David Owen in the New Yorker on Noise Pollution

David Owen in the New Yorker on Noise Pollution

There’s an interesting and somewhat maddening story by David Owen in the current New Yorker on noise and health (both human and animal).

Interesting because, well this is something I am interested in. I for one can hardly get enough of this kind of thing:

We stepped into an adjacent room. “Here is our acoustic laboratory,” Christophe said. He handed me one of Bruitparif’s sound-monitoring devices, which he had helped invent. It’s called Medusa. It has four microphones, which stick out at various angles, hence the name. The armature that holds the microphones is bolted to a metal box roughly the size of an American loaf of bread. Inside it is a souped-up Raspberry Pi—a tiny, inexpensive computer, which was originally intended for use in schools and developing countries but is so powerful that it has been adopted, all over the world, for myriad other uses. (You can buy one on Amazon for less than forty bucks.) Embedded in the central microphone stalk are two tiny fish-eye cameras, mounted back to back, which record a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree image each minute. Medusas are the successors of Bruitparif’s first-generation sensors, called Sonopodes, which rely on expensive components imported from Japan. Sonopodes are still in use, although they are too big to move around easily. “The Japanese system is very good, but each one costs almost thirty thousand euros, and we can’t deploy it as much as we expect,” Christophe told me. “So we built our own system, which is small and low-cost. The idea is the same.” Bruitparif has installed fifty Medusas in the metropolitan area, and will add many more this summer.

And we should all be personally concerned with this issue:

Modern sound-related health threats extend far beyond music, and they affect more than hearing. Studies have shown that people who live or work in loud environments are particularly susceptible to many alarming problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, and all the physical, cognitive, and emotional issues that arise from being too distracted to focus on complex tasks and from never getting enough sleep.

In February, Bruitparif, a nonprofit organization that monitors environmental-noise levels in metropolitan Paris, published a reportthat combined medical projections from the World Health Organization with “noise maps” based partly on data from its own network of acoustic sensors. It concluded, among many other things, that an average resident of any of the loudest parts of the Île-de-France—which includes Paris and its surrounding suburbs—loses “more than three healthy life-years,” in the course of a lifetime, to some combination of ailments caused or exacerbated by the din of cars, trucks, airplanes, and trains. These health effects, according to guidelines published by the W.H.O.’s European regional office last year, include tinnitus, sleep disturbance, ischemic heart disease, obesity, diabetes, adverse birth outcomes, and cognitive impairment in children. In Western Europe, the guidelines say, traffic noise results in an annual loss of “at least one million healthy years of life.
Maddening, because little of this is news. Anyone who read any of a host of books and studies could tell you this. And the solutions are not pie-in-the-sky by any means. As Owen’s article ends:

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David Monacchi: “Fragments of Extinction”, the sounds of vanishing nature

With the prospect of mass extinction in the news, it seems a good time to reflect on the loss of soundscapes. In Ireland, the corncrake and the curlew were once the background sounds of daily life; now they are nearly vanished.

I have posted before about nature recording artists such as Gordon Hempton and Chris Watson who have captured soundscapes in the natural world that one hopes will not vanish altogether. I came across David Monacchi and his Fragments of Extinction project.

Monacchi records (and streams) soundscapes from the dwindling number of intact, untouched forests around the world. What makes his work especially compelling is the clarity with which he illustrates how these ecosystems have a panoply of harmonious acoustic niches, across species and genera. The best way to get a sense is this short video:

https://vimeo.com/306680713/description

“When I landed in the republic of conscience / it was so noiseless when the engines stopped./ I could hear a curlew high above the runway.”

From the Republic of Conscience was written by Seamus Heaney in 1985 at the request of Mary Lawlor, then head of Amnesty International in Ireland. While I find it perhaps a little bit too cutely virtuous as it goes on, I do love the opening image – or rather soundscape. To hear the curlew, you need

I

When I landed in the republic of conscience
It was so noiseless when the engines stopped.
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
II
Fog is a dreaded omen there, but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunder storms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
The hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.

III
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

The lost worlds of Debois and Julieta Guipeal at the Tipperary County Museum

The lost worlds of Debois and Julieta Guipeal at the Tipperary County Museum

This is Portrait of a Man, by Julieta Guipeal:

Screenshot_20190221-175424_Gallery.jpg

Apologies for the photo quality – this was taken with my phone’s camera in a well-lit (and thereby reflective) space.

It is currently on display as part of an exhibition called Reflections in Tipperary County Museum, Clonmel. Here is a bit of background on the exhibition:

Earlier this year [2018], Tipperary County Museum initiated a vital research project which focused on the origins of its municipal art collection. Art Historian, Catherine Marshall was appointed Curator in Residence at Tipperary County Museum to oversee this particular project. The result of Catherine’s findings will be documented in a specialised catalogue in early 2019 and the accompanying exhibition ‘Reflections’ will exhibit approximately 65 paintings which have remained unseen by the general public for many years.

This Tipperary Art Collection is the result of active, committed and sustained citizenship by a small group of people, from those who established the South Tipperary Fine Arts Club in the 1940s, to individual donors like William English in the 1980s and more recently Tipperary County Council S.R., South Tipperary County Council and our now unified Tipperary County Council.

