Recently I’ve had ample opportunity to put my most special Christmas present into action. I was given a pair of those Bose “Quiet Comfort” earphones, ads for which often feature in the Sunday glossy inserts, by my lovely wife. If you’ve read the spiel you’ll know that these earphones use noise-cancelling technology to cut out background noise. Ambient incoming sound is mirrored and a negative aural impression is electrically generated so as to cancel it out. They’re quite ingenious, and work pretty well. Not all sound is excluded, only what you might describe as “the body” of sound. Wearing them enables you to listen to delicate music in noisy surroundings. I’ve been listening to the super-quiet Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day on the underground on the way into work, and the effect is incredibly eerie. You don’t have to pump up the levels to be able to hear. Part of the misery of listening to music on earphones comes when you have to pitch the volume at ear-shatteringly high volumes to block out the background clatter. You end up with bleeding ears. It’s even worse in the car on the motorway, isn’t it?

The day before yesterday my iPod was buggered and I went to work with the earphones switched on and without any music. It was quite pleasant, actually. Mid-journey, I took them off when I realised to my embarrassment that the mini-jack was swinging around freely. (Quelle horreur!—all those commuters being confronted by this lunatic wandering around with earphones on and no attached Walkman!) As a result, I was struck by the full force of the sound of the Northern Line at 9.15 a.m. I wondered: Are my fellow commuters aware of this torrent of noise which surrounds them? Once one becomes immersed in noise one quickly becomes ignorant of it, tunes it out: the background roar of traffic, a processor cycling, the extractor fan, wind rustling in the trees, waves lapping at the shoreside.

Cicero’s “Scipio’s Dream” tells of how Scipio is briefed by one Africanus whilst they float together in space. Scipio asks:

“What is this sound so strong and sweet that fills my ears?”

to which Africanus replies:

“This is the melody which, at intervals unequal, yet differing in exact proportions, is made by the impulse and motion of the spheres themselves, which, softening shriller by deeper tones, produce a diversity of regular harmonies.”

From which declaration we might chart the concept of the Harmony of the Spheres. Africanus goes on:

“Skilled men, copying this harmony with strings and voice, have opened for themselves a way back to this place, as have others who with excelling genius have cultivated divine sciences in human life.”

It’s quite interesting to reflect that, in the history of music, great store has been placed upon the notional beatific and harmonious properties of the Cosmic Sound, but hark, as Africanus’s next comment contradicts this:

“As where the Nile at the Falls of Catadupa pours down from lofty mountains, the people who live hard lack the sense of hearing because of the cataract’s roar, so this harmony of the whole universe in its intensely rapid movement is so loud that men’s ears cannot take it in, even as you cannot look directly at the sun, your sense of sight being overwhelmed by its radiance.”

This “auralization” of the sound of the cosmos describes it as one of deafening volume, of incandescent white noise. Yet the stereotype of essentially cosmic music might be Bach or late Beethoven—even, as Harry Smith playfully suggests in The Anthology, a hoarse folky croak-but not plain old noise.

What I find most powerful about Africanus’s description is the idea of a universal sound which we cannot hear. Whilst it’s easy to imagine the universe generating a constant noise which is beneath and above the boundaries of our perception, a sound which exists along the lines of the sub-audible sonics heard issuing from the black hole in the Perseus galaxies, and recently picked up by the Chandra telescope to the tune of B-flat. It’s more difficult to conceive that we might be permanently engulfed in a raging sound we have come so accustomed to that we can’t hear. The father of this notion of an inaudible sound would have to be Rainer Rilke.

Rilke only wrote twice at any length on the subject of sound. His most famous concept, which crops up regularly in (yawn) cyber-discourse is that of the “Ur-Gerausch,” which translates as “Primal Sound.” Rilke was privy to some extremely early experiments—more like games, even—exploring the mechanism of analog reproduction. Fellow pupils and he spoke through a cone attached to a bristle of a clothes-brush onto a wax cyclinder, imprints of their voices becoming indelible upon it. Later, upon examining a skull, Rilke found grooves naturally etched in its surface:

“By candlelight, which is often so peculiarly alive and challenging, the coronal suture had become strikingly visible, and I knew at once what it reminded me of: one of those unforgotten grooves, which had been scratched in a little wax cylinder by the point of a bristle!”

...prompting him to imagine what sounds these marks would release when played by a gramophone needle. The underlying idea, of course, has these grooves themselves as being impressions of a sound played onto the surface of the skull. What sound was this?

