Thursday 21 May 2009

Feel The Noize

Fortunately, in my misspent youth, I didn't go to many rock concerts, inertia's grip usually proving too strong. I say fortunately because my idea of pole position at such events was as close to the speakers as humanly possible. Incredible though it seems to me now, I actually enjoyed the juddering, stunning sensation of being physically assaulted by sound, and even savoured the aftermath of 24 hours of buzzing, ringing ears and partial deafness. If I'd subjected myself to more of these sonic onslaughts than I did, I'm sure I'd be significantly deafer. As it is, my deafness is of that frustrating kind where background hubbub makes conversation (especially in the higher registers) often impossible to follow. For this reason, I avoid noisy venues as much as I can - and for this reason I fled one such only the other night.
The occasion was a quiz night of sorts, the venue a West End bar/club with decor so vile it was like a physical assault in itself, and an acoustic calculated to create a storm of noise from even a fairly modest input of sound. Needless to say, the pre-quiz drinks-and-chat bit was accompanied by bursts of thumping music, as if the voices bouncing off every surface weren't creating enough of a din. I endured this phase manfully, with the help of faithful friend alcohol, but when the quiz finally got under way, the 'celebrity' quizmistress held the microphone close to her face and bellowed into it, like a superstitious peasant with her first telephone, rendering the questions often unintelligible. The background hubbub too seldom subsided, and the result of all this aural bombardment was that I was soon in a state of increasingly acute mental and physical discomfort, bordering on distress. I made my excuses and escaped into the cool, calm night air, and strolled away down Pall Mall, clearing my buzzing head.
Why is it, I wonder, that mere sound can become so unbearable? It certainly seems to get more so as one gets older - as witness my own progress from speaker-hugger to walker-out - but I know people much younger (especially, I find, women) who are also pained by the levels of noise that are now commonplace. To me it now feels as if I am suffering genuine physical and psychic damage when I'm subjected to too much noise for too long - which of course leads me to the opinion that the noise levels we now live with are indeed damaging us in some profound way, and might be related to the general coarsening of character and affect that seems to be characteristic of our time. I don't know if this is the case, but I certainly find it mystifying that so many people seem to relish maximal sonic bombardment, wherever they are and whatever they're doing (e.g. God help us, driving in an open-top car). Perhaps the greater mystery, though, is that many of us go through a phase in life when we positively enjoy what later is a torment and a tribulation to us.


  1. Reassured to hear it's not just me. My hearing is okay but i can't stand the constant background noise of heavy traffic or the music bars/cafes feel obliged to play just loud enough to make conversation difficult. i often feel the discomfort you write of, bordering on pain. It's one reason i love Venice so much - no cars.

  2. I paid my way through university by working in a holiday park amusement arcade. There I learnt that each machine must make enough noise to attract customers, siren-like. Competition between machines means that everything gets louder than everything else (pubs and clubs on the strip act on the same principle).

    I also learnt about silence. I'd never appreciated it before but when I flicked that big power switch at midnight and everything went ...OFF. Oh my, it was sweet.

    (some of those machines still sing in my head. The was one in particular, a car racing game.. Daytonaaaaaaa... I doubt I'll ever shake it off)

  3. That'll teach you to go to quiz night at the Athenaeum. I've heard it's rowdy.

  4. It's certainly not what it was, Gaw!

  5. Ha, same story here with regard to noise. It ties in with that news item a couple of days ago about people who are tormented by rumbling background sound all the time. The suggestion is that it's caused by the body reacting to stress by turning up our aural sensitivity - a classic response to danger - except that the stress has become so pervasive that the body never turns things back down again.

    So I'm sure you are right about noise and modern living. Traffic noise - including planes - really gets my goat. All the natural sound is drowned out, the world we have evolved to hear.

    As for music, lots of folks say that electrostatic hifi speakers are more natural and kinder on the ears than traditional box speakers which punch out the sound. One small problemo, alas: they are very expensive.

    It's nice to have that freedom, isn't it: too much stress in a fuggy, noisy club - fine, just leave. Simple.

  6. "the 'celebrity' quizmistress held the microphone close to her face and bellowed into it, like a superstitious peasant with her first telephone"

    haha that is an absolute classic!!!

    and of course I agree with you about the noise, (especially as I spent the last 10 years working in nightclubs, some of that time as a dj, producing the very din we are denigrating here!)

    my noise nemesis is the sound of light aeroplanes flying over my garden at weekends. They drive me absolutely potty - through a combination of their horrible bluebottle whine and the knowledge that that plane contains one spotty herbert - yet literally thousands of people on the ground have to put up with his noise. It always stikes me as the very pinnacle of selfishness.

    I've been lobbying parliament to legalize surface to air 'stinger' missiles for a while now, but they still havn't replied

  7. Typical! They should leglise bazookas too, for taking out those dorks in open-top cars inflicting their taste in 'music' on an entire neighbourhood.

  8. A not to be missed aural treat for all of you within the M25ers, at a Notting Hill cinema tonight, Psyco with a live orchestra, sounds good to me.
    Eeee..Eeee..Eeee..Eeee, sounds of stabbing off camera. Cut to Norm, dressed in mums old frock.

  9. I had thought of carrying one of those wonderful pump-action water pistols on my bike: loud convertibles for the irrigation of.

    Then I realised that our police are so incompetent that they'd probably shoot me for being armed.

  10. Wow -- I so agree about noise. There are two restaurants with excellent food in this city that I shun because they are SO noisy. If I can't have a good conversation with the person I'm dining with, I can't enjoy the meal. I wonder sometimes if these super loud places are meant for people who can't make conversation. The noise obviates the possibility, so they don't seem like dorks for not trying.

  11. Therein lies a conundrum, Susan. Aren't they mostly super-loud because too many people are trying to have a conversation at the same time?

    Bit like the old "Nobody goes there any more, it's too crowded" joke.