Originally this piece was a message posted on the quiet list <quiet-list@igc.org>, a forum for people concerned with the rising tide of noise pollution in the late 20th century. Anyone fundamentally interested in sound, silence, and noise in society would find this list's postings fascinating. As a composer I have a special interest in the context and meaning of sound and silence. To me, noise is simply sound I don't want to hear at the moment; that can range from sound most folks would consider wonderful music to the usual clutter of the industrial age. If I adjust my attitude and listen to any sound in a musical way, it will not affect me as noise any longer. To me, as long as the sound doesn't threaten to destroy hearing, the noise issue boils down to psycho-physical limits, attitude, timing, context, and personal preferences.

Many members of the quiet list are truly angry at the noise sources for negatively affecting their health and wellbeing. They're pushing for political and legislative solutions as well as just venting their frustrations at the way the world's sound is busting the level meters and destroying their peace of mind.

Writing the following message helped to collect my thoughts of my search for a balance of sound and silence:


Searching for a Balance of Sound and Silence

Ron Pellegrino, 2/26/98

With great interest and gratitude for the thought food, I´ve been reading the postings on this list <quiet-list@igc.org> for the past few months. I'm a composer who's been active in music for 49 years and in music in multimedia for 30 years. So sound framed by silence and articulated by silence is my reason for being.

I don´t relish but I readily assume the role of trouble maker when I'm in the company of undesirable sound. If the music in a cafe or restaurant is too loud, thumpy, grating, etc., I´ll talk to the manager about it and if it´s not corrected I´ll simply walk out after having planted an appropriate sound seed. When a neighbor decided to start a firewood business from his home that included daily log-splitter and chain saw noise, I contacted city hall about our neighborhood zoning and informed the neighbor that he was out of bounds; immediately the noise and firewood business came to a halt. When developers began to work on the hill across the street, dirt-bikers were attracted to the hill like flies to dung. I was the only person in the neighborhood to go through the process of contacting city hall and the police to put a stop to the din; even then I would occasionally have to walk up the hill to remind the dirt-bikers that they were outside the law. There have been times when I´ve directly confronted audio engineers at concerts when their deaf (not deft) handling of the mixing board was threatening my health. One part of my web site is devoted to a Quest for Audio Excellence in an effort to raise the consciousness level of audio engineers. And so on and so on for most of my life. The point is that when it comes to sound and silence, I champion what I´d call a common sense balanced approach - the right sounds in the right places at the right times for the right reasons; you could think of it as one dimension of a generic compositional approach to sound and silence.

Maintaining that common sense balanced approach is no mean feat. It's another form of musical tuning; as such, it requires nonstop effort and a willingness to make adjustments on the fly often in the face of incredulous people playing their roles of petty bureaucrats. It's also just another name for the work of trying to understand the cultural meanings of sound, silence, and noise.

I understand and accept noise as a measure of just how inefficient and wasteful our industrial and technological culture is at the moment. In the current cycle of cultural unraveling some subcultures seem to hunger for and wallow in waste and inefficiency as if they're floating in a cloud of ecstasy. Sometimes I´ll visit electronic game rooms filled with the noise of young folks playing game machines. Despite the unforgiving racket, the individuals seem totally focused on the business at hand - their own game machine and the sound feedback it's giving them on their play. As I walk from player/machine to player/machine I notice that my listening attention changes in ways that are probably similar to the player's attention. There is a method to this madness. These young folks are being prepared for and are practicing for the battlefield. They may never be on a battlefield but they're developing attention skills that will come in handy on a battlefield.

The tendency today is to unbalance concert environments in favor of quiet over the requirement for breathable air. When I started in the performance-multimedia business three decades ago, I´d walk into a space with a noisy ventilation system, turn it off, and open the windows a bit to provide cross ventilation and fresh air. Maybe during the concert there would be some sound spill into the space such as a human voice, a car, a train, a bird, a siren, or the like; I preferred those sounds to the drone of a ventilation system. But I was in the minority in those days; most performers preferred absolute silence to surround their music making. They got their wish; today all the new performance spaces are caves, virtually quiet internal rooms with no windows and "air" provided by ducts in the ceiling. My respiratory system is still recovering from an engagement several weeks ago when I spent four thirteen-hour days in such an "ideally quiet" cave. Ducts in the ceiling provided the "fresh air" (undoubtedly mostly recycled air) and the cold air return vents were located just below the ceiling. Given that the ceiling was about 30 feet above the floor, that dubiously fresh air was circulating 20 to 30 feet above the heads of the audience (institutional architects seem not to take fundamental human needs into consideration). It´s what folks call a "stuffy"space; it was stuffed with dead air - very little oxygen and plenty of airborne pollutants for cells to struggle with in their attempts to function normally. But the space was quiet. That space was a perfect argument for applying the principle of balance to sound, silence, comfort, and overall healthful functioning.

Ron Pellegrino


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