Noise Is a Necessary Obscenity Print E-mail

20230823(San Diego Reader August 23, 2023)

I’m not sure why but my hearing capacity is large and, lately, my ears have grown scarily irritated by noise. That’s putting it mildly. I wish I could annihilate lots of sounds, silence their obnoxious producers—the rifling of popcorn from a plastic bag behind me at the Rady Shell or the vibratory menace of subwoofer speakers quaking like the San Andreas from a car stopped beside me. But no can do. I hear it all, the soft, the loud, the aural invasion of my everyday life. On planes I listen to Wayne Shorter on earbuds and affix, over them, form-fitting earmuffs, the sort workers who guide planes into their slots on the tarmac wear. If I don’t, I go screwy with the dopey chatter, the squalling babies, the engine rumble, and, for me, the audible internal terror, set to buzz, like a Geiger counter—turbulence. My ears need their privacy, dressing them, as I must, behind a curtain. No wonder I prefer a life writing alone in my double-paned windowed home office.

Adding to environmental maladies like bad air and food additives, noise pollution is a curse of our urban realm, a necessary obscenity, I know, but still: too many people running too many machines too often concentrated into one cauldron, boiled and boiled again. We have no choice but to adapt to this noisome stew. No exceptions. Unless the government enforces its regulations (sleep laws in 17 states are the latest pushback) or we’re rich enough to buffer our interior walls from the onslaught.

Humans measure sound in decibels, dB. The audible range is set logarithmically, like the Richter scale: Every 10 dB increase is twice as loud. Thus, 30 dB is very quiet like a library; 40 dB is twice that, the way most libraries sound these days. There are research chambers designed to absorb all sound at 30 dB and below, where John Cage heard his heart beating and blood flowing. Up the ladder to the top are the common bleats and blares: vacuum cleaner at 10 feet, 65 dB; full restaurant, 80 dB; 747 on a runway, 1500 feet away, 85 dB; food processor, 90 dB, car honk and truck blast, 100 dB; chainsaw, 110 dB; live rock and roll band, 130 dB; fighter jet, 150 dB; and a shotgun in your ear, 160 dB.

San Diegans know the upper limits of unwanted sounds: roaring airplanes over Point Loma and Mission Beach, leaf blowers, Gaslamp Bars, jackhammering street repairs, high-speed highways, Fourth of July fireworks (4 in 10 dogs suffer trauma), alarms that meep-meep-meep from a bumped or vandalized car, Miramar aircraft rocketing over Carmel Valley and Mira Mesa, and the terror-inducing throb of a hovering helicopter. Such noises are “violations” or “illegal” or both. They should incur fines and cease, but don’t.

One can read the regulations listed in the County’s Ordinance 9962 as well as the City’s 2015 policy document, Noise Element. The two concur. Residents are entitled to these “applicable limits”: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., no more than 65 dB and 7:01 p.m. to 6:59 a.m., no more than 55 dB. For single residential properties adjacent to each other, the nighttime limit is 40 dB. But some of the over-the-top sources I cited above get special treatment. For example, gas-powered leaf blowers run between 75 and 110 dB. After decades of hobbling our ears, a few fed-up state legislators got the gas-belching, deafening blowers banned as of 2024. The “softer” battery-driven ones will replace them.

In my office, it’s quiet right now. But that wasn’t the case for all of 2022. My partner and I endured building-banging next door on one side and two doors down on the other side—at times intermittent, at times continuous. Additional dwelling units. Lots of apologies but what can we do? It’s our neighbors’ homes!

I hear the steel-on-steel grind trains make on tracks and the “air turbulence noise,” that is, the vortical or whirling motion of air molecules disbursed by a turbine engine’s passing. (A tornado’s approach, say those in its path, sounds like a freight train.) The City’s policy states: “When operating in residential areas, trains are required to travel at a reduced speed to minimize noise.” Not true in Encinitas when the Coaster or the Amtrak comes clattering through at 50+ miles per hour; federal law, of course, requires the trains to blare their horns at all “roadway-rail grade crossings.” Which they do, loud and clear. What do the people of Encinitas do? Call the police? Hardly. They curse the din and comply.

Here’s where we live. Daniel Hendy in Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening writes of the aural confusion in an airport terminal, “its burbled announcements, the steady tread of feet on linoleum floors, the squeak of luggage trollies, the piped music.” He quotes the literary historian Steven Connor who draws a wider arc, “the murmuring emulsion of sound, compounded of all the sounds of rush and hurry, mechanical and human.”

