Scandal of sonic abuse

One man's music is so often another man's noise, laments Malcolm Gillies

August 19, 2010

Twenty years ago, I went to court to evict my neighbours. They were several very pleasant university students from Hong Kong. Our source of conflict was noise. They could not live without playing loud music 24 hours a day. And I could not live while they did.

I was reminded of them, and my brief court appearance, when looking at the People & Planet Green League 2010 results (THE, 10 June). This Green League ranks "the environmental performance of Britain's universities".

I think it's an admirable exercise in tracking the advance of universities in environmental policy and practice. It was good, for once, to see London Met level-pegging with Oxford and Cambridge (all equal 89th, I'm afraid, with Third Class Awards).

But what is our environment? Amid carbon emissions, ethical investment, Fairtrade, water consumption and environmental auditing, I didn't find much recognition of a domain simply overflowing with pollution: sound.

We recognise construction noise, and may even give a nod towards transport noise, but most universities don't go much further towards a greener sound world. Sonic abuse is rife. More than one in seven adult Americans has significant hearing loss in consequence. A Yale professor of medicine is studying the hearing damage caused by MP3 players. Innocent though it looks, your iPod on full throttle can give a blast equal to a jet aircraft leaving the runway ("Young iPod users risk permanent hearing damage, warns expert", The Guardian, 21 April 2010).

Forty years ago, the Canadian musician R. Murray Schafer was in the vanguard of acoustic ecology: understanding how living organisms relate to their sonic environment. His deep purpose was simple, yet not without controversy: to recover what he called "positive silence" as a precondition of creative human life.

So, is silence a right? Is it reasonable to expect to conduct the basic affairs of life - banking, buying food, taking the bus - in relative quiet? In universities we seem to think it is important to conduct examinations in silence, but is it any longer a reasonable condition to expect in our libraries? Or in our lecture halls?

What worried me in pursuing the eviction case with my neighbours was that I knew how some students from east Asia actually queued up for the noisiest rooms in the student residences of my own university. Far from wanting quiet, they wanted - they needed - noise.

An old article in Bangkok's The Nation says it all. Entitled "Pump up the Volume" (1 April 1997), it explained that the younger generation of Thais could not live without noise. For them silence meant isolation, even danger, while noise meant happiness. "I need sound around me, because silence makes me feel as though I'm alone in the world," explained -year-old musician Vasit Mukdavijit.

Another article, "Sound of Silence" in Asia Magazine, even asserted that silence could be considered an affliction "suffered only by those who grew up in the West", were of an antisocial bent, and enjoyed being alone (17-19 January 1997). "This is unnatural," the article continued. "No one, especially no one in Asia, lives alone ... the reason people make that noise is not to irritate but to reach out, to embrace."

There was another basic problem I was having with my neighbours: their music was noise to me, as mine was to them. The clash of Asian pop and Western high-art values only exacerbated our decibel and 24/7 incompatibilities.

Of course, my generalisations of East and West are pretty hopeless. Maybe it is more North and South? The "silent" Scandinavians and Japanese; and the "noisy" Italians and Chinese diaspora.

Zen Buddhist teachings, not unlike the Carthusians, stress the purifying value of silence and its sensitising effect to precise sounds. Soshitsu Sen XV in Tea Life, Tea Mind writes: "Silently purify yourself as you go through the procedures of making tea. Listen and acquire a sensitivity to the sound of water poured from a bamboo water ladle into a tea bowl or kettle. In this pure sound is the realm of non-attachment. To enter this realm is one reason why we practise over and over again the same procedures in making tea."

Silence, it seems, is not necessarily the opposite of noise, but can be rather an absolute intensification of sound.

In an age of ubiquitous sound we might ask what has happened to listening. Amid all this cacophony what do we consciously hear? "All I wanna do is have a little fun before I die," Sheryl Crow's hit of 1994, screamed out as I boarded a plane a few years ago. As usual, nobody was listening. Sheryl was just there to block out nerves-causing silence.

But then, on the other side of the cabin, I sensed someone else was also listening. She knew the chorus was coming: "All I wanna do is have some fun/I got a feeling I'm not the only one." Our eyes met; we smiled as guilty co-listeners. We didn't die in that take-off, but shortly afterwards the airline did.

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