Arie Altena

On Noise, Emergency, and the Historian as a Poet

Interview with Hillel Schwartz

Arie Altena & Raviv Ganchrow


During Dutch Design Week, on Saturday 25 October 2014, Sonic Acts presented ‘A Day of Noise’ in Temporary Art Centre (TAC) in Eindhoven. The keynote speaker was cultural historian Hillel Schwartz, undoubtedly one of the world’s foremost experts on noise. He has spent twenty years researching the cultural aspects of noise, and is the author of the impressive 928-page Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond (2011), a book so full of lively detail that it does not bore the reader for a single minute. In this interview with Raviv Ganchrow and Arie Altena for Sonic Acts, Schwartz talks about noise of course, but also elaborates on his current research into the concept of emergency, and explains his ideas about how to write history. The interview was filmed and this transcript of it has been slightly edited. Originally published as Sonic Acts Research Series #9 at

Arie Altena: We’re here with Hillel Schwartz and we also have Raviv Ganchrow here, sound artist from The Netherlands. Hillel Schwartz is here for A Day of Noise in Eindhoven. We know him as a cultural historian, he’s written a number of books and the most recent one is Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond (2013), a really big book which covers a lot of aspects, if not all of the aspects, of noise throughout cultural history. It starts with the beginnings of our civilisation, spanning all the way into the twentieth and twenty-first century. Let’s start by talking a little bit about that. You’ve worked a long time on this book of noise and cultural concept of noise. The book touches on a lot of meanings of noise, a lot of approaches to noise, a lot of ideas and cultural attitudes towards noise. The question to start off with is: when did sound become noise for us?

Hillel Schwartz: That’s one of the reasons I did a cultural history. Because the ‘when’ is always contextual and is always historical. There is only one exception that we know about an ahistorical, almost universal sound that is felt to be a noise across the continents, and that is the gride, the sound that we associate now with the scratching of fingernails across the chalkboard. That sound seems to raise hackles in all places in the world that we know about. You may become accustomed to it, but at least at the beginning you have the same response to it. And it is thought of as a noise. It could be an alarm noise. No one’s quite sure whether this is the noise of a sabre-toothed tiger about to approach from behind. Whatever it is, it is the only one we know to be universal. The rests of the sounds are all contextual. In fact, you need the historian to answer the question about when the sound becomes a noise because the very sense of what a noise is, is already part of your culture rather than part of your physiology or part of your mentality. The other aspect of answering that question is because each of us has a different physiology of hearing which is determined in part by our work environment, in part by the diseases we encounter during life, and partly by what we wear. How we hear the world differently is determined idiosyncratically by those conditions, as well as historically by... Let’s say the habit of wearing wigs in one era can obscure your ability to hear or have little powdery substances entering your ear that cause you regular infections so that your ability to hear has changed. All of this means that when I try to answer the question of when does the sound become a noise, as a historian I’m paying attention to aspects in medical, musical, metaphorical, as well as issues around the more ideological aspects of noise, noise as protest, noise as revolutionary unrest, noise as riot, noise as a sense at least of activity that can turn in many directions. So I cannot answer the simple question you ask me without resorting to a particular context.

AA: Noise at a certain moment, in the 20th century, but also earlier, becomes something that is perceived as negative

HS: It becomes perceived as negative so far as we know in the Babylonian epics when the older gods claim that the younger gods are making too much noise. And the younger gods blame the humans they have created for making too much noise, and they in turn have begun to make some noise. So noise has a negative aspect in that sense early on. The change in modern times is actually quite the opposite, when people begin to argue for the progressive nature of the noise. Either because they’re industrialists and they know that their machines are going to make noise – in fact they are going to argue that that noise is a sign of progress – or for people who have taken on that role of the revolutionary who demands that a certain noise is heard in all parts of the world, their own world. So they will argue that the noise is a sign that their work is succeeding. People have begun to make protest where before there was silence. So yes, I would think there are changes in attitudes toward definitions of noise. But I wouldn’t think that the negative notion of noise is something new.

AA: Isn’t it also connected to the idea of noise abatement, which comes much later, in the 20th century?

