On Rural Noise
Written by Otto Muller, April 6, 2016
On Rural Noise PDF Download
It’s dark early in January, so I’m waiting at the top of my driveway with a flashlight to help the delivery truck find the place. The nearest paved road is about three miles away but if the wind isn’t cutting through the trees I can hear it. I’ve heard three cars over on route 14, but no trucks. I listen to the slow arc of a commercial jet, miles above my head. When I shift my weight the rustle of my down coat, only inches from my ears, is startling against the stillness.
Suddenly a dog barks. I think I know the house, about half a mile up the road. He barks again and it sounds closer. He’s heard something. I shift my weight again, and as the polyester crackles around my neck, I realize that what he’s heard is probably me.
It’s often quiet in rural spaces and there is a transparency in this quiet. Acoustic ecologist, R. Murray Schafer, describes this as a hi-fi soundscape, writing:
A hi-fi system is one possessing a favourable signal to noise ratio. The hi-fi soundscape is one in which discrete sounds can be heard clearly because of the low ambient noise level. The country is generally more hi-fi than the city; night more than day; ancient times more than modern. In a hi-fi soundscape even the slightest disturbance can communicate interesting or vital information. 1
Even within this hi-fi system, a distinction is made between signal and noise, the intended or desired sounds, and those that interfere. People sometimes visit the countryside to listen to this quiet: the songs of birds, the sounds of wind and babbling water, to imagine an experience of some bucolic past; maybe they’re thinking of a past that predates civilization altogether, something that they might call Nature. They do not seek out the noise of the freeway, four-wheelers, and chainsaws, but they hear it. Contemporary human lives, heard as noise, are an inherent component of the Rural, a space which exists not as the opposite or absence of civilization, but as its active margin.
Throughout the 20th century, aesthetic practices have engaged noise to such an extent that the music semiologist Jean-Jacques Nattiez has stated simply that, “all twentieth-century music is in effect characterized by a displacement of the boundary between ‘music’ and ‘noise.’”2 Since its emergence, however, noise music has been almost exclusively associated with the mechanized cacophony of industrial and urban spaces. In 1913, the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo writes: “Noise was really not born before the 19th century, with the advent of machinery … [that creates] today such a large number of varied noises that pure sound with its littleness and its monotony fails to arouse any emotion.” 3
This paper argues that noise aesthetics offer a valuable and necessary schema for resisting appeals to Eden and engaging with the rural as a dynamic, unstable, and contemporary category, or more pointedly, that hearing and making distinctly rural noise is a means of resisting reductive and reactionary understandings of rural space.
Part 1: Defining the Rural
Legal and political definitions of the rural employ metrics of population density and work-force access to metropolitan areas. 4 The rural is defined as the non-urban, and insofar as the city has long represented both total anthropogenesis and progress itself, the Rural is easily conflated with two of the city’s projected Other’s: Nature and the Past. Having lived the majority of my life in rural spaces, I have often encountered tourist impressions of the countryside as a place where one can be with nature, and more “authentic” way of being, often associated with an idea about “the way things used to be.”
With the decreased stability of agricultural and resource economies many rural spaces are actively engaged in promoting these representations. A tourism website for the Lake Champlain region of Vermont advertises that “time spent in Vermont will always satisfy a traveler’s desire for natural beauty, real community and unabashed authenticity.” 5 Similarly, a tourism website for West Virginia claims: “West Virginia is real, from the wild outdoors to the kind folks. […] It’s one-of-a-kind, down-home, mountain living.” 6
The rural idyll, offers a vision of authentic living within a comforting elision of Nature and the Past: a harmonious Eden; a charming image that is both regressive and dangerous. In the US, this pastoral imagery is employed in different ways by the back-to-the-land or localvore movements on the left and by the right’s appeals to the “traditional values of America’s heartland,” but in both cases the Rural contributes to normative and evaluative claims based on an appeal to Nature.
The Edenic vision of the rural idyll typifies what Roland Barthes refers to as a “myth” when he writes that “myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal.” 7 In the Rural, features of the landscape, flora and fauna, as well as cultural norms and representations (e.g. the family farm, the farmer’s market) that have emerged out of specific historical realities, including those of colonialism, enslavement, and environmental devastation, have been reinscribed as natural and authentic. When the wild woodlands of Vermont are understood simply as “natural beauty” the clearcutting and the deliberate (re)creation of ecosystems through the managed reintroduction of species disappears. Similarly, the simplification of rural people(s) as “kind folks” with “real community and unabashed authenticity” renders as “natural” pockets of cultural homogeneity that are, in this country, inseparable from racist policies around land ownership.