And, remember, it’s not just us who hate the “rush and hurry.” Wild animals from the canyons forage and thieve at night. Some, except for the hungriest scavengers, are leaving their urban haunts because they can’t stand our daytime clamor. It’s our noise, less starvation, they fear. We’re no different from our restive brethren. We escape the racket with laminated dual-paned windows, ears plugged with headphones, and the greatest noise-reducer of all time—evenings spent watching TV.

A good way to think about noise is on a spectrum—from the worst and most maddening noises like the 95 dB of a car alarm or the band headlining at the Casbah to such friendly get-along-with chatter among neighbors in their front yards to a phlegmy cough that signals Covid and, then, barely bothersome, an overhead fan gently oscillating, the hypnotic babble of a brook near a campsite or the bullying squawk of parrots as they sail by or the good-natured hubbub that accompanies a wedding or an awards ceremony. Not all things aurally noticeable are offensive.

My sense is that we’re good at segregating ugly from benign noise, the latter hardly painful. Noise is noise—one-dimensional, repetitive, its effect irritating to insufferable, and, studies show, life-threatening, a sort of silent stalker. The two worst noises are the two we’ve endured since 1950: Interstate roads surfaces and the jumbo jets. People who rattle these noise cages, with civil complaints, op-eds, or dosimeter research, must play a long game. One such crusader is trail lawyer Anthony Stiegler. He and two other local activists have sued the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, or SDCRAA, for its new airline routes that have now increased along the coast. Over a latte in Bird Rock, he tells me these routes, more widely dispersed of late, will probably never be quieted. Indeed, he joins a legally rearmed redoubt who, across generations, have tried and failed, failed better, to move the airport to Miramar or to tamp down the roar even a little bit.

This time, the big-donor nudge may be working. His organization, Quiet Skies La Jolla, has been grappling with a new federal dragon since 2017: the FAA’s NextGen Southern California Metroplex project. This colossus created binding new air-traffic patterns whose reach now jostles residents from South Mission Beach to Bird Rock, adding their anxiety to those in Point Loma. Bringing a lawsuit against the SDCRAA and hoping for quick results, he says, is like “trying to move an aircraft carrier by leaning against it.” The feds wield ultimate power. They mandate airports nationwide abide by their edicts. And they insist our region’s refurbished air-traffic “highways in the sky” are too complex to alter once pilots are trained and the FAA’s verification of its own program has, well, verified its own program.

In 2020, Quiet Skies settled its lawsuit with the SDCRAA, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory. The feds agreed to evaluate different flight patterns (turn west and south once over the ocean); they say they’ll reexamine their current procedures in 2026. Quiet Skies has agreed not to be thorn in the side of the new Terminal 1 construction, even though the estimate is that San Diegans will by completion wake up to a 20 percent increase in daily flights. This, Stiegler says, will mean some 50 flights an hour, all day, thundering up as late as 11:30 p.m.

In closing, he and I bat around the terms, “annoyance” and “intolerable.” I find the former term, milk toast, a useless private peccadillo. Lots in modern life is annoying: cleaning my pool, paying $4.59 for gas. When beach communities get sick and tired of overhead noise and organize, the source of the din has been born again, a new constituency finds the level intolerable. For his part, Stiegler remains diplomatic, trying to tame the regulatory tigers. He says in an email that regulators “did not appreciate the negative impacts to human health from repetitive and concentrated flight paths over the communities below, nor the resistance they’d encounter nationwide to the NextGen flight-path rollout.”

One more note. A new organization—the 67-member Aviation Impacted Communities Alliance, with ear-weary neighborhoods in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and others (my favorite group: “Keep It Down Up There”)—is marshaling evidence about plane noise and emissions and lobbying Congress for federal enforcement. As Stiegler writes in a recent La Jolla Light column, the idea of what’s bearable and what’s not is getting a retrofit: One now-and-again overflight at 65 dB is nothing compared, he says, to the nerve-racking “10 overflights in 30 minutes,” which soon may be our new normal and may enlist a legion of new pissed-off locals who’ll begin brandishing their pitchforks.

