The Tipping Point Between Noise And Silence

These days my musical preferences are mostly towards the quieter, instrumental end of the scale.

Old favourite Stars Of The Lid, plus newer discoveries Goldmund and 36 have been on heavy rotation in recent weeks.

But I’m still fond of rather more noisy music, like My Bloody Valentine or Asobi Seksu.

In fact, I’ve always found there’s a fine tipping point, where music is so loud and dense, it becomes quiet.

Or, perhaps better explained, it evolves from a collection of separate loud noises, into one amorphous, gently undulating ocean of sound.

The latter half of Red Sea by Asobi Seksu, linked to above, is a great example of this.

One can imagine sections of it looped for 10, 20, 30 minutes and it becoming very similar to Stars Of The Lid’s longer ambient pieces.

The same is true for the visual sense.

There are photographs that are undeniably minimal in their composition.

But then others which consist of dense layers of individual forms, combine en masse to create a similarly minimal impression.

I remember the first time I saw a Mark Rothko painting in the flesh after admiring them in poster form for years.

Previously I’d enjoyed the pictures for their bold, sometimes almost luminescent blocks of colour. Seeing one up close and the incredible textures that indicated how many layers of paint had actually been used, gave them a whole other depth, and three dimensional weight and presence.

Plus again, it demonstrates this idea where if you add enough layers, it eventually becomes one merged layer, the noise tending every closer to silence.

This tipping point is fascinating to me, finding a way through what appears to be chaos and disorder, to find something stripped down and tranquil out the other side.

What are your thoughts on this, with both music and photography? Have you experienced examples where something is so noisy, it becomes quiet?

As always, please let us know in the comments below (and don’t forget to tick the “Notify me of new comments via email” box to follow the conversation).

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8 thoughts on “The Tipping Point Between Noise And Silence”

  1. Very thoughtful write-up, Dan. I enjoyed this one a lot.

    Personally, I don’t like noisy, or overly busy, audio of any sort.

    Regarding photography, it depends. What’s classified as “noisy” is going to be rather subjective with any visual art (unlike audio). That said, like music, I tend not to enjoy photographs (or paintings, sketches, and so on) that are overly busy in nature.

    While I’m not a big Rothko fan, your analysis of the power of his work when viewed in person, which is entirely lacking when viewing on a screen or in a reproduction print, due to the texture of the layers of paint of the canvas, highlights the most critical aspect of your ponderings above: Digital art has its place and uses, but will never be able to replace or compare with real, physical, tangible pieces of art crafted with traditional mediums.

    This is how I see film photography versus digital. Just like an oil painting compared to a digital painting, the latter will never be in the same league as the former, even if it’s printed. The aesthetic and mood generated by real film grain just can’t be replicated.

    But that doesn’t mean I can’t, or don’t, appreciate some digital photography. I can, and do, albeit not very much of it. Yours is some that I do.

    Take care.

    1. Thanks P, good to hear from you.

      I actually think noise can still be very subjective with music. Which teenager hasn’t had their parents at one point say “what is that racket you’re listening to?” and the teen thinking it’s amazing music, where the parent hears nothing but ear-offending discordance!

      Thanks re my photos. I wasn’t immersed enough in the era of pre-digital photography to appreciate the difference. The only pre-digital prints I saw really in my childhood were family photos which are virtually always snapshots and not shining examples of image quality.

      I’ve been thinking about this re music a fair bit lately though. Most of the music I listen to comes via cheap (but pretty decent sounding) ear buds, or a Wonderboom bluetooth speaker, both connected to my phone. Sometimes I’ll listen via Spotify on our TV which is hooked up to my good old Denon hi-fi and Mission speakers, but not at any great volume. So the music is generally rather dumbed down as it were.

      Contrast this with a memory I have of first hearing Radiohead’s Kid A with my then brand new Grado headphones where I heard detail like never before in any record (well, it was a CD).

      I don’t miss the detail now, but I do wonder what I might be missing. If that makes sense!

      1. Fair enough point regarding the subjectivity of noise in music. However, I still think it’s far less subjective than “noise” in the visual arts. I mean, with music, or any audio sample for that matter, we could quite literally get into a discussion about plotting the waveform data in various ways, thus visually representing the noise within the audio elements based on a pure, mathematical definition of such (and I’m not talking about background hiss/etcetera in the recording). That’s a bit more difficult with the visual elements of a painting or a photograph (excluding grain/sensor noise from the discussion, of course, just like we excluded hiss and so on with the audio). I also think once most teenagers grow up, they eventually come to recognize that much of what they listened to in their youth was, in fact, noise, with little real musical value. I did.

        I always miss detail in any medium, especially when I know it’s there but the equipment in use can’t reproduce it. This is why today’s digital world is so frustrating. For instance, why on earth people would choose to purchase music in a highly lossy, compressed format versus on CD, or buy/stream movies digitally instead of buying the disc, is baffling to me and always has been (especially since it usually costs more to boot). And the atrocious quality of the headphones/speakers/amplifiers most people use further exacerbates the issue. It’s as though most people today care absolutely nothing at all about quality because they genuinely don’t even know what it is. This is a problem, and the digital age has all but created it and continues to make it worse with time. Through the 90’s, people generally strived to achieve the ultimate quality possible, with the best equipment and mediums available to them, with the budget they had. That all changed starting in the 2000’s. It’s sad.

        Regarding your reply below, I just want to say that back in the day, good quality cassette tapes played on high-end equipment could sound every bit as good as CD’s do (some would argue better if they were mastered properly), and could be entirely hiss free. What tape was/is capable of is actually truly incredible.

