All the Noise Noise Noise; or, on Paying Attention

Donald Revell’s trippy The Art of Attention is making me impatient, but he offers this quote from John Cage: “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” I’m curious at his use of the word “noise” (etymologically linked to nausea, interestingly enough, which comes from seasickness) and what he means by “mostly noise.” What is the rest of what we hear?

This morning the tinkle of what was either water dripping or the far song of red-winged blackbirds was the first sound I was conscious of. A lovely way to start the conscious day. Now the humph, clatter, and mumble of clumps of snow sliding off the new metal roof. Sometimes alarming, startling, confusing, nevertheless, as I know what the noise is, I find it mostly amusing, that the slick roof boots its snow piles so readily and with seeming vigor.

My husband and I clash about noise — he likes to thoughtlessly click on the radio just to have noise. I am forced to listen — there is no such thing as background noise for me. I always listen. (I don’t always find it fascinating.) I have a love/hate relationship with noise — appreciate some of it, detest others, and that often I’m unable to control noise’s access to me makes me anxious.

I believe my mother began truly aging when she began losing her hearing but refused to wear a hearing aid. Conversations became difficult, birds turned silent. (But the good part is, she is rarely disturbed now by noise. Which is good, as she is living in community and the place is rarely quiet.)

I can close my eyes, hold my nose, refuse to taste, but I can’t not hear. My work is to make the best of the noise, to pay it attention. Revell writes, “A musician is inclined to listen, and when he listens, the sounds are music.” He advises, “Incline our senses…toward…the noise becoming music.”

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