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Noise, Nonsense, and the New Media Soundscape


Noise, by some definition, can be found in all forms of communication, artistic practices, biological systems, and environments. The word “noise” has several colloquial definitions as well as formal definitions in fields such as communications theory and acoustic engineering. These definitions have found their way into the study and practice of electroacoustic music, particularly in soundscape representation. “Nonsense” is also a term that has definitions in common usage and scholarly fields, particularly literature. However, the concept of nonsense has not been transferred widely into electroacoustic musical study or practice.

This paper describes various definitions of noise and nonsense, outlining their applications in soundscape representation, soundscape composition and sound installation art. Additionally, the category of “new media soundscapes” is introduced. In contrast with soundscapes that exist in physical space, “new media soundscapes” are soundscapes that exist within the communication channels of different media types such as radio, the personal audio player, and the internet. Finally, this paper relates the concepts of noise and nonsense and proposes that a model combining the two concepts may be effective in representing media types and sound environments in electroacoustic composition.

The definitions of noise and nonsense described in this paper contradict each other. Likewise, some of these definitions are subjective, dependent on the perception of society or the individual. Finally, this paper does not include a comprehensive list of definitions. Rather, a small set of definitions and their relationships to each other and various fields of knowledge are explored. In listing various definitions of noise and nonsense, I do not aim to create a single ultimate definition for each term nor am I claiming that the definitions listed are the best ones for electroacoustic art. These definitions are valuable because their usage reveals aspects of the relationships between individuals or communities and environmental sounds.

Forms of Environmental Sound Art

This paper is primarily concerned with environmental sound art, sound-based art that investigates and represents sonic landscapes. Soundscape composition and sound installation are two major forms of environmental sound art. Barry Truax defines soundscape composition as “a form of electroacoustic music … characterized by the presence of recognizable environmental sounds and contexts, the purpose being to invoke the listener’s associations, memories, and imagination related to the soundscape” (“Soundscape Composition”). Robin Minard defines sound installation art as a form where the works consider the “relationships … expressed between the audio, visual and/or architectural elements of the work and secondly between the sound and the space for which the work is conceived as well as between the sound, the space and the observer” (1996, 9). Although they do not necessarily represent natural environments through electroacoustic projection, sound installations involve the fabrication of soundscapes and relate to the environmental context within which the work is placed. Sound installation art therefore shares much with soundscape composition in terms of technique and intention.

The relationship between humans and the physical sound environment is often considered a communication system. Humans transmit messages through space using speech or other bodily sounds and similarly interpret sound in the environment to derive meaning. The concept of new media soundscapes makes use of this analogy in reverse, regarding each communication medium as an environment that humans inhabit. Further, electroacoustic communication media ultimately interface with the physical environment, contributing to the physical soundscape of the receiver. As a result, established techniques of soundscape composition and sound installation may be used in representing new media soundscapes, and vice versa.

The inspiration for the exploration of new media soundscape art is drawn from both the electroacoustic music tradition and media theory. Musically, this artistic genre follows Trevor Wishart’s suggestion in On Sonic Art that “the conventions or idiosyncrasies of media landscapes may become the basis of compositional structures” (1996, 160). Works of new media soundscape art can also be considered as a sonic version of what media theorist Katherine Hayles calls technotexts: “Literary works that strengthen, foreground, and thematize the connections between themselves as material artifacts and the imaginative realm of verbal/semiotic signifiers they instantiate” (2002, 25). Finally, the roots in media theory can be further traced back to Marshall McLuhan’s assertion in Understanding Media that art, in revealing the nature of new media types, is able to provide immunity from the numbing of human senses by technology (1964, 95).

Noise, Definition 1: Unwanted Sound

The first definition of noise in the Handbook for Acoustic Ecology, an interdisciplinary encyclopedic dictionary, is “unwanted sound” (Truax 1999, “Noise”). While the terms “wanted” and “unwanted” may be interpreted as “like” and “dislike,” suggesting emotional subjectivity, they may also suggest the perceptual property of attention level. A wanted sound is one the listener wants to draw meaning from and thus gives it a high level of attention, while the unwanted noise is the collection of sounds that are given a low level of attention. In engineering fields, the “wanted” is called the “signal” while that which is not signal is called simply “noise.” The Handbook calls the background sound of an environment “ambience” or “ambient noise” in contrast with the foreground sound or “sound signal” (ibid., “Ambience”).

This dichotomy of low attention level and high attention level sounds can be found in both soundscape composition and sound installation art. In soundscape composition, samples of the ambience of a sound environment are often played constantly, while a sound signal, dynamic and sometimes narrative, is layered on top of this. In addition to providing the context of the sound environment, the ambient noise masks imperfections in the recording and mixing process. This technique is used in the first movement of my piece Santa Barbara Soundscape, where recorded wind, ocean waves and traffic provide a background for sound samples of speech and birdsong, as can be heard in Audio Example 1.

