“RACKET! Too Much! Too little!”
Noise is ‘too much’ when it exceeds annoying and becomes debilitating. Noise is ‘too little’ when it appears on lists of environmental concerns. Both terms apply to artists who address noise pollution. Art abounds that offers analysis, reports, and solutions regarding air pollution and water pollution. But noise is missing from their accountings. Air pollution is typically associated with emissions of harmful chemical gases like carbon monoxide and particulates like soot. Water pollution is typically associated with harmful changes in its physical, chemical and biological properties caused by the release of waste, oil spills, and atmospheric deposition. The racket bombarding the air and the water that is being generated by current technologies is missing from these equations.
Humans have been creating bothersome clamor for a very long time, at least since 1700 BCE when a Babylonian text was written on a clay tablet. The poem relays that the gods were angered because humans were making such a racket, it prevented them from sleeping. The poem, entitled ‘Atrahasis’, intones, “The country was as noisy as a bellowing bull. The God grew restless at their racket” These celestial beings were so outraged the rude noisemakers that they created an epic flood that they followed by famine and plague.
What punishment might the gods impose today that would be proportional to the decibel levels associated with subways, sirens, jack hammers, jets, drilling rigs, and back hoes that dominate the contemporary soundscape? Alternatively, we might ask, what devices and technologies can humans devise to moderate unbearable sound levels?
Instead of ancient gods, these questions are being pondered by artists, many working in collaboration with engineers and neuroscientists. Fundamental to their efforts is acknowledgment of the gravity of conditions they are intent on moderating. Noise pollution can cause hearing loss, disrupt sleep, interfere with communication; factor into cardiac, respiratory, neurological, and other physiological maladies; produce stress, high blood pressure, anger, and frustration; lower resistance to disease and infection; cause circulatory problems, ulcers, asthma, colitis, headaches, and gastrointestinal disorders; interfere with children’s language development and learning ability. In addition, excessive noise harms livestock, pets, and animals in the wild. Vibrations induced by sound waves can also damage property. This problem is so urgent and pervasive, attending to it may require those within our society who are endowed with ‘godly’ creative powers – our artists.