Donna Haraway, who has devoted her career to the question of “what gets to count as nature and who gets to inhabit natural categories” 8 writes that “biology is a political discourse, one in which we should engage at every level of the practice—technically, semiotically, morally, economically, institutionally.” 9 In this vein, the Rural can be understood as a site where Nature is created, both materially through the interactions of humans and non-human environments, and discursively through representations of the rural.
Not only does the myth of rural idyll obscure historical causes, its generalizations further sideline those inhabitants of the rural that fall outside the norms of this naturalized image. The geographer Chris Philo has introduced the concepts of “rural others” and “other rurals” to:
[point] to the discursive power by which mythological commonalities of rural culture will often represent an exclusionary device serving to marginalize individuals and groups of people from a sense of belonging to, and in, the rural, on the grounds of their gender, age, class, sexuality, disability and so on. 10
Keith Halfacree, a rural geographer in Wales, analyzes this constructive understanding of the Rural and its impact on people in terms of a “three-fold architecture of Rural Space” where it is necessarily comprised of three facets:
Rural locality, the material features of the location itself including its isolation, population density, landscape, and the infrastructure relating to production and consumption.
Formal Representations of the Rural, which includes both political and legal expressions as well as representations in culture, marketing, etc.
Everyday lives of the Rural, the diverse experiences of those navigating and negotiating rural spaces. 11
The dynamic relationships between these facets provide a means for assessing the extent to which the Rural, in a given time and place, is a coherent and stable category. As an example, Halfacree shows that between 1945 and the late 1975, agricultural productivism provided stable coherence in rural Britain. 12 In this period the material infrastructure of the countryside as well as the political and cultural representations of the rural were aligned around an agricultural economy that also defined the everyday lives of rural people. Since that time, various economic and political forces have destabilized this productivist vision of the rural, and generated the tension between representations of the rural and lived experiences of the rural alluded to above in the context of the rural Unites States.
Halfacree argues, however, that the current instability offers the potential for a radical re-envisioning of rural space, not striving to reclaim some Edenic past, but leveraging the unique material and social features of non-rural places in intentional new ways in order to create “temporary autonomous zones” within this space. He imagines:
a locality revolving around decentralized and relatively self-sufficient living patterns, representations that imagine the countryside as a diverse home accessible to all, and everyday experiences celebrating the local and the individually meaningful. 13
I posit that we can access this radical re-envisioning through re-listening. Rural noise aesthetics are useful in this re-invention for three reasons:
- Because noise aesthetics demand that we do not filter out the human activity that disrupts the quiet of the rural idyll, but listen intentionally to the instability within systems of representation.
- Because, as mentioned above, a “hi-fi soundscape” is one of its unique material features of non-urban space, such that the audibility of subtle interactions, the ability to listen to a dog listening to my coat rustle, is essential to individual and communal experience of rural space.
- Because noise, as an aesthetic response to contemporaneity in musics from onkyokei to punk rock to free jazz, offers cultural accessibility that is absent within the mythologized images of a rural past.
Part 2: Defining Noise
A full understanding of the potential of noise aesthetics requires the exploration of a concept that is notoriously difficult to define in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. Aaron Cassidy and Aaron Einbond write:
The problem with noise is that it is everything. It is real, experiential, objective, measurable; it is also abstract, subjective, ambiguous, and contextual. It is both a thing and a relationship between things. 14
This highlights the tension between an acoustic definition of noise in opposition to “tone,” where a noise is a sound characterized by its lack of regular periodic vibration; and, from information theory, a definition of noise in opposition to “signal” where a noise is any interference that disrupts an intended message. This latter understanding of noise as the unintended or undesirable, also aligns with the common and legal understandings of noise as “sound which is undesired by the recipient” 15 and has led to political understanding of noise as both an indicator and subversive tactic of social change, typified in the work of Jacques Attali.
Borrowing Judith Butler’s notion of a “constitutive outside,” one way to understand these multiple aspects of noise is in terms of their shared exclusion from the category of “music.” Noise is defined in some way as an undesirable, unorganized, meaningless, and/or toneless non-music. As such noise provides a “constitutive outside” to the discourse that understands the organization of pitch as a desirable system of meaning-making.