To stretch the example into the realms of the (slightly) less prosaic, one might wonder whether it would be possible to extract ancient conversations from pots spun in Greece and Mesopotamia. Again I’ve been meditating on the noise which gradually builds up in the grooves of my records. Someone must have reflected before that beyond the more literal explanations of the degradation of recorded music (a faulty needle, blim burns from stray joints, a child’s vomit), there must be an element of surface noise which is in fact the noise of one’s own environment being recorded onto the disc as one plays it to listen to music. For, of course, the process of recording onto vinyl/shellac and hearing the impression left therein is the same. This posits analog recordings as always being somewhere on the incline between music-made-manifest and the repository of (inevitably encroaching) noise. Instead of treating noise on our records as a menace—as Friedrich Kittler, media professor at Humboldt, highlights—maybe we should be more forgiving to it:

“As we know, every record comes with interference. As connoisseurs we are not allowed to hear this interference; just as in a theatre we are obliged to ignore both the line that sets off the stage and the frame surrounding the scene.”

The whole subject of noise’s place in music is a well-worn history, and not one I want to explore in much detail here. Whilst nosing around for this piece, however, I came across some quite cute citations as to the origin of noise’s intrusion into music. Kittler is fond of describing Wagner’s Ring Cycle as the pointe zero:

“In Tristan, Brangaine was allowed to utter a scream whose notation cut straight through the score. Not to mention Parsifal’s Kundry, who suffered from a hysterical speech impairment such as those which were soon to occupy the psychoanalyst Freud: She ‘gives a loud wail of misery that sinks gradually into low accents of fear,’ ‘utters a dreadful cry,’ and is reduced to ‘hoarse and broken,’ though nonetheless fully composed, garbling.”

My own favorite example of the relationship between noise and music comes not courtesy of Jimi Hendrix but via Lee Perry’s late Black Ark recordings. Much is ascribed to Perry, yet it never fails to grate on my nerves how his genius is so frequently misunderstood. By endlessly overdubbing his own recordings and methodically re-feeding them back into the reel-to-reel, Perry practised “bad” recording-studio techniques and encouraged the build-up of tape hiss. The usual logic dictates that you clean up sounds, not subsume them in static, and yet that’s just what those pulsing phased sounds are on Black Ark records, sculpted shit. This isn’t as facile as the whole “bug-in-the-bassbin,” “abuse-the-glitches-in-the-software” approach, because the material Perry is manipulating is organic and totally without his control; it’s a considerably grander and weirder modus operandi than bottling and re-marketing Cubase errors. Added to which, the noises he’s sculpting are analogue-generated, thus the sounds of the universe; the sound of earth and air and water, not the spasms of electrical circuits.

Friedrich Kittler remarks:

“Because their data travel along physical channels, technological media operate against a background of noise that determines the signal/noise ratio, as does blurring in the case of film or the sound of the needle in the case of the gramophone. That is [according to Arnheim] the price they pay for delivering reproductions which are at the same time effects of the reproduced. Noise is emitted by the channels media have to cross.”

Kittler, who I was hipped to by Tom McCarthy of the International Necronautical Society, is very into radio as a medium. He’s re-tooled Rilke’s notion of “the static of angels” to explain the interference which affects radio signals. To Kittler, the noises which impinge into radio transmissions are manifestations of Rilke’s “Ur-Gerausch.” While some avant-garde music has paid lip-service to this kind of idea—for example, Robin Rimbaud’s Scanner project, which filters voices from the ether (and tarts them up rather gimmickily with ambient drones)—it’s more fruitful to find examples of the intrusion of noise into music anywhere on your FM dial. Failing that, DJ Wrongspeed’s recent (and excellent) collage of the detritus of FM London is an entertaining stop-over.

Poor radio signals are the stuff of pirate radio. Not only do they serve to disguise music in tantalising veils of static; they’re also signposts to a whole other dimension. The superb clarity of the kind of dub-plate-to-CD masters that I compile for my own pleasure are often too dessicated to enjoy. It’s the leaks and buzzes, crackles and noise which rightfully form half of the pirate radio experience at its most enervating. It’s conceivable that the reason pirate radio is exciting is (beyond these superficial sonic additions) that through its faulty transmission it has plugged into the raging heart of the cosmos.