        And finally, regarding your comment below about people who rave about film and the analog process, but then turn around and scan/edit it via a digital process, I hear you. But unfortunately for most of us that’s the best we can do. Public darkrooms are no longer something 99.9% of us have any access to, nor do we have the space or means to build one. And unlike a couple of decades ago where one could take a few negatives down to one of several film labs in their town/city and have those frames traditionally enlarged for them at a fair price, that’s no longer the case either. It’s a shame, but it is what it is. Believe me, I very much dislike dealing with scans and editing them. I despise staring at computer monitors and screens. And no matter how good a scan is, I’m still always somewhat disappointed because with a loupe and a light table I can always see that there’s more detail and information in the negative to extract, detail/information that would have been available to me if I was printing in a darkroom. Based on our previous discussions I don’t think any of this is news to you, though. 🙂

      2. P, yes agreed about music, it can be broken down into physical waveforms and analysed. But there’s still that subjective view, some find “noise” beautiful. My tastes generally have been consistent since my early 20s, I don’t look back and think why did I ever like such and such, and hate them now. I guess I formed my musical taste later than many, and more carefully. I can’t remember listening to much in my teens others than what was on the top 40, or what I heard my parent/s play. Which wasn’t diverse! I remember first exploring my own music around 18/19 and finding it bonded me with others. I remember a boy at school (we were 11/12, this was ’86/87) and he liked Prince, New Order, The Smiths, and was seen as quite an outlier musically. I often look back and wonder how he had his finger on the pulse of some of the coolest and best music of the time. He went on, no surprise, to run his own record shop.

        I think with music and what equipment it’s heard on, perhaps much of the most popular music (now, and arguably always) isn’t highly sophisticated and nuanced sonically, so doesn’t need high fidelity equipment to showcase it. Strong rhythms and melodies don’t get lost in lo-fi equipment in the way other more subtle types/aspects of music would. So people don’t miss the better sound partly because they’ve never experienced it anyway, and partly because it doesn’t necessarily enhance the music they listen to much either.

        With streaming music, I use Spotify almost exclusively for music these days, and it’s good enough. I guess I’ve dumbed down a little but I don’t long for better sound quality day to day. I have no idea what the actual quality is compared with a CD.

        With streaming TV, I’ve been really surprised. I thought before that DVDs were really high quality, but if you watch a film on DVD it’s noticeably lower quality than streaming through Netflix or Disney+. Again I’m no expert but the picture quality via these platforms (aside from occasional glitches when the Firestick plays up and needs rebooting) is above my expectations, and yes, just “looks” more colourful, sharper and cleaner than DVDs of the same movies.

        And regarding film and processing and the state of the industry, yes I think we may have discussed this once or twice before. 🙂 Again it’s a case of younger people (or anyone who’s not shot and developed film to a high standard) just not being aware of the differences compared with digital, so not missing it. Plus we are so saturated with digital ads, CGI movies etc, that the collective understanding and taste of what a “good” image looks like is constantly evolving too.

  2. Living in the Tampa area for a few years and being able to see a huge collection of Dali works at the Dali museum really changed my perspective on painting… no matter what we do in photography – film or digital – I don’t think we’ll get close to the level of art that is possible with a paint brush…
    Similar thing with music… a digital emulation of sound doesn’t come close to what tape or vinyl can reproduce, in my humble opinion, despite the fact that it has inherent flaws and little noises associated with it.
    Having said that, I do photography and listen to digital music nowadays… instead of using a paintbrush and doing music in the analog realm. What’s wrong with me?…

    1. Yes there is the argument that because with painting the artist starts with nothing, literally, the blank canvas, that it’s more creative, more artistic than photography. Aside from the physical skill and dexterity required, that is pretty minimal with the photography, you just need to be able to hold a camera and press a button.

      On the flip side you could argue photography is far more challenging as the photographer has to work with what they’ve got and never has a truly blank canvas (aside from staged studio-type photography, I’m talking about “found” photography).

      I don’t think I was in the analogue era of music deeply enough for long enough to appreciate it. I remember having cassettes growing up that were also pretty hissy, however good quality the audio equipment was, it was just part of the medium. And my favourites became more and more hissy as they wore out. Though I probably take tape hiss as preferable to CD skipping!

      I remember too the frustration of loading computer games on cassette with my Commodorw VIC20 and later C64, and how unreliable the format was. You’s wait for 15 minutes for a programme to load then it wouldn’t and would tell you to rewind the tape and start again, arghh! Digital formats were/are way more reliable – and quick!

      I went through a phase in my early twenties of buying up old records from charity shops (mostly classical music and synth stuff like Jean Michel Jarre, I recall) and had a record player hooked up to my computer to sample snippets of sound, sometimes a melody, sometimes just a bit of crackle and atmosphere. Then built up loops and layers. I love that idea of taking old analogue found sounds and recreating something new from them. I also used samples of random radio programmes received on AM channels (always hissy) and deliberately slightly tuned out to increase the static further.

      I know you didn’t mention photography, but it does make me smile to hear some people rave about film and being 100% analogue, but then scanning and processing their film photos with modern digital gear and software. Surely this is some kind of analogue/digital hybrid photography and cannot be called pure film photography?

  3. “too noisy, it becomes quiet”….woah…once in a blue moon stuff mate…!!
    that quote is soo beautiful in a weird way…for me at-least…kinda resonates with me…
    nice stuff dude…where can i follow you…on social media.

    1. Thanks for your comments Anand. In terms of social media, er, here on my blog! I also use Flickr, mostly to back up and organise my photos, you can see more if you click on most photos I share in posts here. I don’t like/trust any of the other social platforms, so don’t use them anymore.

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