In Pursuit of Silence

In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik Read Free Book Online

Book: In Pursuit of Silence by George Prochnik Read Free Book Online
Authors: George Prochnik
and Afghanistan where they want to be able to monitor the history ofpatterned vibrations, like mine burying, before they drive through. “The army told me the sensors had to cost less than a dollar a piece!” McDaniel repeated more than once before giving his cliff-breaking laugh. “Now we’re starting to make them so you can put ’em in water to detect patterned vibrations there. Just like the eggs!” Vibration-monitoring devices based on frog embryos may soon be saving troops and ships around the world.
    Just as we’re instinctually predisposed to be disturbed by sounds that stick out from the ambient flow, when we hear lots of different sounds simultaneously, the result can be not just less jarring but actually more calming—closer kin to the family of silence—than even low-level sounds we hear separately. Hence the sleep-inducing patterns produced by white-noise machines that bring together all audible frequencies at once. Or the musical productions produced twenty-four hours a day by the infrastructure of our great cities.

    At a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1931, Dr. William Braid White, director of research and acoustics for the American Steel and Wire Company, created a nationwide stir when he proposed that the roar of cities actually had a musical undertone. Dr. White encouraged every member of his audience to go to the twentieth story of a New York skyscraper, open a window, and lean out. “Let him then listen carefully to the noises that float up to him from the street below,” Dr. White instructed. “After a while he will notice that the crashes, bangs, and clatters that, upon the street level, come as a succession of shattering blows upon his ears, now begin to blend into asingle continuous roar.” Having reached this point of higher acoustical consciousness, the fellow hanging out of the window was commanded to concentrate still further until he made out “a low bass hum below the main roar.” This, Dr. White argued, was the “ground tone” of New York, based on innumerable small elements, which, while individually disagreeable, together made for a genuinely musical tone. (New York’s, he said, was pitched between A and B flat in the low bass.)
    Every city in the world, Dr. White claimed, has its own special ground tone. Chicago, for example, though filled with people who are just as noisy as New Yorkers, seemed to Dr. White “more lighthearted.” Though the Loop was “crowded to suffocation,” the lake acted as a damper—all the more necessary because the streetcars were noisier and the sound of the elevated “far more pervasive.” All in all, Dr. White was inclined to place Chicago’s ground tone at E flat. London, on the other hand, had “a heavy hum” close to the lowest C, because it was a city of “low buildings, wood paving blocks, moist atmosphere”—and a “law-abiding population” not prone “to displays of excessive excitement.”
    Dr. White confessed that his discovery might not carry overwhelming scientific relevance, but he contended that if we listen for the particular character of music made by our respective blendered city noises, we might achieve insights into both the innate psychologies and environmental influences acting upon residents. There were also, he implied, benefits for the listener: all you need is a little distance in order to begin receiving something of the concertgoer’s pleasure from an experience of sound that might otherwise strike the ears simply as noxious clamor.

    I thought about frog eggs, snakes, Dr. White’s experiment, and about sound and offensive sound. When does a multiplicity of noises add up to a musical undertone as opposed to a galling cacophony? If a mall roof was stripped off, and Dr. White was elevated to a point high above it, how would he characterize the nature of the place from its sound?
    But the phenomenon in question goes far beyond the mall. The sound designer DMX lists

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