Alarms, Beeps, and Other Auditory Tortures

We live in a world filled with noise, both the noise we generate internally from all of our mind chatter, and the externally created noise we are confronted with at the moment we awake. There is soundless noise, and there is loud, obtrusive, and incessant noise, which is not merely an alert, but a demand, or an instrument of torture. 

My boyfriend and I are of the same persuasion.  Certain noises, unfortunately present in everyday life, make us want to do bad things to total strangers, like throw a brick through the windshield of a car whose alarm is going off for no damned reason at all.

Take, for example, a lovely Sunday afternoon in Antigua, Guatemala exploring the ruined portion of a cathedral.  There is a working church on the site, and followers are praying and chanting and singing in the Sunday mass, and a breeze is picking up the ash dumped by Fuego days ago and shaping it into churlish clouds.  Fractured baroque architecture hangs above, incomplete and covered in soot and dust, and absolute lovely for everything it was and is no longer.


Antigua, Guatemala, 2015 © JL Colomb

There are birds, and worshippers, and ruins and the moment is one to fold up and put into a tin of memories.  Until a freaking car alarm goes off.  And continues to go off.  Not for a little while, but for the next 20 minutes. 

The spell is broken.  We speed through the fetishes and votives, and flee from the jarring WAH WAH WAH of the car alarm, which we discover is attached to a new Black Mercedes parked in a handicapped spot though there are no plates or papers or placards denoting a need for handicapped accessibility of any kind.  What’s worse, is that the doors of the church have been open during the entire mass and the car is parked not 50 feet away directly in front of them. 

No one comes out.  No one has made a move to turn off their screeching car alarm even though, one could surmise, the owner of the car is sitting right there.

Another example lurks within the walls of our own home.  Suspect No. 1: the microwave.  Why does a microwave have to yell when it’s done?  We live in the age of advancing technology, of coding geniuses.  Why can’t we have chimes, or our favorite song, or how about a simple text message to say ‘hey, I made something for you and you might want to get it out of my belly and into your belly now’?  Why does it have to beep that jarring beep better suited for a real emergency, like fire or smoke?  And it’s not just one beep.  Four, or if you’re unlucky five, angry trill declarations will resound upon completion of the warming task.  The frequency of the beep is not the only thing that drives us crazy, it’s the pitch, too. [Aside: there was a New York Times article about what sound drives people crazy. A certain kind of baby cry, and a specific cat yowl had an equitable effect on helping people lose their rationale minds.]

Our coffee maker announces itself in this same attention seeking way.  It beeps when it’s finished brewing, and again three hours later when it decides the coffee in the thermal carafe is no longer drinkable.

I do understand these features, particularly on kitchen appliances, are desirable for some people.  I yield; however, a little extra engineering would give the rest of us an option to be free from beeping.

But now, one of my biggest nail-biting, head banging, ear gouging stimulus: lip-smacking, openmouthed chewing.  This, more than car alarms, microwaves and coffee makers, makes me want to navigate the world with my ears stuffed with wax. 

Other people don’t have the same sensitivity to this, and for the longest time I thought I was the crazy weirdo with super hearing.  As it turns out, I’m probably only misophonic.  Yep. Thanks to another New York Times article, I have diagnosed myself with this syndrome, which is so pervasive it is actually a syndrome with its own name.  Selective sound sensitivity syndrome (i.e. misophonia) is suspected when a person (like me) has an acute negative emotional response to specific stimuli.  The sounds of eating and fidgeting are popular triggers. The response? Annoyance, irritation and on the other end of the spectrum, actionable anger (the term sounded more pleasant than rage) and panic attacks.  I wonder if Hieronymus Bosch was afflicted by something like this.

We are impacted by the noises in our environment.  Car horns and alarms, speeding engines and squealing tires, arguments and anger.  And what do these sounds, or the sounds of gun shots, bombs, or the cries of someone in pain do to us? These frequencies ripple through our world.  They reshape us in the moment, and sometimes beyond.  We become to attuned to them; we bend to their peaks and troughs. From this perspective, consider the importance of silence.  Consider the critical nature of laughter, music, the sounds of the wind and birds and rain, and the joy the voice holds when we discover and wonder at something.