HS: That’s a strange word, abatement. It’s a perfectly fine English word, but it’s a perfectly strange English word as well. Already, abatement is a confession of failure. It’s not the absolute elimination of noise; it’s just the abatement of noise. And noise abatement only comes about as a term when people have realised that the noise is going to be ubiquitous whatever they do. So, what they need to do is to figure out the zones where it shouldn’t be so much, or it shouldn’t be of a certain frequency, or it shouldn’t be made by certain people, or it shouldn’t be made in certain hours of the day. That’s noise abatement. So the noise abatement movements were movements that were conciliatory. However, they have figured out that this term might become a possible key to getting legislation passed. If they said ‘We want to eliminate all noise’ the legislators would’ve said ‘We can’t do it’. If they say ‘Abatement’, well there are other kinds of abatements in law that are successful to some degree. So noise abatement followed in that path.

Raviv Ganchrow: Maybe just a quick footnote on that because in terms of techniques the invention of the decibel is really important. The minute there is a standardisation of measure, there is a very specific slice of the dimension of noise, of the dimension acoustics I would call it, that then becomes something that can be circulated more regularly, as a concept instead of as an overstatement. I’m just talking about the negative aspects for certain registers…

HS: I find that the invention and dissemination of the notion of the decibel is historically quite ambiguous. The first successful anti-noise movements came before the decibel was invented, let alone disseminated. And in fact, the attempts to apply decibels to create a standard for lowering noise levels were conflicted at the very beginning, in part because the decibel was a logarithmic scale which has to constantly be re-explained to people and second because the decibel is one of only several elements in what people feel to be noise. Because loudness is not necessarily what people first complain about. Oftentimes it’s shrillness or untimeliness that they complain about before decibels. Third, when you go around and measure standard decibel levels, I’d say, ‘Well, this is what a quiet room should be as opposed to... this is what an ordinary, unthreatening avenue should be’. Those decibel levels are always measured, in the best of circumstances, as standard distances from something. But we don’t ourselves remain immobile in our worlds. So, the decibel is an immobilised version of what sound is about. And I very rarely see tracking decibel accounts. And finally, it’s ambiguous because as soon as the acousticians began to develop decibel levels using good meters, good metric systems that were produced by good meters, they already began to realise that they have to adjust them either for what standard background noise was, or for what the standard human hearing response and range was for different ages. And they had to adjust them also for the kinds of frequencies that tend to be most audible and legible to people. So already by the 1930s they were trying to devise different systems and there was actually a wholly different system in England than there was in the United States. And then Europe after the Second World War began to develop another, and if you try to bring them all together, as ISO occasionally tries to do with all of these different schemas... Decibels do not seem to play as great a role as one would think they do either in the operational definitions for people in life or for the noise abatement societies themselves, or even for the police who occasionally are willing to come out with a meter to register whether something is too loud. In most places now, having a meter that reads decibels for you is not enough to justify a legal action. However, saying that someone is playing his bass with his amplifier 50 feet from your house for two hours is substantial enough to argue that you can have an action against that person, regardless of the decibel level. Because they’re assuming many things which are right. That is, people do not play the bass like they play the rubber drum set. Second, that when they play the bass nowadays they like some distortion. Third, amplifiers are not very accurate anyway. And fourth, if you can hear it 50 feet from your house, people 100 feet from your house probably can also hear it. All of these mean that the decibel level itself doesn’t play a great role in ordinary dimensions of defining things. What it does play a role in, is attempts to legislate the way in which products come off the assembly line producing a certain sound. If you have, for example, a Philips electric razor that’s doing 90 dB right next to your chin, this is not a good idea. And that’s a good way to tell Philips, ‘No, reduce the amount of noise it makes when it comes off the assembly line’. In that way, it has legal ramifications and it also has technical ramifications. It also has ramifications, I hear, in the design of space stations. They measure decibels in space stations – which is a very good test site, not much interference from the outside, you can’t say, ‘It’s too noisy here in the space station’. Let’s say, one of the first things people wanted to do was to measure the noise in subways. It is such an impossibility to measure the noise in the subways, because even if you measure the screech of the subway trains separately from the rumble of the subway stations, separately from the reverberation of the terrible metal and concrete walls of the subway stations, how are you going to measure what the people are wearing when they enter the subway station, what state of nutrition they are in so that they are registering the sounds in a certain way? Impossible. Space stations fine, shavers fine, the rest not so good.