The deeper I descend into the sound abyss, in search of innovative abatements (a.k.a., American ingenuity), the more I find a burgeoning science that’s busy cataloging the deleterious effects of noise pollution on our bodies. Pollution by sound is no different from the environmental problems of climate change; local action can only do so much against the onslaught. According to The New York Times, a bevy of brain scans reveal how the damage is done: The amygdala over-activates, the endocrine system reacts with too much cortisol and adrenaline, stress hormones weaken, factory workers suffer tinnitus and their deafening accelerates, kids’ reading scores fall and their attention declines, stadium and theater surround-sounds and arena spectacles frazzle our nerves with brain-sloshing video effects and skull-jarring blasts. (I realize some masochists pay money to experience such aural chaos, thus, like extreme sports, cleansing the gene pool.)

Among the biggest consequences: One in three American workers suffer hearing loss and other health and safety effects due to machines, traffic noise, and commercial venues that must mesmerically “entertain” us. Noise pollution is the number one occupational illness in the country. Aural menaces contribute to American’s shortening life expectancy—down two years since the pandemic began and down to levels last seen in 1996, a fact unequally shared by biological sex. Today, mortality for men is five years less than for women, in part, because of the nail-gun bulleting job sites where guys overwhelmingly toil.

The City cites four “attenuation methods” designed to increase our peace and quiet.

Reducing the sound level of the noise generator, interrupting the noise path between the source and receiver, increasing the distance between the source and receiver, and insulating the receiver (building material and construction methods). All of the methods help to reduce interior noise levels, but only the first three help to reduce outside noise levels with the exception of aircraft noise.

As mechanically apropos as these ways to quiet, interrupt, distance, and insulate—there is no eliminate—are, attenuation stipulates sufficient spatial separation and financial outlays. It’s true that if you build near a noise source (freeway, airport, turbine hub), California codes mandate contractors to mitigate intermittent or continuous sounds that rattle common walls and wobble floors, this, the acoustician Jonathan Brothers of Eilar Associates in Escondido tells me. “That’s where you have a fitness center and the weightlifters drop the barbells on the floor or the super-loud HVACs, the air-conditioning units, whirl and buzz all day.” Typically, high-end projects have space to cordon or decenter the HVAC while sardined apartment complexes, now countywide, have no such “luxury.” Noise-lowering regulations instruct builders to erect buffers; consequently, says Brothers, “you start losing floor space while the construction material cost goes up.” Such changes most can’t afford or are passed on to customers in commercial properties.

Is anyone else but me disgruntled by the voter-approved Midway-Rising-sports-arena-and-affordable-slash-market-value-housing-mushed-together-with-as-many-cars-as-people complex, a 1000-page Environment Impact Review, and certain noise-dampening budget overruns, plus an additional consumer tax—enriching the downtown coffers and profiting Carlsbad, Encinitas, and Los Angeles developers whose homes are safe from the pain-crossing threshold of Ted Nugent and his 100+ dB performance?

As I say, for a century, we hapless citizens diligently comply with noise. But a more aggressive age of consulting are making inroads against the racket. Today, managers facing health liabilities with employees welcome OSHA to measure the din at venues and factories, sparking a lucrative business in noise abatement. One such, up the road in Los Angeles, is Innovative Noise Consulting, which is currently advising local antagonists about the clamor at the Padres’ Gallagher Square, a complicated, lawyer- and council-driven affair, says project manager, Jasmine Chow. Nothing’s been signed as yet. So, alternatively, I ask what kinds of noises clients bring to her company for acoustic fixes.

Noise sources are multiple, she tells me. Of the less intrusive is “echo reverberation,” sound transferred “between rooms in apartment buildings, movie theaters, condos. Usually because contractors don’t understand how things should be acoustically built.” They repair slipshod construction or create muffled environments from scratch. Pre-planning may run into snafus like a gun range currently being built in a warehouse across the street from an animal hospital. A pouch lover asked the veterinarians whether the shooting might distress the caged hounds. Indeed. The dogs will shake and wither from the pops so the sounds must be stifled with walls of impervious acoustic foam.

After acousticians run a noise audit, the company installs new stud-braced second walls with insulation, a new roof, or windows, double- or triple-paned. Chow describes one case that earned her firm its name. In a suburban home lived a special needs child who yelled and threw things, breakable and resonant, day and night. The neighbors, scared, at wit’s end, organized; they called Innovative and the parties approved a solution: a double-frame window, in effect, a dry-walled space in front of one sealed window with a second sealed window. The redundancy did the trick.

