Sounding off about noise

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It's a disheartening truth for anybody who works in or around radio that for most people, most of the time, radio isn't used as a source of information or entertainment. Instead, we employ it as a source of sound, an accompaniment to other things; and it's not as if those other things are the important, meaningful parts of our lives. You don't switch the radio on when you're really having a good time or you really need to concentrate; Radio 4 is rarely used as an aid to seduction. Instead, we use radio as an anaesthetic to dull the pain of all those chores necessary to maintain life - shaving, driving to work, sitting in an office, driving home again, washing up, ironing. When we can't talk to each other, we still like to feel the noise.

You might have expected this hunger for meaningless noise to be a major theme in Stephen Connor's series of talks entitled Noise (Radio 3, Monday- Friday), advertised as an "exploration of the noises at the edges of our lives which make the soundtrack of the late 20th century". Nothing of the kind: the thread which ran through all five programmes was the idea that in a world surrounded by more noise than ever before - the ticking of clocks, the revving of engines, the clacking of the Walkman, the trilling and blipping of phones, the whirrs, clicks and bleeps of computers - we tend to impose artificial meanings on noise, to construe them as a kind of speech. Dr Connor spoke of inhuman sounds pushing towards the condition of the voice, of the modern obsession with noise.

We are, certainly, obsessed with noise in the sense that we seem to want an awful lot of it. But the idea that obsession has anything to do with meaning seems plain wrong. Rather, we have become supremely tolerant of and indifferent to noise. What is happening in the modern world is that we are pushing voices towards the condition of inhuman sound, turning them into something merely mechanical.

A serendipitous piece of scheduling had The Music Machine (Radio 3, Monday- Friday) running a series of programmes on muzak, which Charles Hazlewood characterised as "the cement of modern life, which fills in all the gaps and excludes the draughts of silence". What became clear from these programmes was how far music is deprived of meaning when it is played constantly. It wasn't always like this - when Habitat first introduced in-store music in 1964, people would dance in the aisles; now, music teachers complain that students exposed to background music are becoming incapable of sitting down and listening.

We've learnt to ignore the meanings in sound more completely than ever before, in fact. You suspect that meaning only seems important when you have to sit down and write a series of talks on sound; and here, the effort to find meaning pushed Connor towards the condition of spouting significant- sounding nothings. In an episode devoted to sound and movement, for instance, he spoke of our ears being constantly assailed by "travelling sounds and the sounds of travel": but all sounds are, by definition, travelling sounds - sound is one way energy travels. Elsewhere, he opined that "the irritation induced by the Walkman is an irritation at knowing you have been reduced to the condition of a ghost for this person." Well, partly, maybe: mostly it's an irritation at the horrible noise they make.

Without wanting to detract from the punchiness of Connor's writing, and the joyful elegance and subtlety of Tim Dee's production, which plastered ambient noises all over Connor's words, most of what this series had to say struck me as absolute rubbish. Then again, does that matter? Who, after all, was listening?