I’ve had the good luck recently to be able to put together two excellent quotes that perfectly illustrate the “cosmic” dimension of radio interference. The first came courtesy of my good friend Jon Dale. It’s a snippet from a wholly engrossing interview with one Don Bolles, former drummer with LA’s legendary Germs, and owner of the most extraordinary collection of avant-garde records I’ve ever come across. Here is Bolles on shortwave radio:

“â¦around ’67, I started liking the shortwave stuff I was getting because it was just insane, amazing music—it sounded better than any music I heard anywhere. It had reverb all over it from bouncing around the ionosphere, and it would echo and do all this amazing stuff, and you knew there was something going on there that wasn’t part of some kind of hideous marketing agenda.”

Which makes the perfect twin with this comment from Jah Wobble:

“When I was a teenager I was drawn to listening to shortwave radio oscillations, primarily as a means of helping me sleep. I liked the very deep, naturally phased oscillations. Thanks to subharmonics, these oscillations are inherently musical. As the frequencies drifted, ghostlike voices would appear, making a collage—sometimes Voice of America, baseball results, etc., or perhaps a Radio Moscow English-language broadcast, boasting about the forthcoming grain harvests. However, on one memorable occasion it wasn’t Cold War ideology I picked up; it was the voice of heaven: Oum Kalsoum. I had inadvertantly tuned in to Radio Cairo and Radio Tehran. I still think that all music sounds better imbued with shortwave radio phasing. I remember 1979 being a great year for shortwave radio oscillations. This is due to their link with sunspot activity, which peaks and declines every eleven years or so.”

Amazing stuff, innit! There’s a third element to this, which is Robert Wyatt’s relationship with shortwave radio. Before the days of easily attainable World Music, heads like Wyatt would tune into the radio stations of the Middle East and North Africa with their crystal sets.

I once met Jah Wobble in my local swimming-pool. (He swims an excellent, very powerful breast stroke.) When he was languishing in the shallow end I greeted him and admitted to being a fan of his music. He seemed unfazed, was cheery, took the compliment well. A few weeks later I greeted him in the baths again, slightly paranoid that he might think I was trying to pick him up, and he ignored me, even when I spoke quite loudly. It occurred to me that it was possible that he might be a bit deaf. Here’s Wobble again on his ill-spent youth:

“Most of all, I was fascinated by the bass lines. I stood as near as I could to the bass bins (as I still do), and was overjoyed to see the bottoms of my trousers flapping.”

Which brings me to my final point. In the late 1940’s John Cage spent time in the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling, and floor will absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than bouncing them back as echoes. They are also generally soundproofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but as he wrote later, he:

“...heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.”

Would we expect to hear our inaudible sound of the universe in an anechoic chamber? Well, of course we wouldn’t, would we?

Strange to report, however, that one in five people, (cough) myself included, might in such an environment also hear a high-pitched tone. Somewhat amusingly, you the reader might have a greater probability of having tinnitus:

“In a database of 1687 tinnitus patients, no known cause was identified for 43% of the cases, and noise exposure was the cause for 24% of the cases.”

Tut tut! All those raves! All that leaning against the bass bin! That recalcitrant adolescence spent squeezing even greater volumes out of brick-like Walkmen! (Bad news: Marijuana use greatly amplifies the symptoms.) The most common form of tinnitus is termed “subjective tinnitus”:

“This form of tinnitus may occur anywhere in the auditory system and is much less understood, with the causes being many and open to debate. Anything from the ear canal to the brain may be involved. The sounds can range from a metallic ringing, buzzing, blowing, roaring, or sometimes similar to a clanging, popping, or nonrhythmic beating. It can be accompanied by audiometric evidence of deafness, which occurs in association with both conductive and sensorineural hearing loss. Other conditions and syndromes which may have tinnitus in conjunction with the condition or syndrome are otosclerosis, Menier’s syndrome, and cochlear or auditory nerve lesions.”

I’ve had mild tinnitus since 1992. It emerged quite drastically, in fact, and at much greater volumes than it has settled at today. It would occasionally wake me at night! I even wrote a film about it once, a three-screen extravanganza. The key to living with tinnitus is to learn the art of tuning it out. Tune it out of your conciousness. Don’t worry about it. You can’t go through life without a few bumps and grazes! It has begun to strike me recently as quite a “cosmic” condition. The sound you’re hearing isn’t there, it’s a major malfunction of perception in some senses, a hallucination. But maybe, just maybe, it’s the sound of the universe itself which undamaged ears have learnt to not hear.


Matthew Ingram

Matthew Ingram runs the weblog WOEBOT (www.woebot.com) and the internet forum Dissensus. He lives in London with his wife and two children and is an animator by trade. This article originally appeared on WOEBOT.