wanting the unwanted

September 23, 2010

Sound As Touch by Wnyc, New York Public Radio  
Download now or listen on posterous

radiolab042106b.mp3 (10772 KB)

Noise is powerful, noise is revolting and noise is a form of political subversion–or at least it can be. In his new book, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, Garrett Keizer notes many examples of how noise has been used as an outcry against hegemony, order and oppression. Everyone from British peasants to hip-hop's greatest have picked up on this idea of creating unusual noises as a way to call attention to their embattered selves, but Keizer asserts that it is, at best, "sanctioned stochastic resonance." Songs full of sirens, household appliances and dissonant chords, to him, "quiets the waves of social discontent, but leaves a sea of injustice at full ebb." That is why Stravinsky's "Rites of Spring" caused riots at its initial performance, but a year later was met with a standing ovation as the pinnacle of modern music.

The cause of this might seem purely social–mob mentality, perhaps?–but a recent episode of Radiolab (start about 10 minutes in) found that there is a more neurological explaination for the human ear's adjustment to this audio tapestry. When dissonant sounds enter the ear and begin to rattle our unexpecting inner hairs, the brain gets excited and releases amounts of dopamine. But when this dissonance goes on for too long without rest–as it did with the initial performance of "Rites of Spring"–too much dopamine is released into the system and the result is what could feel like a mild form of schizophrenia (which makes sense as to why early be-bop had the same affect on me when I first heard it).


But the brain eventually adjusts to this dissonance and, "like a radio dial," tunes into the sound so that it can familiarize it and place it in the context of other sounds. In effect, the Radiolab host laments, "the human brain is the artist's worst enemy." Anytime someone comes up with something new and original sounding, the brain will quickly appropriate it and make it sound "normal." Such is the fate of be-bop, an experimental form of jazz born out of the WWII ban on vinyl pressings. They took their music underground and created sounds that no one had ever heard before. When musicians such as Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker emerged from Mintons at the end of the ban, their music was that of subversion–purposefully non-mainstream. However, as years went on, the music began to appeal to a wider audience and eventually, be-bop's dissonant chords and improvisational forms became in some way incorporated into mainstream jazz sounds.

So whose fault is it that the effect of rough noise doesn't make much of a sound these days? Is it the people creating these sounds that need to create something even more foreign or the brains of the listeners that need to stop trying to make sense of it all for a second and LISTEN?


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