Audio Example 1. Santa Barbara Soundscape, Santa Barbara Etude.

A special category of ambient sound found in physical sound environments, and often emphasized in soundscape composition, is the keynote sound. The Handbook for Acoustic Ecology defines keynote sounds as “those which are heard by a particular society continuously or frequently enough to form a background against which other sounds are perceived . . . Often keynote sounds are not consciously perceived, but they act as conditioning agents in the perception of other sound signals” (ibid., “Keynote”).

Robin Minard likewise describes his process of constructing sound installations in two parts: “conditioning of space” and “articulation of space.” The “conditioning of space” acts as an ambience for the fabricated sound environment. In his book Sound Environments, Minard states, “‘conditioning of space’ implies the creation of a static or uniform spatial state, that is to say the ‘colouring’ of space or the utilisation of sound ‘masking’” (1993, 36). He goes on to describe how “quasi-static sound textures,” which are “composed of precise frequencies or frequency bands” may be used in conditioning of space (ibid., 42).

Noise, Definition 2: Low Information Sound

Both the keynote sounds of soundscape ecology and Minard’s “quasi-static sound textures” have the property of being predictable. In other words, one who is familiar with a soundscape or one who has spent a short time in a sound installation is not surprised at the properties of these background sounds as they continue. In the terminology of information theory, these sounds, or more precisely what the listener perceives within these sounds, would be described as having low information content. This leads to a second definition of noise: sound containing little information. The difference between low attention level and low information content may seem to be simply a change in point of reference. Intuitively, it seems that a low information sound would demand little attention. However, these properties are not equivalent as can be seen by describing some common listening practices.

Listening Practices

Barry Truax’s book Acoustic Communication defines the term “background listening” as a listening practice where “the sound usually remains in the background of our attention. It occurs when we are not listening to a particular sound, and when its occurrence has no special or immediate significance to us,” associating this practice with low-information keynote sounds (2001, 24). This listening practice is the opposite of foreground listening, which involves a high level of attention given to an information rich foreground sound such as speech or music.

However, Acoustic Communication describes another listening practice called “distracted listening.” One engages (or disengages) in distracted listening when they turn on the TV or personal audio player to provide sonic accompaniment to another activity to which they devote their attention. A distracted listener deliberately uses a high information content sound in the role of low attention level sound. Considering attention level and information content as two distinct properties, these three listening practices can be arranged as shown in Table 1.

  information content: high information content: low
attention level: high foreground listening ?
attention level: low distracted listening background listening

Table 1: Listening Practices

Notice the table lacks a listening practice associated with high attention level and low information content. This category is described shortly.

Noise, Definition 3: A Property of Every Communication System

The Handbook for Acoustic Ecology provides another definition of noise: “disturbance in any communication system” (1999, “Noise”). This definition differs from the others described herein as it does not describe noise as a sound. Rather, it is a property of any and every communication system. This is the definition of noise used in information theory when using the term “noisy channel.” But while this channel noise is an undesirable limitation of physical existence, an understanding of these disturbances provides knowledge of the nature of the environment we inhabit.

A work of art that aims to represent a physical space or any other communication medium must therefore represent these disturbances. However, many of these disturbances can only be perceived when a signal is introduced into the channel. Further the perceptual result of a disturbance on a signal is dependent on the nature of the signal. Therefore, in order to understand our relationship to a medium, the signal that excites the communication channel must resemble the type of signal commonly used. To fully appreciate the qualities of a concert hall, one must listen to a musical performance, and one of the appropriate genre, within it. But by creating a work of art in this manner, presenting a realistic signal within the medium to be observed, the artist risks drawing attention to content rather than the medium. This is where nonsense can be of use.

Defining Nonsense

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary defines nonsense as “words or language having no meaning or conveying no intelligible ideas” (“nonsense”). Nonsense can also be used as an adjective that means “consisting of an arbitrary grouping of speech sounds or symbols” (“nonsense”). Expanding these definitions to any communication medium, nonsense could be defined as “a signal having no meaning” or “consisting of an arbitrary grouping of symbols or elements.”

These nonsense signals may be used as an element in a larger artistic work aimed at representing the properties of the medium they inhabit. Although nonsense signals lack intrinsic meaning, this does not imply that the work of art as a whole lacks meaning. On the contrary, the use of nonsense signals shifts the level of interpretation outside of the channel itself so that we are immune to what Marshall McLuhan describes in Understanding Media as the “numbness” or “blocking of perception” caused by the medium (1964, 64).

Examples of Nonsense in Literature

Before considering the use of nonsense in electroacoustic art, it may be useful to examine its use in existing works of literature. Nonsense literature, as the name implies, is a genre of literature based primarily around nonsense. Likely the most famous writer of nonsense literature is Lewis Carroll. Carroll’s most notable use of nonsense is the poem “Jabberwocky” whose first stanza reads:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe. (Carroll)

Although not completely understandable, the poem does make “some sense.” However, this meaning is not found in the words themselves but in the structural constraints to which Carroll adheres: the arrangement of letters to form something resembling words and the arrangements of those words to follow a poetic structure. These structural elements are properties of the medium of English language poetry.

