a living in the provinces.

The field recording above has two parts. First, a song, and then (around 4:00) a short conversation, translated within the audio. The piece he’s playing is Northeastern string music, and he’s accompanied here by recorded drums from a tape deck. You see the instrument, the Phin, pretty often on the street, but the double-necked version is rare. Thanks to B for help with translation.

Zoning, which has so much to do with how places sound, is never an entirely formal process. Although cities usually do their best to centralize decisions about where people live and work, they have to contend with other, much smaller and more local political economies. When one hears something from an establishment that’s completely out of place, that establishment is often getting protection from someone whose main gig isn’t urban planning, to put it nicely. This happens a lot in Bangkok, and accounts for surprising – and special – aural aberrations.

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Save malls, Lumphini Park is the largest and most utilized public space in Bangkok. At all hours, the 150-acre Lumphini teems with performance and exercise programs that may involve anything from flags and matching uniforms to swords and tea, from high-octane aerobics jams to casual rounds of badminton between siblings. It is easy, actually, to find a quiet spot. But walk twenty feet and you might find yourself in the audible orbit of something completely different. Everyone, it seems, is busy honing their mind or body.

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Khlong Saen Saep, under Witthayu Road. image by author.

Snaking through Bangkok’s concrete tonnage are khlong, natural canals that feed into the Chao Phraya river. Many have been filled in to build roads, but there are still plenty within the city boundaries. They’re crucial for understanding Bangkok’s massive and sometimes inequitable 20th century spatial transformations.

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From 1955 through 1963, the Acoustical Society of America published NOISE Control, a bimonthly journal dedicated to noise abatement. Focused mostly on technical solutions, NOISE Control was scientifically serious, though vexed by the subjective nature of listening for its entire life. It also ran amazing ads. (Interspersed here.)

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Sound maps are graphic catalogs of music, noise, local ambient color, or anything else audible. Most often based on city boundaries, they typically plot sound on a Google Map (or something similar) – as art projects, policy evidence, historical archives, or consumer tools.

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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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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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