AA: Nowadays we begin to learn more and more about how sound functions and how we perceive it. It seems to me that all this that you’re telling is also showing how much more aware we’ve become of what sound actually is, and how we perceive it, and how people perceive it differently. Do you think that this is something that is characteristic maybe of the last ten years, twenty years of research into sound?

HS: I think that even the sensitivity to the varietal strains of sound, as it were, probably began to be particularly sophisticated when people began to design cinemas for talkies. Because with the first talkies there was so much that had to be figured out about intelligibility that hadn’t been figured out before. And there is so much in the first five or ten years of talkies that had to be figured out with regard to the balance between speech and background sounds, sound effects and background music. Theatre designers since the 1860s had been trying to figure out some of those relationships already. But now you had a far more confined space and a far more focal environment that was dark. So concerns about all of these different ambient aspects of sound, I believe, became much more sophisticated then, regardless of whether the acousticians were involved or not. Audiences too were trying to puzzle out all of these balances with this new phenomenon. They used to be fully aware of the freedom of talking at a silent film – not simply in order to make commentaries on the movie, but also to tell people who were unable to read the subtitles what was going on, or to make sure that they could catch the eye of the vendors who were vending things in the aisles during the silent film. Many things were going on that stopped with the enclosed black box cinemas, even when they were designed to look like major 19th-century theatres. The audience too was trying to figure out what the protocol was. If some couple was smooching behind you, what was the protocol? To say it wasn’t the sex that was making you upset; it was their sound? What was going on? They were trying to figure this all out.

RG: The project that you are working on at the moment in Berlin, is it about the history of the alarm?

HS: No, it’s a history much larger than that, but it starts there. I can give you both the genesis and then the later prospects...

RG: You could say that in noise there is something universal in the sense that any time that we have access to in our periods of history, you could take that lens and put it on that frame and get something out of it. There seems to me, something in the cultures of paranoia at the moment that there is more urgency with [the concept of] emergency. So, just wondering if that plays a role in your research now. Do you see that urgency? Is that something that drives the project or is this part of a larger group of chapters that you’re working on?

