the Wire: Adventures in Modern Music, 339, May 2012 issue

Hillel Schwartz : Making Noise

From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond

Zone Books 2011

Hillel Schwartz’ Making Noise, published by Zone Books last year, is substantial, and that is just the main body of the text, for the endnotes live on-line. It is big and heavy with a zesty cover, an intriguingly square shape, and four pugilistic subheadings: Bang, Round One, Round Two, Round Three and then supposedly the final bell. But inside it is much softer, more concerned with the absence of silence than the brute force of noise. The whole feisty get up is deceptive, pretending one thing and then being another altogether. It takes you by surprise and that is just the first of many surprises by a book that is not easily summarised. Another is its horizontal drive, from page one it is addictive, rushing the reader through easy narration belying the expectation of dense and heavy-footed theory that its shape creates. The flow of thought from one thing to another, to another, sometimes seemingly unrelated but to a point, altogether building a complex picture of the past via noise, makes for compulsive reading.

In many ways it is not a book on Making Noise at all but a history book that uses noise to lose the chronological and hierarchical stress of the historical endeavour, to be free of the demand for authenticity and bring together the real and the possible, the metaphor and the literal to narrate and invent a new sense of the past that at its best has a clear resonance in the present, at its worse seems a bit contrived to serve the flow of the story, its compulsion, rather than what it narrates. But the contrivances are only bad when judged through the demand of history, not when considered in relation to the aim of writing, writing a book that over 861 pages pulls you along and compels you into a space about noise, or the absence of silence, to rethink the human condition.

Sometimes I am not sure how he gets from a description such as of Florence Nightingale’s ‘weak ankles as a child’ to her desire to ‘blow her own trumpet’, and on to use this very trumpet in the description of her fight against noise on the wards (269), or how he constructs a mental path from the modernist cemetery to the ‘oddly uneven orbital plates of Lincoln’s eye sockets’ that had been caused by the assassin’s bullet but which also crucially reinforced the president’s seriousness as it had been immortalised earlier in life through the photographic process of being still for 40 seconds in front of  a glass plate (293). But it is these movements from one seemingly disparate idea to the next, held together only by the speed of writing and the allusion to a sense of noise, that feeds my compulsion to read and brings out the human condition in unexpected and novel ways.

Noise gives Schwartz the opportunity to talk about everything in one breath - and you want to read it in one breath too. His wilful juxtapositions, ingeniously engineered coincidences and fantastic re-appropriations of historical facts bring out many ethical causes, social relationships and political narratives that make noise in the present tense. Most current of which is his description of class distinctions drawn out in sound. He tells us of the first Labour Day 1st May 1886, which signalled the negotiation of shorter working days for the labouring classes that was meant to ‘ensure a calmer, healthier society’. Great was the shock then apparently when those ‘workers seemed hell-bent on spending their “free-time” in pursuits noisier and less punctilious than what reformers and pastors had in mind for them’.  They did not use their time off for a quiet promenade of a Sunday afternoon but ended up ‘in saloons, dance halls, brass bands, raucous ethnics festivals, and uproarious union meetings’ (285). While only a little earlier in the book he describes the nervous condition of genteel folk living in the urban environment and the consequent development of an industry of cures for their nerves rattled by its constant noise.

The juxtaposition is there, the discussion awaiting - and that is the one point in which Schwartz remains an orthodox historian. He is not in his story, he does not comment, conceptualise or discuss but only describes pretending a dispassionate position towards his subject. The ethical, social and political are between the lines, in the reader’s mind and own argumentation rather than in his. But it is there, lurking in the shadow of what is written and if not making noise itself it is whispering about feminism, class and race relations, health service reforms and colonialism, sex and physical liberation in a way that might lead to future louder discussions on these issues.

The illustrations, or ‘earshots’, that adorn the book, and which Schwartz lists as soundplates, are whimsical and reveal the taste of the author, they have a xeroxed lightness of touch that. They carry a quiet strength of thought and association that brings sound to the book, which for all its content on noise would be rather silent without them.  Their strange historical eclecticism is intriguing furthering the broad associations built in words through a pictorial dimension, and hinting at a relationship with surrealism and dada’s shouting voices, collages and elements of disruption. The vicinity rather than straight juxtaposition of these plates with the characters told of, suggests relationships rather than insisting on them. They produce a playful sonology of the situations and the bodies he writes about.

There are instructions of how to engage in this game: the substantial object of the book signals the commitment made by the writer and in turn demands that of the reader, which is emphasised by Schwartz’ introductory note ‘to be read aloud’. I read this as an invitation to perform the book, to Make a Noise, and take part in its narration; to read it outdoors, on the train, on the bus, in the car, in passing, as you move along through the urban landscape discussed on its pages. Sitting on the Circle Line, going round and round, many days on end, reading aloud each one of its approximately 500,000 words, into the racket, the history and the present experience of noise underground, producing a direct encounter.

And while I got swept along in the book’s throng of words, enjoyed and understood the necessity of their abundance, there is inside its expansive writing also a smaller book, existing in tandem, more personal and conceptual rather than all-embracing and breathless, a surprise that might be contingent to every reader.  A hidden, altogether slimmer text that functions to focus rather than associate expands vertically rather than horizontally to deliberate the minutiae of what makes a sound, and separates itself from the narrative pull into a more detailed picture of noise.