A month or so ago, at a dinner party, my ears locked into a conversation between two men from a reasonable distance away. Drinks and hors d'oeuvres were still being served; glasses clinked in cheering, and the chinaware made all sorts of bright, transient sounds as they were picked up, put down, or met with cutlery. There was soft, unobtrusive music serving as a unifying background, festooned ever so often by exclamations, polite laughter, and other speech. On occasion a chair would be moved— possibly the only abrasive sound to this genteel soundscape. Ice cubes were dropped gingerly into my drink, not enough though for to not make the slightest of sounds (or did I imagine that?). As snatches of sentences reached me from various sources, I was able to telescopically isolate the conversation that I had quite unintentionally, unwittingly, chosen to eavesdrop upon. They spoke of a fairly prominent public figure and his current whereabouts. Perhaps it was his name that had drawn my attention. His libertine ways, peccadilloes so to speak, were the topic of conversation; in particular, there was mention of some frolicking in a bathtub filled with champagne that had apparently made quite a, well, splash. Some boisterous laughter ensued, filling the room with its force. And just like that, the sonic space had changed, and as I gathered my wits, my ears shifted focus seamlessly to a friend who sat down next to me. “Cheers!” she exclaimed and we clinked glasses. It seems now to me a sensory rupture of sorts—my eavesdropping was barely a minute, and yet, it seemed oddly long. That it was a relatively ‘hi-fi' party—marked by a more favourable signal to noise ratio—helped matters for it was easier to pick out individual, pellucid sounds that may have otherwise been masked in a different setting, In hindsight though, it all seems now a trick of the mind, a temporal illusion experienced by a disembodied double and flagged by auditory cues. Much like cinema.
The Bombay monsoon has finally fallen into character, after a destitute June. As I was falling asleep to the sound of heavy rain a few nights ago, my attention was once again momentarily drawn to the dense ecology of sounds that the droplets made as they struck several surfaces. There was the light, wind-swept tympanic percussion on the window pane, there were the lone droplets on the balcony ledge, the corpulent plops upon the leaves of the potted plants in the balcony, and there was the dense tumescent swoosh, the ‘white noise' of the environment, amidst several discrete sounds of varying time and frequency that I could distinguish in a short audition. Perhaps it was no longer that a few minutes. It felt much longer and so it is when we enter these strange, somewhat unsettling meditative states.
Rain sounds are packaged for commercial use as a sleep therapy device and a mood relaxant. White noise machines are commonly found, and used, although their efficacy is a matter of debate. White noise is generally understood to be a noise signal wherein the entire spectrum of frequencies is at the same intensity. Much like a diaphanous acoustic blanket, the signal has a physical consistency—a sort of drone character, so to speak. The ‘colour of sound', or the ‘colour' of a noise signal is an underlying concept here. Just as in music, we are able to describe and attribute ‘tone colour', what is also known as timbre, to a specific sound. In noise, the colour of a signal refers to the attributes of its frequency spectrum, in particular, its power. White noise is analogous to white light, characterized by a ‘flat frequency spectrum' in a narrow range, and in music and acoustics the signal is understood as a hissing sound. The use of a white noise generator or machine, for whatever purpose one may choose, is a process of ‘sound masking' wherein a sound/noise of the immediate environment is mitigated, cloaked, or ‘masked' by the addition of a natural or artificial sound (such as a white or a pink noise). Generally, the intention is to make the environment more acoustically pleasing, more amenable, relaxed, and to ironically, suggest a sense of quietude. So essentially, in order to mitigate, acoustically shadow, or conceal unwanted sounds that annoy or distract us, we employ noise. In many ways and iterations, we are essentially learning to cope with and negotiate noise (and noises), for noise, is ubiquitous. Actually, we seem to be perpetually learning noise.