HS: I’m working now on the history of the changing notion and nature and experience of emergency since the late eighteenth century. And yes, part of my engagement with this project came out of my research on sirens and how the siren initially conceived in the 1820s as a device of scientific experiments on sound became an audicon of alarm as well as of policing. And that change, which I could see happening in the twentieth century in all kinds of media, from children’s picture books to accounts of the Blitz in London, to accounts of responses to medical emergencies, was leading me to be concerned about the changing nature of emergency itself, not just the changing nature of the sound of emergency. And I thought this would be also particularly relevant, because since 2005 I’ve been working as a medical case manager. I’m in the emergency room constantly with patients as their advocate, but also trying to help them understand what is being said to them in these times when they feel to be out of control one way or the other, and also to be out of their own most familiar territories. That led me to think there was something else about emergency going on, not necessarily sonic, but always embalmed with the sonic world. And all that preceded a concern about industrial collapse, and civilisational collapse. However, as soon as I began thinking about emergency in terms of the sonic and the medical, I remembered of course that I had done twenty years of work on millenarian movements and apocalypticism. So I knew that I could be incorporating my understanding of how those groups anticipate, prepare for, and often welcome a feeling of emergency. And then I began thinking about a very larger sense of emergency and the sound of the word itself struck me because it is itself an audible play on words. It combines the notion of emergence, which we think of as relatively slow and continuous, smooth – the emergence is different from suddenness – and then urgency. It has both sounds in it. What a wonderful thing to encounter in English. In French its just ‘urgence’, but in English it has both. So I wanted to try to understand how this duplicitousness of the word itself captures the very strangeness of our world in which we have so many different infrastructures preparing at length for, drilling at length for emergencies. And they must do this in a very concentrated, concerted way. They’re very conscientious about it and they must do it calmly. That’s the test of having practiced for an emergency. It is to do it calmly when you are a professional in what’s called now incident management or event management – which is strange because event management used to be about fairs, carnivals, now it’s about emergency. When you are a professional at this, then you become a professional at calmness. I thought that there was already embedded in the sound of emergency a kind of encapsulation of what we have come to know that was not apparent in 1754 [1755] with the Lisbon earthquake. That was not apparent, even in 1800. If someone was drowning you did not know what to do. You usually swam out and drowned with them. But then life saving societies developed. They were one of the first infrastructures for emergency established by lay communities before the Red Cross, before you had even any sense that a person as a physician could be a specialist in emergency medicine. So I began thinking about how these infrastructures – that take shape in government and lay capacities, in church capacities and professional capacities – begin to reshape the culture’s experience of an emergency. A very good example of this is the sense of time that people have in dealing with anything urgent. Because when we say urgent, it’s because someone didn’t respond to an e-mail within the last three seconds, or a tweet, or they’re not answering their cell phone. Whereas, if you were experiencing most emergencies in the 1760s, and our response would have been extraordinarily swift, you wouldn’t expect anything. A day would have been fine! Our sense of emergency has changed as well because, aside from the infrastructures, we have these technologies that make us acutely aware of the passage of time by the hour, and then by the minute, and then by the second, and then by the half-second, so that our sense of what emergency has shifted along with our sense of what we could do during those urgent moments. Which leads me to answer your question now, is there a particularly urgent sense of emergency? And I think, no, that’s not what has changed so much. What has changed is the geography of emergency. We don’t think of emergencies as being localised anymore. We think of emergencies as spreading quickly. And it doesn’t have to be an epidemic like Ebola. A tsunami emergency in Southeast Asia is an emergency for everyone because they think, ‘Now I begin to have to prepare for a tsunami here, I didn’t think about that’. Just as the people in Sri Lanka didn’t think they were going to be subject to a tsunami that had started in Indonesia. Now we think, ‘Oh, I better start having a tsunami plan’. Why does my little town of Ensenada on the Pacific coast need a tsunami plan? They didn’t have one ten years ago, but now they do. And that’s a geographical spread, not a spread due to a sudden greater sense of the urgency of any particular emergency.

RG: Just taking off on the consciousness of time issue, the shifts in consciousness of time and how they create different instances and pathologies as well… I hope this is not too personal. There is something that strikes me particularly in the noise book in relation to [the German philosopher Walter] Benjamin. One of his last essays is on the question of history, it’s just before his suicide, at that moment of despair, he actually hatches, or he feels the need to describe what the historical task is. In it he hatches this heliotropic concept of history that’s different from the materialist Marxist approach where there is a kind of redemptive element that has to do with a grasping of history. It has poetry to it in terms of how it blasts time open. I get the sense that in your work you’re kind of picking up on some of those points where Benjamin drops off, just leaves off in terms of how a making of history acts on the present, in your terms.

HS: Benjamin, who had considered suicide several times – this wasn’t the first time he considered it – had also been considering history in terms of how film itself changed one’s sense of time and one’s sense of immersion in events, especially as film cutting became more furious and more obvious. How does one fit oneself into a more fragmented world that seems to be at once visually coherent and visually incoherent? Then he writes in a very self-consciously messianic vein about history. Of course he had this long friendship with Gershom Scholem, and it is on the verge of breaking up. They’d been debating seriously for a while. But he has understood Scholem’s resurrection of this term ‘tikkun’ from the late sixteenth-century Diaspora after the Inquisitions. This is the notion that there had been an original whole universe and a light that had been so brilliant that one in fact could not live with it. The universe was then broken into shards of light and it was the job of the mystic, it was the job of the scholar, to bring those shards of light back together into some whole. And this notion then of resurrecting the world by bringing the fragments back together again, is certainly part of what he’s talking about, although he’s too much of a modernist by this time to believe that all fragments will fit back easily together. You might be able to read and bundle them, but they still might not fit. The puzzle won’t necessarily work. But it’s the energy, the act of believing that one can bring them back together again, which allows one to think that there’s room in history for humanity still. Does this mean that I, who often takes issue with Benjamin’s different perceptions, am still thinking of history as a way of taking all of the fragments back, reclaiming them for us in some redemptive fashion? I think of myself when I write history more as a poet than I do as a political philosopher. So when I gather together this story from here, and this fragment of perception from there, and I say, ‘What’s going on is some larger phenomenon that actually has a cultural momentum’, as a poet what I want to point out is in fact that if we do seriously consider the different parts of our world, they do have a cumulative and similar impact within each era upon us. If we take them into account, and are mindful of them, and we take that momentum into account, then perhaps there is a way of having more solid and serious relationships to one another. Because we’re taking into account, as a historian does in general, the different contexts by which one moves through life. Beyond that I cannot go.

