The Music Of The City

I love silence. Both the absolute silence of deep cold, and what is often called silence but is more correctly the sound of natural processes like the wind in the treetops and grasses. On a mountain I can lie down and listen intently to whatever sounds are given me, such as the chuckle of a distant stream. I am not sure why we are programmed to appreciate birdsong, but plainly we are. Perhaps it was because it is a signal of summer; in our evolutionary past, wherever birds were singing there might be something for us to eat as well.

But I say “we” too inclusively, for it is empirically certain that a large proportion of the population dislikes all organic sound, in evidence whereof their assiduity in shutting it out. In my city a burst of birdsong marks the first day of spring, but by no means the second; for on the second day of spring everyone opens their windows and blasts the street with [insert name of genre here]. As I observed above, it seems to be an integral part of the behaviour of liking dunk-dunk-dunk to deny anyone within 500 metres the option of not listening to it. Where I live, the explicit social consensus is that it is a human right to hold one extreme party a year, the kind that keeps the neighbours awake until dawn. That means that if you have 52 neighbours, as I do, you potentially face once a week. No one will then have any sympathy, because everyone – including such individuals as supposedly represent the authorities – are intent on safeguarding their own “right” to let their hair down. The mayor and the chief of police probably keep their neighbours awake too, at least once a year.

Also in my city, it is no longer enough for all clothing shops to play extremely loud [insert name here] music inside the shop; they are increasingly mounting the speakers so as to fill the entire street with it as well. I do not think it is to advertise the outlet as such, as when more than one shop is doing it at the same time, it is hard to tell which sound is coming from where or what is being played. I am more of the opinion that it is a sort of generic mating call to all haters of silence, who are known to be in the market for certain kinds of fashion: “Over here! Wall-to-wall [insert name here] noise! This is the street for you to shop in.” And if I am right in my notion that loud dunk-dunk-dunk actually depresses cerebral function, then the payoff is obvious – it is easier to sell stuff to people whose critical faculties are being drastically impaired. It is more legal than getting customers drunk, and a whole lot cheaper.

I am already in the condition of being unable to enter many shops, malls and even whole streets, and it just keeps getting worse. In the summer the entire city centre is a no-go area without earplugs, because of the aforesaid war on quiet and birdsong that is triggered by nice sunny days. Now, in comparison Plaza Mayor in Madrid generally hosts at least one extremely good classical guitarist (being big enough for several). It is the same story in most great European cities. In the summertime, my own city’s main square is full of Ecuadorians and Ukrainians doing their folksy things, which can also be quite nice, albeit highly repetitive for people working in the surrounding shops.

Unfortunately, however, the city has a summer “cultural” programme; and “culture” in this country means practically anything, for example our stint as European City of Culture seemed to feature nothing more imaginative than an unusually large number of children’s face-painting classes. The “cultural” summer therefore means the erection of a stage in the main square, a square that is quite small and tightly enclosed by buildings; it nevertheless hosts two or three or four afternoon gigs per week. As I said above, I don’t know from [insert name here], it’s all just noise to me; but a visiting American friend opined that it was of exceedingly inferior quality. However, Norwegians don’t seem to care whether their [insert name here] music is good or bad as long as it is very, very loud.

Accordingly, such gigs are loud enough to be seriously annoying even on the mountains above the city. The sound level inflicted upon employees in the shops and offices is simply appalling, and would be immediately illegal if produced by manufacturing machinery.

There is another square that is open against a lake, is not enclosed by workplaces, and was indeed laid out with concerts in mind. But gig organisers won’t use it if they can set up in the narrow one instead, either because here they can catch people going from one shop to another, or else because the people are too lazy to walk the two hundred metres to the other square to see what it is they can already hear.

Once upon a time loud noise was inflicted upon unwilling residents, workers and passers-by by young people, and suppressed and punished by older people who liked peace and quiet. I have, alas, lived to see the result of the natural aging of the rock generation into positions of power. This means that there is no interest whatsoever in enforcing by-laws or licensing conditions against the organisers who arrange twice as many weekly concerts as they have permission for, and who test their sound systems during the business hours of the offices around the square. City fathers and police alike regard the din with avuncular approval. Conclusion: I have lived too long.

Posted on December 27, 2011 at 10:31 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Cause and Effect Of Brain Damage

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  1. Written by urban
    on December 27, 2011 at 16:21


    Part of the problem is that everybody is so deaf, and there is so much sonic clutter, that anything that intends to be heard MUST be very loud. Ambulance, fire and police sirens are so much louder than they used to be that I must cover my ears half a block away. Up closer they are like a sonic icepick in the forehead, well over my pain threshold. Most people don’t notice how loud it is because most people are seriously hearing impaired.

    Unfortunately all the other things that intend to be heard (and what loud, shrieking, grating, noise doesn’t?) ratchet up their volume to match the sirens, and on and on in a never ending spiral of louder and louder cacophony.

    As a musician I find this so deeply tragic. Music requires silence to mean anything at all. By turning music into wallpaper, by making music ubiquitous, we have devalued everything I treasure asymptotically close to zero. And destroyed the organs that make music even possible in the process. As Nietzsche famously noted, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”

    We have all lived too long.

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