I am not interested in writing about the deafening kind of noise that causes irreversible damage to the human ear. Nor in the wide range of sounds that you can hear outdoors, like the roar of surf, birdsong, or wind. What interests me far more is that elusive category in-between. Ranked highest among the sounds I find most unpleasant are: compulsive and demonstrative finger-cracking in libraries, and the high-pitched squeal of feedback from PA systems. Others can be driven insane by a dripping faucet, or even a ticking alarm clock, elevator music or in-store Muzak — noise that we have to hear whether we want to or not. My neighbor owns an admittedly quite attractive hunting dog that is genetically hard-wired to bark incessantly, or so she tells me. Why she has to keep this dog in the middle of a city is beyond me, but that’s beside the point here.

If you think you fall into the category of noise-sensitive people, you are in good company. It is known, for example, that Proust’s smoke-filled study, which doubled up as a bedroom, was completely soundproofed with cork. Hypersensitivity to noise doesn’t automatically qualify you to write masterpieces. But the renowned Frenchman knew how to tap his remarkably acute perception to be extraordinarily, even enviably prolific. Noise, in his opinion, was a kind of assassination of the senses. However, his labored breathing was beyond his control. Luckily, it was so loud that it not only drowned out the sound of his quill, but also the construction work being carried out on a bathroom a story above him.
More… “The Art of Noises”

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.


Everyone knows the feeling: discomfort, annoyance, rage, an entire range of emotions provoked by other people when one might wish to have total solitude, or at least relative peace and quiet. Welcome to the modern museum experience.

What do we want when confronting great art? Books are easy, ready companions, and it’s always possible to block out other distractions by resorting to noise-reducing devices that insulate us with auditory privacy. With film, live music and especially theater, the audience and its collective responses contribute to the greater pleasure of attending, even though there are plenty of times when one wants to smack the people sitting behind, talking as though they are in their living room; or the woman with dangling jewelry and poisonous perfume in the next seat. Rock concerts are based on mass participation; classical ones, formerly the closest thing to silent… More…

People often talk about the physical presence of Maryanne Amacher when talking about the artist Maryanne Amacher. They will talk about her yellow hair and her long solitary dreadlock that dates from 1962. Or they will mention the red ski suit she wore even in summer, or her aviator hat and goggles, or the way she moved when spotted from a distance — long and gliding — a bright red ghost ship at sea. They will sometimes talk about the great wooden house she inhabited in Kingston, New York — which was littered with objects and sounds — or the fact that she died with no surviving relatives. Artist as goggles, house as body, history as hair.

We want, sometimes, to hold on to the physical body of an artist because art is so elusive. The jumping spluttering paintings of Jackson Pollock, for instance, are hard to pin down. But… More…

People often describe German, my native language, as hard and aggressive. They relish criticizing its guttural sounds, long compound words, and the sentence structure, which is said to be especially complex. Perhaps you’ve seen the much-shared video featuring characters like a Bavarian in traditional costume who says a series of German words – but instead of pronouncing them “normally,” he exaggerates the harsh sounds to an absurd degree. A few months ago I took part in a less-than-enjoyable Facebook discussion devoted to the question of what anybody could ever find appealing about German. I quickly found myself in the position of trying to defend my native tongue – and soon gave up, since no one seemed inclined to change their entrenched opinion.

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His… More…