RG: With the question of fragments, the gathering together in your sound plates (in Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang & Beyond) seems to me a very direct reference to Aby Warburg’s plates (in his Mnemosyne Atlas). The image plates, and the use of montage also connects to the history of avant-garde montage and the emergence of the technology of cinema. This creates a different possibility for the emergence of meaning. So I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the sound plates.

HS: The first reason I used sound plates, all of which are collages or montages of one sort or another, was that I was thinking about the role of visuals in a book about noise. And I decided that I, the author of a book on noise, should not be privileging any single image. Not even the image of frequency, sound waves. I should not privilege any image because I was talking about sound. Originally I thought I would have a CD with sounds to accompany the book. But gradually, since I was working on this book for twenty years, I realised that all the sounds I might point to are already on the Web. There was no point trying to go out and make some pure recording of some pure sound of pure noise in order for people to listen to it. And there were too many sound artists doing things that I would never even be able to keep track of over time. So let people use the Web to hear all those sounds, I couldn’t do a better CD than the Web does. Then I thought, ‘I’m going to have images regardless. They want images, I like images, but what is the equivalent image set for book on noise?’ I thought that it had to be collage. Especially collage where you are bringing together disparate objects that usually reflect some passage in the book that I was writing, but are now juxtaposed in a way that they weren’t juxtaposed in the book itself. This does come back to Warburg’s notion and also Russian cinema’s notion of the fragment and how you use it. But I had some difficulties with the designer of the book: I was using a very primitive program to put together these images, extremely primitive, and I wanted her to take what I had done and turn things around, invert them, make them more abstract or less legible. Play around with them even more! But she had been born into the notion that images should be clear, they should be ‘straight-on’, they should be part of the explanation of the text, one way or the other. We had lots of struggles to get to that degree of vertigo that I was looking for in the images, and we didn’t succeed too often. But the last answer, or part of the answer to your question about why the sound plates: I did want to make a pun on Chladni’s plates where you have whatever vibration is nearest by – the steel plate with sand on it registers a certain pattern that you didn’t necessarily expect – at least the first time for Chladni, he didn’t expect it. Later on he expected them, but when he first got them he just didn’t expect they would be so wonderfully symmetrical or that they’d be so complex. He just didn’t expect that. So, at least I was thinking that the sound plates would echo Chladni’s first abilities to make visual the sounds in his environment, and that I would use these images as a way of making visual the sounds in the book. However in the last part of the book and the last sound plates, I was hoping to get beyond the simple notion of a collage and juxtaposition and montage and superposition. I was hoping to get to a point where one could see images as interruptive, as people were claiming noise was in information theory, or interruptive in terms of psychological theory about attention. I never quite managed that with the final sound plates.

AA: Maybe one last question, to round off. I was wondering about your notion of the historian as poet. The poet connects the fragments, or in a book sets up a place where all of the cultural references begin to resonate. Could that be sort of a metaphor for what you do?

