debbie millman

Friday, April 14, 2006

Commentary: Noise

Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.

I have been living in my apartment in New York City for over twelve years. I live in a building that was built in the late 1800’s and was refurbished as a coop in the 1980’s. When the renovation was underway, the builders configured the apartments cheaply, complete with the thinnest possible walls and little to no insulation between floors. As a result, the noise factor in my home is rather boisterous. The last four years this has been amplified by the arrival of Lena, the little girl who lives upstairs. Lena is one of the most beautiful little girls I have ever met. She has been in my life since she the day she was born and I have an extraordinary fondness for her. She often knocks on my door and shyly asks if she can visit. She comes in to watch cartoons on my bed; she eats cookies and potato chips, and she endlessly plays with my dogs.

Lena is a girly girl. Her parents are both well known theater folk and she is always dressed in the most imaginative and colorful outfits. She also sports a pair of patent leather Mary Jane’s that I am certain she is so attached to she sleeps in them. While one can’t help but recognize how cute and smart and adorable and clever Lena is, living beneath her has proven to be a bit of a challenge. You see, from the moment Lena wakes up until the moment she goes to bed, she races around her apartment in those Mary Jane’s, or she plays her cherished xylophone, or she bounces balls and chases what I can’t help but imagine is her cat. Despite the intensity and consistency of the ruckus, I have been reluctant to complain to Lena’s parents for a myriad of reasons. First, they are incredibly lovely people and I don’t want to annoy them. Second, I am crazy about Lena and would hate to be the cause curbing her boundless enthusiasm. And finally, Lena’s father helped me rid my apartment of an errant squirrel that had fallen five floors from my roof, down the chimney and into my fireplace, and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. Nevertheless, I have mentally fantasized about what to say and how to say it many times. But until three weeks ago, I never did.

I changed my mind after what sounded like a rigorous round of bowling followed by a clean sweep of their apartment with an industrial sized vacuum cleaner at 9:00 am on a Saturday. Bleary eyed, I mustered up the courage and sent Lena’s parents an apologetic email gingerly asking if they could reduce the noise factor on weekend mornings. Being the gracious people they are, they responded immediately and regretfully, assuring me they would do everything possible to keep the volume to a minimum. I was relieved at their congeniality and thrilled at the prospect of an unencumbered slumber.

The reprieve lasted three weekends, when this past Sunday, I was woken by screaming and crashing: Lena was having a play date with what sounded like the New York Knicks. Unable to take it anymore, I bounded out of bed like a crazy woman, hair on end, pajamas askew and dead set on flying up the stairs, banging on the door and demanding that they play outside. But by the time I got to my front door, I reconsidered and instead decided to flee the scene. Without brushing my hair or teeth or even changing out of the tee shirt and sweat pants I had slept in, I decided to take my dogs out for their morning walk.

Children’s bedlam aside, our culture has become overtaken by noise. Cell phones, police sirens, car alarms, those horrific two way pagers, radios in taxi cabs, the constant hum of air conditioners, televisions, email pings and residual iPod head phone overflow has now made silence a precious commodity. And it is not unusual to have overlapping sensory overload. Attending a basketball game recently, I counted five different aural experiences simultaneously: an organ, an announcer, a hot dog man, three nearby cell phone conversations all accompanied by the roar of the crowd. We are now living in an age where the cacophony is both deafening and ubiquitous. Things once thought free from this—even opposed to it—a museum, the theater, a library—find it ever more difficult to retain autonomy in the face of constant communication and connection. And we have become sensitized to it as well. At the very same time, smaller and smaller temporal and physical crevices are being packed with the voices and messages of the moment. I think my guest today, Jessica Helfand, describes it best in her essay, 'On Sound, Authenticity and Cultural Amnesia' from her insightful and compelling book 'Screen, Essays on Graphic Design.' “Silence,” she says, “in contemporary life, is not only a commodity, it is an endangered species: hard to come by, harder still to sustain, and oddly associated with a kind of anachronistic world view: silence is the stuff of old media, a body of stillness, an inert mass. In today’s 24/7 multiplex of sensory input, we have come to identify and accept what writer Mark Slouka calls an “auditory landscape” as a new lexicon, a built-in yet discordant soundtrack of accidental sound bytes juxtaposed against and superimposed upon the already noisy world we inhabit.”

After I left my apartment last Sunday morning, I took my dogs to the neighborhood park. As I walked past the little church on the corner I once again heard a loud commotion, when all of a sudden, the door burst open and throngs of people started filing out, one by one, holding what looked like tree branches. Then they started to sing. I remembered it was Palm Sunday and quickly realized I was standing in the very path that they were traversing. I didn’t want to interrupt their stride so I moved over and watched them go by. The dogs were riveted, and as each of the singers passed us, every single one of them smiled as the two little dogfaces stared up at them in amazement. For it was truly an amazing scene to behold. And as the volume increased and the singing became more triumphant, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of my impatience and intolerance. And I rejoiced in the gift of sound, all sounds: noisy, boisterous, harmonious, rowdy, robust, unruly and most of all--alive.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi debbie, i love to hear your design matter show a lot. it's really inspiring. lately there is a podcast problem at itunes i can not get the most recent talks since 2 weeks ago.

is there other way to download the talks?

many thanks!

4/17/2006 06:15:00 PM  
Blogger Michael Holdren said...

Not sure if Debbie has gotten back to you or not, but you can go here to see the full listing of all her existing shows (each links to it's own MP3 file).

5/12/2006 11:17:00 AM  

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