Here is a short reflection on what I think is one of Canadian composer Murray Schafer’s most important concepts--noise equals power. In his book “The Soundscape,” he writes that since the earliest human societies, loud noises induced fear, fear which became linked to the concept of sacred noise. The loud, fear-inducing noises of the natural world (e.g., thunder) were replaced, with civilization, by loud noises created by people for religious purposes. But now, under capitalism, we have new religious purposes.
“During the Industrial Revolution, Sacred Noise sprang across to the profane world. Now the industrialists held power and they were granted dispensation to make Noise by means of the steam engine and the blast furnace, just as previously the monks had been free to make Noise on the church bell or J.S. Bach to open out his preludes on the full organ” (p. 76).
The link between noise and power is embedded in our human experience. It is part of our evolutionary being. The lion roars, and we tremble in fear of the predator. The organ roars, and we tremble in fear of God. The construction vehicle roars, we tremble in fear of development. Here I am using the word fear as not only “a feeling of distress, apprehension, or alarm caused by impending danger, pain, etc” and “concern; anxiety” but also as “awe; reverence: fear of God.” The Old English word fǣr is related to the Latin perīculum danger, and biblically, the Latin used is timor, linking the concepts of dread and awe.
I appreciate Schafer's use of the word "dispensation" in connection to the industrialists. The billionaires are still provided sacred dispensation to make noise and profit at great ecological cost. Bill Gates' Foundation makes its billions of dollars off of hundreds of oil plants in the Niger Delta, leading to thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees, while Gates has the hubris to release a book on fixing climate change. His sacred position as a billionaire is, like the kings of feudal Europe, above reproach.
Progress—noise—induces in us dread and awe. Fear. Our fear, in this sense, is a religious act. The feared noise of the volcano stands beside the feared noise of mountaintop removal mining, which involves clearing the land of all topsoil and vegetation, blasting the earth to remove 600 feet or more of elevation using millions of pounds of explosive, digging through the debris using draglines, colossal earth-moving machines, dumping the waste and polluting headwater streams, chemically treating the coal with water; this processing creates slurry or sludge, including toxic heavy metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and chromium, and reclamation, in which tax payers give the corporations waivers, and they spray the area with non-native grass seed, leaving the land in a degraded state that may take hundreds of years to re-establish.
As Proverbs 14: 27 says, “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life.” Or in this case, the fear and reverence of progress is the fountain of death. We have not, in this Industrial Era, removed religion from schools. We have merely changed our religion. Some churches with the biggest crosses on their front lawns are the biggest examples of worshiping industry. But they're no the only ones. Schools are temples of progress. Of capitalist ideology. It is through the worship of greed and noise that we roar our own hubris. And music teachers are called on to educate people to the full-scope of the sonic world. This, for better or worse, includes understanding the use of noise for power in the 21st Century.
Link to image: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/b/b6/Lion_%28Panthera_leo%29_old_male_Chobe.jpg/640px-Lion_%28Panthera_leo%29_old_male_Chobe.jpg