In his book, Music and Discourse, Jean-Jacques Nattiez discusses this dynamic relationship between music and noise and attempts to resolve the tension between the objective definition of noise as “an erratic, intermittent or statistically random vibration” and the subjective understanding of noise as “any sound that we consider as having a disagreeable affective character” by defining noise in a way that clearly articulates the relationship between these dimensions.
Throughout his work, he argues that communication never entails the simple transmission of ideas through a medium, but instead involves three layers:
- a generative process, which he terms “poeisis,”
- a neutral, physical outcome of this process or “trace”, and
- a receptive process through which the trace is interpreted, which he terms “esthesis.”
He argues that any discussion of communication or meaning-making must take into account all three of these levels.
In the case of “noise” we might understand the poietic process as concerning the question of what sonic material can be incorporated into musical composition. The neutral trace is the resulting sonic object that can be analyzed objectively in terms of the periodicity of its soundwaves. Finally, the esthesic process incorporates the subjective response of the listener, incorporating cultural and individual measures of “desirability.”
Nattiez describes the “displacement of the border between ‘music’ and ‘noise’” 16 as a historical progression wherein composers generally take the initiative, 17 by extending the range of musical materials in ways that, over time, impact the tastes of listeners. Shifts in shared norms about the desirability of noise elements then impact the way that the category of “noise” is employed in technical discussions of timbre and acoustics.
Nattiez’s model is useful insofar as it 1.) offers a clear template for the relationship between three understandings of noise as not-music, not-tone, and not-pleasant, and 2.) grants agency to the creators and composers of music to engender cultural shifts in the way that “noise” is defined and appreciated. But his schematic does not fully contend with the informational definition of noise, which cannot be neatly located within a particular level of meaning-making, but speaks to the interference of the communication process as a whole. It also decontextualizes shifts in the definition of noise from any broader social, cultural, and environmental contexts; and in doing so obscures the ways in which our understanding of noise might respond to and impact political and social change.
In adjusting Nattiez’s three-part system to accommodate these complexities, Halfacree’s triangulation of rurality offers some useful tools. It is tempting to simply overlay these two schemas but such a conflation does not do justice to the specificities of either theoretical model. Instead, it is the Halfacree’s shift from definitional binaries to discussions of coherence and stability across his three-fold model that is relevant here.
Those moments when noise emerges as a poignant and potent force in the world are specifically the moments when there is instability and incoherence across the semiotic system, when disagreement regarding what is and is not comprehensible forces shifts in our understanding of comprehensibility itself. When established modes of parsing and evaluating music are rendered useless, it forces the listener to listen more acutely to hear relationships within the subtleties, densities, velocities, and nuances of the sound without relying on a pre-established hierarchy of parameters. In this vein, Helmut Lachenmann writes about the composer’s duty to “touch us deeply by constantly provoking our ears in new ways, to prevent what they hear becoming homogenized, and which broaden our ability to take in new experiences.” 18 And Peter Ablinger writes:
noise becomes a wonderful field for experience and exploration. In particular, the field of (individual) projection, interpretation, and acoustic illusion is well suited for examining the area of listening and the constructive role of our brain in that process. 19
When noise disrupts established norms of meaning-making, it engenders critical awareness of listening as an active and constructive process. Rural noise offers tools to recognize the mythology of the rural idyll as constructed and contingent, to observe the incoherence and instability of this construction, and to represent this incoherence in ways that actively disrupt the exclusionary conservativism of rural space.
Part 3: The possibilities of Rural Noise
As a composer living in a rural community in Northern Vermont, I have been working with a collective of musicians, artists, and makers on the creation of a Rural Noise Ensemble to explore these ideas. Our activities have ranged from community workshops in instrument making, to site-specific choreographic and multimedia performance. A clear actualization of critical rural noise aesthetics is found in GIHON, a recent multimedia work of Sean Clute.