Portrait of an Artist and others of the most interesting works (including “F***lands 1982”) are part of the William English Bequest. I haven’t been able to find out much about William English online (possibly because there is an artist of that name) this article:

Subsequently, the original collection was added-to by a number of bequests, the most notable of which came from Clonmel man, William English. This brought relatively modern artists (working in the late decades of the 20th century) into the gallery: Robert Ballagh, Patrick Pye, Leo Hogan, Julieta Guipeal, and the Clonmel-born artist, Martin Quigley.

The above article by Margaret Rossiter is the only online reference to Julieta Guipeal I could find.  The catalogue for the exhibition states “All attempts to find the artist Julieta Guipeal have so far come to nothing. While almost all of the William English Bequest was acquired in the Limerick area, enquiries about Guipeal there have yielded no information, nor have early international searches”:

 

Here is another, unfortunately blurry, view of Portrait of A Man:

Julieta Guipeal is not the only lost artist on display. Here is a work whose very title is a mystery. Is it  EA or A1/2?  We known it is signed by “Debois”, but who is Debois? Again, apologies for the quality:

Screenshot_20190221-175330_Gallery.jpg

Here is the image in a bit more context with a great big stonking reflection of myself hogging the frame:

While in Guipeal’s case one can make assumptions (possibly misleading ones) about gender and possible ethnicity, in Debois’ case we have even less to go on. As the catalogue states “No information has come to light about the artist who signed this work, Debois, and no indications of how William English came across his or his work. That is all the more intriguing since the work itself is so tantalisingly dreamlike and surreal”:

 

20190221_181824.jpg

So there you have it – I have posted before here about the amnesia of our supposedly information-saturated age., and here we have two intriguing works, each by an artist apparently unknown for anything else.

Against the inspirational

A while back I posted about what I called the Inspirational Imperative; the pressure to craft suffering and distress and setbacks into more-easily-digestible, feelgood stories of “inspiration.”

The need to be “inspirational” can become like the “the success-failure whiplash”, wherein our identities become caught up in how inspirational and positive we can be.

An addiction, not unlike that to being busy or being responsible for others’ pain.

A pressure.

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience.” Hype breeds disillusion. Most of all, our own internal hype, one that is pumped up and primed and built up by technology and our media-saturated lives – but is also something perpetual in human life.

 

We reach for quick fixes,  practice solutionism, search for the new New Thing.

We are continually being asked, “what then?”:

His chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’ 

When the viral video’s hits have plateaued, when the few seconds rush of Inspiration is gone, when any “success” has been achieved, there is always a “what then?”

I’ll end this post by simply saying that we all have our own Plato’s Ghost. But who is yours?

The demands of silence

The demands of silence

On of the recurrent themes of this blog has been various writings – by others, by myself – on silence. Of course, all this verbal activity on silence carries with it a kind of hypocrisy. A lot of noise about silence! I’m aware of the irony, and the risks.

I’m aware, too, of the downside of silence – those who have been silenced, had silence forced on them. I’m aware that to be silent can be to condone injustice. A book I read some years ago which has been very helpful in this regard is The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel, full of examples of how conspiracies of silence are maintained, often without any formal “conspiracy.”

One concept Zerubavel mentions (rather in passing if memory serves) is the “conspiracy of noise” – wherein we do not find silence but the opposite, noisy activity about everything except what matters.

This concept, along with this passage from George Steiner – “Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian”, have helped me in resolving this tension between silence as a positive, life-enhancing experience and silence as oppression or repression.

I’ve been gradually making my way through Maggie Ross’ “Silence: A User’s Guide. It is full of good stuff, arresting stuff, stuff that makes me question some of my own habits and practices.

I do have one caveat, which is a nagging sense that perhaps Ross’ approach may make the best the enemy of the good. Her scorn for much nonsense about “mysticism” and “spirituality” is no doubt justified. Similarly the related scorn at the commodification and institutionalisation of an experiential process.

At times, however, the tone is a little like those three step I-You-He miniatures that Craig Brown (for one) has written (I have been try to recall what they might be called) in the form of:


I experience silence in the purest form
You have a rather superficial interest in the practice
He is a middle-class dillitante whose so-called spirituality is a mere commodity fetishism

Maybe a bit unfair to Ross, and no doubt she is right to be wary of romanticisation of monasticism and such. But it all seems rather harsh. Silence is a practice open to everyone (as Ross very clearly sets out – indeed even the term “practice” is too redolent of something forced)

It struck me today that silence has its own demands, ones that compete, usually unsuccessfully, with the demands of busy-ness and of the world. This is especially true as our culture becomes more and more always on, full of alerts and notifications.

I loved the Odon von Horvath quote – “I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him” featured in the post above. Which is of us, if we died tomorrow, would feel that the digital trace of our lives would be “me”, would sum us up, would capture our essence?

Silence is somewhere we encounter our essence. This encounter can have explicitly religious elements, or not This is an encounter, increasingly, that it takes specific effort to have. Our default is becoming noise and the vigilance of alerts (of course, there is a vigilance and threat with silence – a deeper threat indeed)

We also need to remember that “silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth” and that a certain humility with regard to our own efforts is crucial. Absolute silence is probably physiologically unobtainable, indeed much of the discourse on silence is really about freedom from humanly-created noise.

In this context, we need to remember that Silence has its own demands. Just as sleep is something we need to consciously facilitate against various pressures of modernity, despite its “naturalness”, we no longer just experience silence but have to be open to its demands. To take things full circle, “the silent are never at home in our culture again”