Wednesday, 30 January 2013

White noise

About five years ago, I visited a prison just off the A1 Road in Rutland and spent a few hours talking to some of the inmates about their lives and music. One of the inmates was a saxophonist and had sheets and sheets of manuscript attached to the walls of his tiny cell, so that he could imagine playing, even when he wasn’t allowed to make any noise.  Many of the people I met were serving life sentences. We talked about freedom and I asked whether there was anything that frightened them about the big wide world. One of them said something very interesting; “I’ve heard that when you’re on a bus all you can hear these days is the sound of mobile phones ringing.” This man had gone to jail in the early 90s, long before mobile phones were widely used, and what he said struck a very distinct chord. We’ve all had time to very slowly get used to the change, but the sonic landscape these days is very different to how it was 20 years ago.

As I sat in the cafe today, I became aware of the weirdest assortment of noises coming from mobile devices. Someone had the sound of a woman screaming in pain every time she received a text. There were hooters, weird triangle clangs, duck quacks, warped beeps and farting noises. At one point I thought I must be listening to one of those dreadful comedy radio stations where there’s a crazy sound effect every five seconds to wake listeners up who've zoned out because someone's spoken on a single subject for more than a minute.

It suddenly struck me that the average 21st centuryer is forced to filter out so much unnecessary noise that it’s not surprising city dwellers try to zone out when they’re in public places. Pointless announcements about buffet services on trains, the titter-titter of iPod speakers, the silly four note melody you hear every time you switch a computer on, the “mind the gap”s, the “please remember to take your bags with you when you leave”s. Sometimes I long for simpler times so that I can compose again without all these constant interruptions!

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