Civica Jazz Band, Milano 2012 © JL Colomb


Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks, August 2013

Joseph Campbell, the comparative mythologist, talked about the importance of rituals.  In the time/space of modern life, community can be fractured. High-density living trends toward anonymizing people.  The migration of human beings creates a cultural diaspora, which can make it difficult to connect on the simple problem of miscommunication, both linguistically and through customs.

Rituals, personal, within family, and in a larger context, give texture and meaning to life.  Ritual does exist today, albeit it in a severely altered form.  We have coming of age events, recognition of seasonal change (ex. Christmas (winter solstice) and Easter (Spring Equinox) in Christian traditions), wedding ceremonies and marking the passage of time (birthdays). I feel like many of our modern rituals are often more procedural, lacking depth and profundity.  However, we can craft our own rites, full of substance, full of immediacy and significance.

Seeing live shows is one of the bonding rituals my mom and I have.  It’s not a hardship since we have the same taste in music.  In fact, she’s typically quicker at recognizing awesomeness than I am.  We have sing-alongs in the car on the ride to the venue, and on the way home.  If we go up to LA for a show (common occurrence), she arrives in her hi-ho silver Prius, texts me from the alley.  I rush down the stairs and slide into the car and start my navigation duties. We’ll stop at Golden Road Brewery for a bite to eat, and some delicious beer before heading to the venue.

In August, we saw the National at the Greek. We’ve see them a few times, but this time was different.  During the show, I received an email from a friend, letting me know her husband was in the hospital.  Ed, one of my favorite people in the world, and the closest thing I had to a father, would die a week later. This heaviness and the intensity of the performance the National gave combined to create a strange, disjointed, but transcending experience.  The emotional vitality of the music became a conduit, and an outlet.  The angst, and the release.

Then a bit of magic happened.  For their last song, the National performed an acoustic version of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks (as they had been across the country on this tour).  Six thousand people sang together.  As alone as anyone was/is in life, during the song we were a community of voice, present and grounded in that special moment.

the blow: true affection

You know how a dog freezes, then gets ridiculously excited when you say certain words.  Like “walk” or “treat”.  Sometimes music does that to me.  A new song will oscillate through my ear canals, vibrate my ear drums.  I’ll stop, then my head and torso will start bobbing in what a colleague has described as a Parkinson’s fit.

Enter The Blow’s “True Affection”

It’s a sparse little synth lullaby with a snappy backbeat.  It starts with a simple keyboard melody, then layers in percussion.  The singing is sans reverb.  You can almost feel the air of the words rolling around in her mouth, talking shape there.  Clean, the vocalization trims off to a sort of exasperated breathiness.

Check out this one, too.

And by the way, yes is the word.

the first one

I’m not sure exactly what it is about live shows.  Maybe there’s some sort of ancestral memory, from way back when we picked our teeth with animal bones and had such copious amounts of body hair that fur would be a more appropriate term.  Whatever the case, there is a different sort of recognition that tingles through my blood for live music versus recorded tunes.  Even if it’s a low-key setting with a band I’ve never heard before, I heart live music.

Last Friday, my mom and I checked out our first show of the year: Anchor & Bear at the Pour House (aka Paso Robles Brewing Company). This was a perfect end to a day of wetting our lips with the nectar of the vines, and soaking in the landscape.

The Pour House is basic.  They have tables and particle board.  They have chairs and taps.  They serve a line up of stellar brews and know what they’re pouring.  And if Anchor & Bear is any indication, they also have decent taste in music.

A&B (decked out in matching, striped, jailbird-style shirts) was the only band that night, playing a 3-hour set with one break. Mainly folk, rock, and a vein of country (back beat / bass), they crooned original folky melodic tunes (check out Maybe Mustache and Bicycle Races), and played some really obscure covers.  One drummer (Eric White, small kit), bass player (Ed Kasper), lead singer playing rhythm (Bearkat, also songwriter), and a second lead singer and lead guitar (Paul Starling, also songwriter) make up the flesh and bones of the band.  Though they’ve only been together for about six months, they worked out how to tackle unpracticed material onstage with little to no trouble.

Ed kept trying to get us to dance and enjoyed heckling us a bit.  His bandmates were just as personable and real.  Assessment: Anchor & Bear gave a fun show, and are worth a listen.