The most difficult is loud-by-design venues: music festivals and nightclubs. And then there’s the machine-mad factories, the loudest in Chow’s tenure, a printing press in El Monte. Workers complained that the wailing press exceeded California law and pierced their ear muffs. “It operates at night,” Chow says. “Guys come in and out with trucks to load and unload paper. And there’s the sound of the press itself. Our solution was to build a very thick plenum between the printing press with its constant roaring and the dock itself.” A plenum is an air shaft that walls in an air duct or chamber. The space sealed the two competing noises from each other and cut the noise for workers in half. The best incomplete solution available, she notes.

California has America’s toughest noise codes and ordinances, Chow says. Our state’s OSHA possesses “the strictest policies.” Complaints arise from lawsuits or government audits. She’s heard of scams back east that are rare out west. A person buys a rundown house for $200,000, next to a grating fracking operation or factory, sues the noise producer for infringing on his or her tranquility and health, and collects a sweet $1 million.

A noise-reducing business works to sound-damp or sound-deaden, the former to mute using berms, the latter to bulwark a material mass that’s impenetrable. Clearly, the latter rarely happens if the source refuses to tone down. We both laugh at why, pre-lawsuit, any offending venue can’t self-regulate or be told to simply lower the volume. Turning serious, she says the Gallagher Square dogfight “is going to be tricky.” It’s not financially possible to insulate high-rise condominiums, window by window, porch by porch, from bottom-heavy rap, punk, or metal, apparently, the worst culprits. Nor will large baffles around the square work because such mitigation would add a new layer of “visual pollution,” which is, interestingly, forbidden by the original design.

The proposed fix for Gallagher is, says the Padres memorandum, “improved noise mitigation measures during events, including updated technology, such as delay towers and directional speakers.” To my ears, this sounds specious. If the towers “delay” the sound, it’s hardly diminished. I wonder in which direction those speakers direct the sound. Away from the assembled masses? Seems the opposite of what the masses are there for. Good luck with any Gallagher redesign. I doubt anyone wants to turn the volume down because, well, at the risk of letting my geezer flag fly, the point of the “music” is to be as aurally disruptive as possible.

Whatever faces the opprobrium of one group may be a boon to another. Not a perversity but an opportunity. Thus, noise music whose composers use the extreme spectrums of tone and timbre healthily, fearlessly, to create sculpted sound work, often to a meditative end. One wizard of the noise biz is Christopher Warren, San Diego State music professor and head of their sound design department.

Warren is a graduate of the school of New Music, anchored by Professor and Pulitzer Prize winner, Roger Reynolds, at the University of California, San Diego. There, he helped design and utilized the music department’s Prebys-funded venue with its black-box experimental theater. He tells me that he built a room that composers could “play” as a musical instrument. The room can handle any kinds of acoustic or electronic sounds; for Warren, such sound chambers allow him to shape “acoustic responses that the real world cannot provide us with.” In this sense he’s a philosopher of engineered sound.

At UCSD and a new venue being built at State, he sets up a room so it is whisper quiet, at around 30 dB, which is so noticeably dry that one’s breath becomes audible. Warren says, the deader the room, the more it’s responsive to made electro-acoustic sounds, many noise-worthy.

In his San Diego State office, with a semi-absorbent sound panel against one wall (to benefit his neighbor), I ask him to define noise. He hesitates. First, he won’t “denigrate” a sound by calling it a noise, a word, like delinquent, loaded with bad connotations. He notes that “order wouldn’t exist without chaos and music can’t exist without noise. It is the unstructured stuff that gives the structured stuff structure.” Noises, he continues, “are in the service of the creation of something else. It’s the sounds that no one intended to make, but they just kind of come out as byproducts of my interests.”

His noise bent began in two places. First, originally a bass player, he’s been “seduced by software.” Meaning that the bass whetted his appetite for possibilities of sound production in the electro-acoustic realm of “extended” techniques and amplification. He introduced computers into dead rooms where he discovered far more spectral potential than the finite traits of traditional instruments.

Second, his East Village residence has stoked his noise jolly. Ten years ago he and his eventual wife, the clarinetist Arianna Warren, relocated to the city’s clamorous center, now known for “nothing but noise.” He’s adjacent to a fire station. Sirens peel day and night. Windswept cars on nearby I-5 buzz constantly. Plus the parties and Petco Park and Gallagher Square and the daily commotion of the homeless. Add in the Gaslamp Banshee, a great howling wind sound produced by an architectural configuration (not on purpose) at the top of the downtown library. Which, he says, can be heard as far away as the Coronado Bridge.