The Oulipo literary movement also used nonsense in literature. Oulipo aimed to understand the potential structures of literature. The prototypical example of Oulipo literature is the 1961 work Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes (A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems) by Raymond Queneau (2003, 149). Each of the 14 pages of the work contains ten lines of poetry. By randomly choosing one line per page, the reader constructs a 14-line sonnet. Although each constructed sonnet may have meaning, the text as a whole provides an excess of possibilities, an overabundance of meaning that results in no meaning whatsoever. However, this work draws attention to the potential for the written medium to be used for “combinatory literature.”

Finally, Friedrich Kittler’s academic book Discourse Networks 1800/1900 compares the “discourse network of 1800,” which uses language to invite interpretation, with the modern “discourse network of 1900,” whose works disregard understanding of the text in exchange for an understanding of communication. Kittler uses the psychophysical experimentation of Hermann Ebbinghaus as a prototypical example of this form. Ebbinghaus’ experiments, which studied human memory, involved the generation of streams of random syllables, which were read aloud until they could be recited from memory (Kittler 1990, 108). Ebbinghaus used these streams of random syllables, nonsense texts by the strict dictionary definition, to understand the capacity of the medium of human memory.

Directed Listening

The practice of using nonsense in art brings attention to a signal that lacks meaning, or one with low information content. I suggest that this constitutes a fourth listening practice that I call “directed listening.”

  information content: high information content: low
attention level: high foreground listening directed listening
attention level: low distracted listening background listening

Table 2: Listening Practices, Revised

Just as distracted listening is accomplished by the listener’s deliberate shifting of a high information sound to a low level of attention, directed listening is accomplished deliberately by the electroacoustic artist either by drawing attention to a low information sound or by the removal of information content or meaning from an existing sound signal source.

Nonsense in New Media Soundscape Art

The removal of meaning to form nonsense can be found in a number of electroacoustic works, many of which can be considered examples of new media soundscape art. A prime example of this is I Am Sitting in a Room by Alvin Lucier. This work begins with the presentation of a seemingly typical example of speech inviting the listener to engage in the practice of foreground listening. However, as the piece progresses, the information content of the signal is decreased in two ways. First, the recording of the speech is repeated. Later repetitions are lower in information, since they have already been heard. Second, the accumulated room reverberation acts as a form of “self-masking,” making the words of the speech unintelligible and directing the listener’s attention to the property of room reverberation.

The genre of glitch music, much of which can be considered a sub-genre of new media soundscapes, also uses the method of information removal to generate nonsense. An example of glitch music is the piece Solo for Wounded CD by Yasunao Tone, which was created by damaging an audio compact disc, again introducing disturbance to the medium. Finally, rough4radio3, the second movement of my piece Santa Barbara Soundscape, which I also consider a work of new media soundscape art, uses both methods of nonsense creation. By playing radio noise at high levels, these low information sound signals are brought to the listener’s attention. At the same time, the sound signal element of the piece, the spoken word performance, is masked by the radio noise. The listener is deprived of the meaning of the spoken text, directing his or her attention to the nature of communication in a noisy environment.

Audio Example 2: Santa Barbara Soundscape, rough4radio3


The goal of this paper is neither to develop a single definition of noise or nonsense appropriate for developing environmentally-based sound art nor to provide a definitive model for analyzing art in terms of these concepts. Ultimately, the power of using noise and nonsense in art lies in their wide range of definitions, the multiplicity of associations the artist and listener make. Additionally, directed listening is introduced here only as it relates to specific methods of artistic creation. However, my hope is that this term could be expanded to multiple areas in artistic creation and analysis in addition to fields such as acoustic ecology and communication.

Works Cited

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass. Project Gutenberg. 29 Dec 2008. Last accessed 25 Sep 2009.

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2002.

Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Networks: 1800/1900. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 1964. Ed. Terrence Gordon. Critical Edition. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko Press, 2003.

Minard, Robin. Sound Environments. Berlin: The Academy, 1993.

_____. Sound Installation Art. Graz: Institut für Elektronischen Musik (IEM), 1996.

“Nonsense.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster Online, 2009. Last accessed 4 August 2009.

Queneau, Raymond. A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems. The New Media Reader. Ed. Fruin, Noah W. and Nick Montfort. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press, 2003, pp. 149–169.

Truax, Barry. Acoustic Communication. 2nd ed. Westport CT: Ablex Publishing, 2001.

_____, ed. Handbook for Acoustic Ecology. 2nd ed. CD-ROM. Cambridge Street Publishing, 1999.

_____. “Soundscape Composition.” Author’s website.

Wishart, Trevor. On Sonic Art. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996.

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