The piece includes 43 minutes of field recording from multiple sites along the Gihon river in Northern Vermont where Clute lives. Despite its remote and rural location, the field recordings pick up downshifting trucks, the hum of the electrical grid, and snippets of passing conversation as the river winds through towns. The sound of this audio is mixed with and modulated by a sonification of the electromagnetic activity of Sean’s laptop. By holding a coil over different parts of the computer, Clute captures different traces of the electronic mechanism that is actively mediating and creating the audio signal he has recorded, and rendering them as noise. This noise signal is used to act upon the field recording in a number of different ways, oftentimes yielding a result that has more pitched material and, according to a purely acoustic or physical definition of noise, is therefore less noise than the original sound of the river. The sound output is then used to alter and distort video images of the river through a set of algorithms designed by Burlington-based video artist Leif Hunneman.
This piece fits within a rich tradition of river-based works within acoustic ecology, from Barry Truax’s “Riverrun,” to Annea Lockwood’s “soundmaps” of the Hudson and Danube, to Leah Barclay’s “River Listening” sound installation. Instead of focusing on the “natural sound” of the river, however, Clute surfaces and troubles the notion of “noise” in subtle but meaningful ways:
- The primary sound source, the river, can be heard acoustically as noise, but through the subjective perspective of the rural idyll is heard as the “desirable sound” in opposition to the sounds of trucks, voices, and machinery.
- The technologies of representation, i.e. the electronics of the computer as it processes digital audio, are rendered audible as noise, implicating the artist and the audience in the constructive process of representation.
- The acoustic noise-qualities of the river and the synthetic noise-qualities of the sound processing are blurred to an extent that makes consistent referential or taxonomic listening impossible, though moments of referential sound do occur.
The river in this piece is a geographical location, a loaded and heavily mediated representation, and something completely immediate, ordinary and familiar. At the same time, the result is jarring and uncomfortable, the lines between what is found and what is made are blurred, even obliterated. The Rural that is presented here is not some pristine holdout of Nature, existing in opposition to technology and modernity, but a site where contemporary culture and technology actively create and idea of Nature itself, and the distortion inherent in this production is made audible. Whether we are farmers, tourists, or artists, the Rural that we enter is one that includes us within it, and when we listen to the noise, we hear ourselves there.
At the mouth of my driveway, the intermittent rustle of my down coat was soon drowned out by the diesel engine of the delivery truck. We shouted over the roar of the idling motor, straining to hear each other.
10 Paul Cloke and Jo Little, ed., Contested Countryside Cultures: Otherness, Marginalisation, and Rurality (New York: Routledge, 1997 (Ablinger 2013) (Lachenmann 1999) (Hegarty 2004) (Cassidy 2013) (Halfacree 2006)), 4.
15 C. S. Kerse, The Law Relating to Noise. 1975. Qtd. in Paul Hegarty, “Full With Noise: Theory and Japanese Noise Music,” in Life in the Wires: The CTheory Reader, ed. Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker (Victoria: New World Perspectives, 2004), 2.
Ablinger, Peter. “Black Square and Bottle Rack: noise and noises.” In Noise in and as Music, edited by Aaron Cassidy and Aaron Einbond. University of Huddersfield Press, 2013.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.
Cassidy, Aaron and Aaron Einbond. Noise in and as Music. University of Huddersfield Press, 2013.
Cloke, Paul and Jo Little. Contested Countryside Cultures: Otherness, Marginalisation, and Rurality. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Goodeye, Donna Haraway and Thyrza Nichols. How Like a Leaf. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Halfacree, Keith. “Rural Space: Constructing a Three-fold Architecture.” In Handbook of Rural Studies, edited by Terry Marsden, Patrick Mooney Paul Cloke. SAGE, 2006.
Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium, FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Hegarty, Paul. “Full With Noise: Theory and Japanese Noise Music.” In Life in the Wires: The CTheory Reader, edited by Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker. Victoria: New World Perspectives, 2004.
Lachenmann, Helmut and David Ryan. “Composer Interview: Helmut Lachenmann.” Tempo, no. 210 (October 1999): 20.
Nattiez, Jean-Jacques. Music and Discourse: Toward a Semiology of Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.
Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. New York: Knopf, 1977.
United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. What is Rural. http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/rural-economy-population/rural-classifications/what-is-rural.aspx (accessed March 7, 2016).
Presented at “Locations and Dislocations: An ecomusicological conversation” at Westminster Choir College, Rider University, Princeton NJ, April 9, 2016.
A version of this paper entitled “Rural Noise Today” was published by Noise and Silence Magazine, in their issue “Urban/Rural,” October 17, 2016.