Silenced as Noise

Excluded as she was from political intelligibility within historical continental discourses of individuality (Scott 1996), “woman” throughout Anglo-American histories of sound and music has similarly been been ignored, negated and generally written out of existence. The title of Lina Džuverovic’s and Anne Hilde Neset’s project, Her Noise, whilst for the co-curators may be an anagram that references ‘heroines’, in this instance provides a foundational key through which to address the immediate power relations of the milieu in which Feminist Frequencies finds itself. The title Her Noise, can be further considered as a particular kind of ‘performed articulation’ that highlights and re-works the region that binds these terms: the connection of historical ideas of ‘woman’ with historical ideas about noise and silence whereby “women”, as artist, researcher and writer Marie Thompson explains, have been considered as harbingers of noise, chatting and gossiping unintelligibly and interfering in signals of pure communication (Thompson 2013).

The poet Anne Carson writing about the sound of gender throughout classical antiquity to the present day claims that “putting the door on the female mouth has been an important project of patriarchal culture” whose primary strategy has been the “ideological association of female sound with monstrosity, disorder and death” (Carson 1992: 121). Carson provides examples from classical literature that have written women as “a species given to disorderly and uncontrolled outflow of sound – to shrieking, wailing, sobbing, shrill lament, loud laughter, screams of pain or pleasure and eruptions of raw emotion in general” (Carson 1992: 126). Thompson, in her text Gossips, Sirens, Hi-fi Wives: Feminising the Threat of Noise, traces the associations of women, noise and silence through various religions, nations and cultures that similarly construct ideas about ‘woman’ through “philosophical dichotomies that have governed and legitimated their subordination” and that have “been constructed in terms of unreason, disorder, non-meaning and excess” (Thompson 2013: 299). “Woman”, Thompson writes, has been “met with fear and degradation; she has been the perversion of reason, morally bankrupt and the abject defilement of the sacred and the pure”, an abject body best “seen and not heard” (Thompson 2013: 299).

Implicit within the admonitions of women’s silence is a fear of her sonic presence. It is not so much that her silence is virtuous but that her noise is dangerous to the ears of patriarchal orders. In turn, female or feminine speech has often been branded as unwanted noise; their ‘idle gossiping’, their squeals of excitement, and their conversations are cast out as abject distractions; their unpredictable outbursts are to be controlled and abated. The imagined noise of women, of feminine speech and conversation is marked within the languages of various cultures in derogatory and unflattering terms (Thompson 2013: 299).

Writer and sociologist Anne Karpf similarly writes of the historical “strident prejudice” against women’s voices dating from second century religions and classical philosophies to the present day (Karpf 2007). She quotes a “sixteenth-century writer on rhetoric” as declaring “What becometh a woman best, and first of all: Silence. What seconde: Silence. What third: Silence. What fourth: Silence” (Karpf 2007: 156). Extending her investigation through histories of radio broadcasting, Karpf explains, “the invention of the megaphone, loudspeaker, and microphone did nothing to change the common belief that women made poor orators because their voices weren’t powerful enough” (Karpf 2007: 157). The sound of women’s voices within the heyday of radio were judged upon pitch and timbre where a “high voice in women was associated with demureness, and low voice with sexuality” (Karpf 2007: 158), both voices disqualifying women on the basis of either promiscuity or lack of authority in an auditory example of the double bind of lack and excess that has dogged the category of women for centuries. Similarly tracing associations of women and noise where women are deemed to “talk too loudly and too much” Karpf suggests “if silence is the ideal for women, then any talk in which a woman engages can be too much” (Karpf 2007: 160).

The cultural status of noise, which Jonathan Sterne analyses through the emergence of computing, the development of the MP3 codec and the resultant “domestication of noise” within acoustic histories and psychoacoustic discourses, assumes historically shifting definitions as either noise to be controlled, noise to be eradicated or noise to be put to use (Sterne 2012: 92-127). Yet whilst the uses of noise may have changed throughout different historical periods, the underlying assumption about noise as something largely negative and as a sonic materialisation of difference has endured. Sterne traces the ways in which noise has historically been defined “in terms of its frequency characteristics: nonperiodic, irregular, or otherwise not behaving like pitched or recognised sound…in contrast to a broader subjective and social definition of noise as “unwanted sound” that at its extreme could be a threat to the social order” (Sterne 2012: 108). Noise, according to Sterne, has been variously defined as “extraneous sounds which serve only to interfere with proper reception”, as “unwanted disturbance”, as “that which interfered with communication in a channel”, as “extraneous disturbances” and as “an interfering element to be eliminated” (Sterne 2012: 108). Noise, historically and throughout its various implementations and representations, only moves towards gaining a slightly more positive reputation as something that, as Jacques Attali asserts, can be commodified (Attali 1985).

Through the narration of these historical accounts and representations of noise and silence, it is possible to hear the way in which the combination of ‘her’ and ‘noise’, historically, has been leveraged as an insult, as a means of silencing and discounting the sounds, speech, ideas, beliefs and most importantly the agency attached to the appellation her. Her noise then can be considered, more often than not, leveraged historically and often still in the historical present as a form of injurious speech, as a way to discount the legitimacy, authority and agency of female experience and women’s musical and sonic production, as a means of silencing. The continuing legacy of such thinking can perhaps be further grasped through the reporting of the Her Noise Project at the South London Gallery in 2005 by London-based art critic Adrian Searle, who called for “more structure, more sound, less noise” in a review titled Quiet Please (Searle 2005). The journalist’s critique of the unstructured noise of the exhibition is a contemporary example of the continued dismissal of women’s work based upon universal masculine standards whereby the article compared each aspect of the Her Noise exhibition with male precedents as a way of largely dismissing the noisy claims of the project, from John Cage, Lou Reed, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, through to Morton Feldman (Searle 2005). In insisting upon normative and historical definitions of both women and noise through the locution “more structure…less noise” the critic has attempted to fix the sound produced within the project within dominant and normative representations of artistic value, trading in the aesthetic separation of music and noise and maintaining the sexist and derogatory association of women with unwanted noise. In particular, the critic trades upon misogynistic, romantic and historical definitions of both women and noise, as categories that threaten social order and that need to be controlled and regulated through recognised linguistic and musical structures (Attali 1985, 8; Sterne 2012, 124).

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