Friction- Signal to Noise

A cacophony rises you from sleep—the howling of sirens and thudding construction work. You pick up your phone to check the time before assaulting your eyes with blue light and doom. Shovel cornflakes with a quantum superposition of sweet and sour milk into your mouth. Not enough sleep to be rested. Coffee will have to carry you. A disassociated hobble along the route to the subway, so well travelled it might as well be a track. Ambient conversations increase in volume when you’re commuting in a sardine tin. Your smartwatch sends a notification to do some mindful breathing exercises. It sits unread amongst spam texts, e-commerce nag notifications and a reminder that you have that extra thing to do at work during your lunch break that you shouldn’t have agreed to, but you were asked, and you said yes, and now it’s too late. You put in your earphones- not headphones, not portable enough, or too expensive, or you don’t like the way they squish your glasses against your head, but you still wish you had them now. Maybe one of those Sony headsets with an impossible to remember name or a Bose you need to take out a mortgage for. A podcast dude crawls out of the speaker grille to tell you about how easy it is to take your business online with a website from Squarespace, using one of their professionally designed templates optimised for desktop and mobile, and don’t forget to sign up to the latest monthly subscription box to fully automate your consumption and avoid communicating with lesser beings at retail. You mash the “forward fifteen seconds” button over and over, microphone peaking blasts of snorting laughter and vape rips- and no, stop. This much you have control over. Close your eyes. Let the world tend itself. Listen to some music. Merzbow. Knocked Loose. Frontierer. Walls of sound for your shattered mind. Are you sure you don’t want something nice? No. Noise is distinct from The Noise. That itch in your brain, that internal sound and fury, now out of phase with the patterns of harsh noise and guitars. Peace through catharsis. Silence through sound.

Signal through noise.

I haven’t written much about music before. I don’t have a solid musical background. I tried learning the keyboard on a hand-me-down, but it didn’t stick. My school recommended trombone, severely misjudging my family’s income and tolerance for endless brass groaning. And yet, music is important to me. There isn’t any way to say that without it being an obnoxious truism. Isn’t music important to everybody? Well, no, I’ve taught enough classes in which a student answers “Do you like music?” with a flat “No.” That such a response usually results in baffled looks is telling- of all mediums, music is the most universally loved, to the point where not enjoying can have someone consider you an alien. The whys and hows are simultaneously evident and hard to pin down.

The protagonists of Stalker stand in the desolate greenery of the Zone

I recently watched the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker (don’t run away! I promise it’s relevant!), one of those behemoths of cinema that I’ve put off for years, knowing full well that if I gave it the time it deserved, I’d love it. Finishing the novel it’s based on, Roadside Picnic, was the push I needed to finally give it a try. And love it I did. It’s very different from the novel- Tarkovsky once said all the film had in common were the words “Stalker” and “Zone”. That isn’t entirely true- it’s a different take, a remix- recognisable elements from the novel remain, though where it zigs sci-fi, the film zags philosophically. The stark beauty of The Zone, a place apart from the laws of physics, its lush greenery surrounding rent machinery and burnt-out tanks giving your mind space to wander. The same applies to the main characters, The Stalker, The Writer and The Professor, who wax lyrical on the nature of the Zone whenever they have time to rest, at least, when not hurling insults at each other. The Writer and The Professor are both better read and more coherent in their discussions, but it was The Stalker’s description of music that struck a chord with me.

“Are you awake? You were talking recently about the meaning of our life… unselfishness of art… Let’s take music… It’s really least of all connected; to say the truth, if it is connected at all, then in an idealess way, mechanically, with an empty sound… Without… without associations… Nonetheless, the music miraculously penetrates into the very soul! What is resonating in us in answer to the harmonised noise? And turns it for us into the source of great delight… And unites us, and shakes us? What is its purpose? And, above all, for whom? You will say: for nothing, and… and for nobody, just so. “Unselfish”. Though it’s not so… perhaps… For everything, in the end, has its own meaning… Both the meaning and the cause…”

This halting and strange ramble comes after him lying down for hours in silence and ends with no response, suggesting greater importance to the circumstances surrounding it. Still, something is humanising in his attempt to grapple with something at once so broad and yet fundamental. I’m sure parts of this article will come across the same way, borne as it is from a pathological desire to take every intrusive thought and solidify it into an article. That thought was simple- why do I, a person who hates noise, listen to such abrasive and noisy music? Is it the same impulse that leads me to play weird video games? Cruelty Squad, my favourite game of 2021, has a gruelling soundscape. From the swampy bubbling of “Toxic Crisis” to the pounding synth and police sirens of “Rent Due”, it’s the kind of game music that feels inextricable from the work- it would never have been made outside the context of the game, and it will always conjure images of the game world if you listen to it outside the context. It isn’t just Cruelty Squad. Most of my favourite games have intense or driving soundtracks. I understand the reasoning for having more “background” style music, low in the mix, more to provide some kind of emotional texture or else avoid the eeriness of silence. And yet. The Caution/Alert themes of Metal Gear Solid. The maybe too loud but gorgeous field music of Nier. Absolutely everything in Hotline Miami. It was a given in 20th-century video gaming to have music drive the action, but I get I kick out of 21st-century games that do the same.

I guess I get a kick out of music driving everything.