The New Experiment

December was all about haikus and photos.  Nibbling at creating.  Delving into a pixelated moment and saturating myself with it until something, anything, sparked. I spent the last month reminding myself that life can’t be lived solely in the act of refining and making a work better.  In other words, editing has dominated my life since June, and it was time for a reset.

Yes, for a writer editing is a crucial part of the process. It can also grin up at you as it wraps its steel teeth around your ankle. The very first thing we have to do when being utterly possessed by this creature is dissolve it, prune the impulse to fuss and fiddle, and refuse to tell ourselves we cannot make a mark until it’s perfect and worthy of the observer.  As the internal critic turns into a viscous puddle, we must create. Without judgement or fear.  With joy.  That’s what December was really all about.

January is going in another direction.  One of my loves in life is music.  I haven’t been patient enough to learn an instrument, but I love listening to the physical manifestation of beauty as vibrations.  String instruments are among my favorites.  There is a richness of sound in guitar, piano, and cello, like a glorious sip of wine dancing in all its complexity on your tongue.  It resonates in me, subtle like fur, round and full as a wave, and sharp as sun reflecting off chrome.

As much as I love to get spiritual about it, getting too caught up in the exultation is folly.  I embrace the base/profane as much as the transcended.  This month I’ll be exploring music.  New discoveries, old favorites, live shows and quiet contemplations.

Welcome to “The Sound Experiment”.

underground sketches

2012 May 14-Milano by InkSpot's Blot
2012 May 14-Milano, a photo by InkSpot’s Blot on Flickr.

people gather in the courtyard,
notes scatter on stone, they chit chat
a bubbling rhythm, sound bouncing off columns,
as they wait.
and the musicians come, sitting in the sun in black
coats and pants, sweat
shimmering and horns scaling
as they wait.
he is there, sifting through sheets of
notes turning lines into jungle gyms.
white hair plays the same way.
in the courtyard, in the sun he stands
raises his hands
and they wait

Best Venues of 2011

I wish I knew all the places in Southern California that had the best acoustics.  Being a music-phile, you’d think I’d  have the sensibility and care to research such things.  Alas, this reflection on the “Best Venues” will be slightly more toward the superficial end of things.  I’m a sucker for “stunners”.  The ambience of venue also counts; whether it’s low or high brow, the kind of place that reminds you of your living room or sends you to the moon.  In no particular order:

The Orpheum, Los Angeles, California
The Orpheum is luscious and rich.  Each surface reflects not only art and care, but also a passion for the ornate. It is a cacophony of wood, marble, and glass.  It was originally built to be a player in the vaudeville circuit.  Design began in 1923, and the building was realized, with its first opening night in 1926.  Check it.  3 years before the bottom dropped out of the US economy.  Standing outside, the marquee beat, beat, beats its own rhythm.  The Orpheum houses a Wurlitzer Style 240 Special organ.  The heart of the organ is tucked away some where, but the pipes are bare and visible.  Waiting.  We saw Tori Amos here, with Apollon Musagete.  Phenom.

The Caves, Edinburgh, Scotland
Historic and epic.  The Caves is a truly unique venue dating back to the 1700s, subterranean (under South Bridge), massive brick vaults.  People forgot about it. But like some things forgotten, it was remembered a century later.  We chatted with the owner a bit.  If memory serves correctly, he assured us it was in fact haunted. Again relying on faulty memory, I believe it’s also part of Mary King’s Close.  In any case, being in the humid embrace of these caverns, grooving out to music is not at all a bad way to spend the evening.

Anthology, San Diego, California
This one is easy and close to home. It was financed by a music lover (so it does have the acoustic considerations).  The peculiar aspect of Anthology is that is harkens back to the dinner clubs of the 1930 and 40s, with an obvious updating of the decor (definitely modern).  I like the cool elegance, and low key atmosphere of this place.  My favorite performance of the year, hands down, was the Barr Brothers. They have a distinct sound, dabble across genres while belonging to none. Experimental and playful.

Notable mentions:
The Greek Theater and the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles California.  (See the previous post on Best Concerts of 2011 for the reasons why.)
The Soda Bar, San Diego, California. (A little grungy, totally local, and they typically pick good indie bands.)