Oh, the noise, noise, noise, noise, noise, noise, noise

In the tropics, the year is divided into the dry season and the rainy season. In my New York apartment, it’s divided into the quiet season and the noisy season.

We live on a major thoroughfare that is a) a truck route and b) downstream from a fire station. We’re on the first floor, on a corner a few yards away from a kosher supermarket and a really good Italian restaurant. The former gives us trucks idling while they unload; the latter, large parties of diners saying their goodbyes before heading home for the evening. With the windows closed, all of that becomes an easily ignorable susurration; when the weather is too warm to keep the windows closed but not hot enough for air conditioning, however, all of those noises are in the apartment with us. In the quiet season, my wife and I can carry on a conversation between rooms; in the noisy season, that’s often only possible if we shout. When an emergency vehicle goes by our building, sirens blaring, conversation literally has to cease until it’s a few blocks away.

The occasional sonically violent interruption (like sirens) interrupts composing or practicing, although mercifully not for long. More disruptive is the occasional ongoing noise: one of the stores across the street power-washed their awning for a couple of hours last week. A couple days later, our super did the same to the sidewalk outside our building. In each of those cases I simply had to stop what I was doing until the work outside was done; it was impossible to concentrate. Making recordings in the apartment is usually not a good idea, obviously. What’s more, listening to recorded classical music, with its wide dynamic range, is also not usually particularly satisfying, as the quiet moments are swallowed up by the background noise.

I’m not writing this just to complain (although it kinda feels good to get it off my chest), but to bring up the question of what impact noise has on us as musicians and composers. City dwellers, in particular, are surrounded by high levels of unwanted sound on a daily basis (I doubt that composer Alex Shapiro, who lives on an island off the West Coast, has these problems as regularly).

Even if your apartment is more fortunately situated than mine, you’re going to be assaulted the moment you step outside. There are only a few of the major streets that ban trucks. Take the subway? The sound of a train roaring into a station exceeds OSHA safety levels. Motorcycle engines are even louder in city canyons than on the open road, as the sound bounces between buildings and comes at you from all directions. And that’s not mentioning the bizarre sociopathy exhibited by those who install concert-caliber speaker systems in their cars and drive them around vibrating innocent peoples’ innards.

Many city dwellers seem to cope with this by surrounding themselves in a cocoon of their own music, with earbuds or headphones glued to their skulls. Of course, to be able to hear the music over the ambient noise, it has to be turned up to a volume that is certainly damaging their hearing—on many occasions I’ve heard music leaking from someone else’s headphones that was loud enough to listen to on its own.

You can treat all this as a particularly raucous extended performance of John Cage’s 4’33”, of course, and sometimes I do. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned here somewhere; distractions are rampant for those doing creative work, and this is just one more type. Keeping distractions from mushrooming into taking over our lives is the challenge of being creative in the real world.

Besides, noise is in the ear of the beholder. I leave you with this old, old joke: Two friends were sitting in the park. It was a lovely evening, and the lusty sounds of birdsong filled the air. One friend said to the other, “Aren’t the birds lovely?” The second replied, “I can’t hear you over all the damn birds!”