[undefined rumble; soft, pulsing synthesizer-based music]
I would like to start this chapter with some listening. If you have headphones, I would encourage you to wear them. And if you are able and comfortable, I would also encourage you to close your eyes for just a few minutes.
[electric wave begins with varying intensity]
You are hearing a composition titled "Rectum" by Thomas Bangalter (2002) for the Gaspar Noé (2002) film Irréversible. The film contains scenes of terrible violence and sexual assault, but I will only feature sounds of the film in this chapter.
[wave sound moves from stereo left to right and back again; synthesizer swelling in pitch and volume]
Bangalter is doing a couple of things in this piece. First, if you are using headphones or stereo speakers, you should hear some movement of sound from side to side. It usually feels a little dizzying and disorienting to me. The camerawork echoes some of this movement, and makes liberal use of canted shots both in this scene and throughout the film. We know that canted, or tilted, shots, especially when combined with movement, create a sense of instability, chaos, and disorientation. Bangalter is not only varying the position of the sound, though. He is also varying the frequency, or pitch, to match the spatial pattern. You'll also notice that the amplitude, or volume, changes. [electric wave quietens] A percussive sound enters [percussive, pitchless rattling begins], though it is not in sync with the swelling movements. Here we have arhythmic sounds in relation to one another that create a sense of irregularity, of motion and change that aren't easily anticipated like they are in pop music. Finally, Bangalter uses a very low frequency sound known as infrasound. Infrasound is any sound that is around or below 20 Hz, a frequency that is typically imperceptible to humans' conscious hearing. And while research varies in its analysis of just how infrasound affects humans, some researchers claim that it can cause unease, nausea, anxiety, and paranoia (Bolin, Bluhm, Eriksson, & Nilsson, 2011; Broner, 1978; Landström, 1987; Qibai & Shi, 2005). Bangalter used a 27 Hz signal in this track, which the director, Noé, describes as an attempt to elicit a physical reaction from audiences that might be more challenging than the images portrayed on screen (Tang, 2003).
And in this film, again, a film that depicts terrible violence, the sound design does not ease the blow. The sound design makes us feel strange and uneasy and out of control. [pitchless rattling pauses, then rattles quickly, unpredictably] The sound design aims to make us physically ill when we experience violence instead of sound that might simply communicate sadness or anger or aggression, or simply distract us. We can argue that this sound design is the most responsible and ethical way of portraying this violence: by disturbing us physically. It makes the film difficult to experience, but perhaps violence should be difficult to experience.
[music ends; white noise begins]
This is—at least approximately—pure white noise. As you know or suspect, this noise typically has a much different effect on listeners than the barrage of techniques I just described in the Bangalter piece. Many people use white noise generators to aid in relaxation and sleep. What is white noise? White noise maintains a constant power, but is comprised of random frequencies (or pitches) and random movements between those frequencies. In other words, noise contains all frequencies and all patterns simultaneously and randomly. It is pure chaos. But it is calming. If it's not, try pink noise [static sounds changes to lower pitch], in which lower frequencies are more apparent to human hearing.
And red, or Brownian Noise. [static sound deepens again in pitch, now also quieter]
These sounds help some people sleep because they tend to mask other, more sudden sounds that might emerge. Typically, when we are awakened by sounds, it's not the nature of the sound itself that wakes us. It's that sound's sudden existence or emergence into the soundscape. White, pink, Brownian, and other noises do a pretty good job of masking the soundscape. And because they contain all possible frequencies, any additional sonic stimuli added to the mix therefore tends to be less jarring because it already exists in our field of hearing. Additionally, even when we are asleep, our brains desire stimuli, and for some, giving it a constant stimulus in the form of noise can fulfill that need that might otherwise be accomplished too suddenly, resulting in lost rest.
If your eyes are still closed, I'm really impressed. And you can open up now.
[static is replaced by the electronic music played at the beginning of this chapter]
The sounds that I have just played typically have very different effects on listeners. And while—as in all modes of writing—there is no way to generalize the effects of a given communication strategy across all listeners, we might begin moving toward approaches to soundwriting that center on noise. That is what this chapter attempts to explore. I am asking, and attempting to answer, a few questions: What happens if we take noise seriously as a powerful composition tool, as a revealing and essential part of communication systems? What kinds of noise-based language and rhetorical techniques might we develop and practice? And finally, what might a noise-based pedagogy begin to look like?
[electronic music fades away; diffuse percussion fades in, slushy and rustling, music again crescendos]
I will first give a brief overview of noise and a couple of its traditional definitions across disciplines and offer my own definition that centers around two major concepts: work and dirt. Next, I will move from theory to pedagogy and practices. I will share with you a taxonomy of noise techniques that I share with my students and then outline some practices that can help us teach noise composition as personal, media- or technology-focused, and tactical.