HS: The images try to do that, but what does it mean when a historian claims to be acting as a poet while writing history? The first thing it means is that a historian is extremely attentive to metaphor. That is, if I see something acting like or moving like something else – simile or a metaphor – I’m going to take that seriously. I’m not going to say: ‘Well this is just an illusion of language, or an illusion of my initial perception’. I’m trying to put things together that don’t belong just because I’m interested in them. I will take metaphor seriously, and that is in fact one of the ways in which both my research and my style of writing collude with my notion of history. That is, I will look seriously at metaphors that come out of daily experience, as well as out of literature, or children’s work, because I think there is some truly impressive mental and emotional work going on when people create metaphors. And you can’t ignore them because they are simply ‘poetic’, in quotation marks, or because they’re simply part of a struggle to become more precise. I think that in fact metaphors, whether they occur to me while I’m writing or whether I have found them elsewhere, are very good evidence of how people most deeply learn their world.


Video of the Hillel Schwartz Interview.

A Day of Noise Programme of the day on which we interviewed Hillel Schwartz. 

Report on A Day of Noise Rosa Menkman reports on A Day of Noise; includes a short video of Gijs Gieskes’ live performance.

Making Noise Page about Schwartz’ book on noise. You can download the notes and bibliography there.

Towards a History of Emergency A short explanation of Schwartz’ research into emergency.

Long Days Last Days Schwartz’ book for ‘those who are called to the side of someone critically of chronically ill’.

 Sage Case Management Schwartz’ work as a medical case manager.

Sirens Check out the notes on this Wikipedia page for early historical sources about sirens.

The Orchestra Essay by George Prochnik on sirens, from Cabinet, no. 41, ‘Infrastructure’, Spring 2011.

Decibels Introduction to decibels.

1755 Lisbon Earthquake The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 was one of the deadliest earthquakes in human history. It was discussed widely by Enlightenment philosophers, and was enormous blow to the optimism of those years. Voltaire famously uses it in Candide to attack Leibniz’ idea that we live in ‘the best of all possible worlds’. Kant wrote three texts on the earthquake, which developed into his idea of the sublime. It also led to the first seismological research. Walter Benjamin refers to it in his ‘Radio Plays for Kids’, made between 1929 and 1932. You can listen to a new production of them here (in German).

Walter Benjamin: On the Concept of History English translation of Walter Benjamin’s text on history, with the famous passage on the Angel of History (see thesis IX). A PDF of the German text is here.

Aby Warburg’s panels from the Mnemosyne Atlas Site of the library of Cornell University on ten panels of Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas. ‘The last project of the German Jewish cultural scientist Aby M. Warburg (1866–1929), the Mnemosyne Atlas is an unfinished attempt to map the pathways that give art history and cosmography their pathos-laden meanings. Warburg thought this visual, metaphoric encyclopaedia, with its constellations of symbolic images, would animate the viewer’s memory, imagination, and understanding of what he called ‘the afterlife of antiquity.’

The Chladi plates are the first attempt to visualise sound. These two links are from science museums (Whipple Museum and American History Museum), and include explanations plus some links to historical material. This link explains how to make Chladni plates yourself.

Hillel Schwartz (US) is a poet, cultural historian, and was recently the Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. Schwartz has taught in departments of history, humanities, religious studies, literature, and communication at the University of California in San Diego, San Diego State University, and the University of Florida. His current research concerns the changing nature and notion of ‘emergency’ since the late eighteenth century. Schwartz is the author of several books; his more recent publications include the 928-page Making Noise: From Babel to the Big Bang and Beyond (2011), and Long Days Last Days: A Down-to-Earth Guide for those at the Bedside (2013), a book he published as a medical case manager. As a poet and translator, he has published, together with Sunny Jung, a translation of the work of the poet Kim Nam-jo, one of Korea's leading poets: Rain Sky Wind Port (Codhill Press, 2014).

Arie Altena (NL) is a curator and editor for Sonic Acts. He studied literary theory, and writes about the intersections between art, media and technology.

Raviv Ganchrow (US/NL) is a sound artist and researcher. His work focuses on interrelations between sound and space, aspects of which are explored through sound installations, writing and the development of acoustic-forming and vibration-sensing technologies. Since 2006 he has been a faculty member at the Institute of Sonology, The Hague

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