When the Banshee gets going, he’s on site, recording the howl. The sound, the noise—they’re indistinguishable. “Material for composition.” He says at first he was put off by the East Village bedlam; but now he loves it. He peppers the soundscape himself by powering his Fender Princeton amp to the top setting, #10. “It only sounds good when it’s dimed.” Luckily, he says, East Village is chockablock with artists like him and his wife who know that musicians need to uncover the audible limits of their instruments and machines.

One of Warren’s primary captures is the glissandi, that is, a fast-moving slide between tones nearby or far apart. The classic case: the clarinet’s 17-note run-up the scale at the opening of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Downtown, Warren hears “a glissando in just about everything,” a technique commonly used in contemporary composition. Another idea that emphasizes improvised noise music he learned from Pauline Oliveros, who taught in the UCSD music department in the 1970s and died not long ago. “Tuning Meditation” is her text piece whose recipe says that a group of people assemble in a highly resonant environment, take one, two, three deep breaths, and on the fourth breath, sound a tone, hold it for a while, listen for a tone close by and sing it, then, sing a tone they don’t hear. Let the whole slowly cook for five or ten minutes.

Warren: “You get a whole group of people doing this, and it is a beautiful study in not only the resonance of the space, but watching something self-assemble because this starts out as the most clashing clusterfuck you’ve ever heard, right?”

Another name for that clusterfuck is artful noise. The emergent tone is pure Zen—of the moment and unreproducible as such. A temporary stifling of life’s distractions, the vocal-and-room resonance churchlike, rough edges softened via improvisation among strangers. To assemble in such groups and create this dense, dignified drone is, Warren notes, “about listening to noise and making a music out of it.”

In the end, I think of noise as a necessary pest; it’s like a college buddy, a porcupine, for whom you have to make adjustments when he stays overnight in the guest bedroom. I may be hypersensitive but I wager mine’s a common trait. For instance. Why is it that when someone’s talking with whom we disagree and someone else is saying something with which we agree, and both are at the same decibel level, we hear the disagreeable stuff as mindlessly bothersome and the agreeable as music to our ears? It’s confirmation bias, our noise-meters homing-in accordingly. We are more often tolerant of the “life-saving” helicopter rotor blades than the “sound-of-freedom” jet engines whooshing overhead.

I remain perplexed at the existential contour of noise. It’s personal, its preferential, its societal, its uncontrollable and unhealthful. Indeed, the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise now defines noise as “unwanted and/or harmful sound.” I’m on board with this because my list of intolerables just keeps growing.

Read any government tract or online user’s agreement, even the city’s Noise Element document, and you’ll hear the numbing grind of bureaucratese. Listen, as we must, to the “visual noise,” a.k.a. the “snow” of reporters analyzing the news on CNN or Fox: they speak in breathlessly spun, syntactically muddied semi-sentences as if they need to get to the restroom. (The talking heads seldom write anything down; they won’t look at notes but wing it, their newsreel gabble insufferable.) Bear it, if you dare, basketball at University of San Diego’s Jenny Craig Slim Gym and the TV-ish commercial interruptions plus the sphincter-tightening air horn. The mindlessly busy entertainment of the Jumbo-Tron at Petco or Snapdragon stadia. The noisome online popup ads. The Spam, the trolls, the fake cancellation notices. The nagging pulsation of pop rock in coffeehouses. The pinging or ringing cellphone during live theater. The Blue Angels, the KGB Sky Show, my printer, our Vitamix. The local news updates at the gas pump, which come on only after you pay! Having bought the gas, haven’t I paid for silence? The story, I realize, in the end, is also how noise, incompatibly, is paired with consumption and profit. Incompatible because many of us just hear the noise; we don’t hear the message.

The truth is we will never be free from our learned adaptive patterns to harmful sounds, which, like social media, have colonized our social space. Those hits of the Eagles from the Sproutz Grocery tinny speakers are no longer background. They are the foreground of our existence. Nostalgic tunes demand, grab, and affix our attention. Until we start wearing sound-silencing earmuffs or order everything from Amazon and never leave home or else give up and just dwell in the din.