Signal to noise describes the ratio between desired signal (the information you need) and background noise (everything that interferes). I’m not a scientist, so I’m not going to get into the usefulness of this in experimentation. But I do find it interesting. I usually write while listening to music. I typically walk while listening to music. Hell, if I can get away with it, I work while listening to music. Music is the noise rather than signal, but I find it easier to find the signal in choosing this noise. White noise is known for its masking effect, but I’ve never gravitated to these purely abstract waves of sound. Even harsh noise and drone have some intent behind them. I would much rather let my brain sort through the sound to find the melody in something made by a human. But why noise at all?

Perhaps we can find our answers in The Zone. The score of Stalker itself operates in that space between noise and music. The film begins with a long stretch of silence, punctuated only by the rumbling of a nearby train. The sparse score in the sepia world outside the Zone furthers the cold, isolated atmosphere. I first noticed Eduar Artemyev’s music on the railway car, that slow ride into The Zone. It’s an uncomfortable segment for many reasons; an interminable journey into the unknown directly after a violent encounter, the extreme close-ups on the character’s faces making it difficult to avoid their gazes, as well as obfuscating how much further they need to go. And yes. The Sound. In an interview with Tonino Guerra, Tarkovsky talks specifically about the music in this scene:

“I would like most of the noise and sound to be composed by a composer. In the film, for example, the three people undertake a long journey in a railway car. I’d like that the noise of the wheels on the rails not be the natural sound but elaborated upon by the composer with electronic music. At the same time, one mustn’t be aware of music, nor natural sounds.”

Quiet synth strings are dominated by an electronic facsimile of the wheels clattering along the rails. It’s pure abstraction, to the point where your mind doesn’t at first register what it’s trying to do. Yet slowly, surely, the unnatural becomes natural. No mental gymnastics are required to interpret that soundscape of ethereal whooshing and industrial clanging. And by that point, you, and they, have arrived.

In The Zone.

The Stalker in the Zone, saying 'It's the quietest place on earth'

After the ride, we see the Stalker happy. He feels at home here, and it has been too long since he last returned to The Zone. It is, as he says, a silent world. It feels that way for the audience too, but the music actually has more presence in this part. So uh, not silent at all. True silence is deeply unsettling, not just in that eternal relatable comedy punchline of “uh oh I’m alone with my thoughts xD”, but because it’s unnatural. I grew up in the countryside, in the village of [REDACTED]. I would often go for walks and see no one at all. Maybe a sheep. It seemed strange. After all, over two thousand people lived there. That seems like a lot. But in a cold Northern village with one corner shop and seven pubs, it was easy for that number to obscure itself. Even then, it was not silent. Wind echoing through the hills and rustling crunchy autumnal leaves. Ducks quacking and sliding on frozen canal water. The beeping of the crossing signal, just like one of my Japanese animes. Some of that isn’t even quiet, but it felt that way. Noise isn’t just about sound; it’s about unpleasantness and abrasion, clutter and crowds, what you get instead of what you want. I’m sure to someone, a cow mooing is as dreadfully annoying as I find the screeching of an e-bike alarm. It’s quite the change. It used to take an hour on an awful pacer train to get to the nearest city. Now I live in Guangzhou, a city of roughly three quintillion people, and I don’t know if its Noise is particular or if that’s just cities everywhere. When I was watching Stalker, I had to take a break because of the thudding of some ungodly drilling machine. It’s the type of irritating background noise that the more you try to shut out, the more it asserts itself. I’m certainly not uniquely sensitive to sound, but that I’d bother writing this probably says enough of how it gets under my skin.

Wet mouth noises. The squeak of an office chair. Fingernails clicking together. Looping announcements through tinny speakers. Drumming fingers on a desk. These sounds are not The Noise until they exist together, raising each others volume in a way that can’t be measured in decibels but can in psychic damage. If you’re attempting a diagnosis, know that I’ve already considered the options [UPDATE 2023: I have autism]. Misophonia is one, a condition that causes intense disgust or rage in the presence of unpleasant sounds, particularly those made by humans. Misophonia is also not a diagnosable condition at the time I’m writing this, and to be frank, I’m already a hypochondriac collection of maladies without bolting another one on. Wherever this comes from is less important to me than what it represents.

Noise is a lack of control.

The Silver Case is the only videogame I know to simulate The Noise. Certainly, there are plenty of games with irritating sound effects (low health in Pokemon/Zelda, the countdown timer in Katamari etc.), but The Silver Case goes further than that. It’s a visual novel/adventure game where you swap between two characters, one a member of the “Heinous Crimes Unit”, the other a freelance reporter. It follows an episodic structure, each chapter focusing on a different crime, investigated by both characters in very different ways; the whole picture only becomes clear from both perspectives. It’s an interesting story and fairly snappily paced by the standards of the visual novel, so it’s an easy recommendation. Shilling aside, it’s our reporter character, Tokio Morishima who encounters The Noise. Not from the mysterious Kamui, but construction work outside his apartment. The game commits to the bit, too- it is phenomenally loud, cutting through all other music and sound effects. Considering Tokio’s profession and reclusive tendencies, you get to hear it for quite a while, too. It’s in part why I listed it on my original “F(R)ICTION” article- Grasshopper games often test your patience, either to make a larger point or for cheap laughs. There are a couple of licensed games from them I haven’t gotten round to, but as far as I know this is the only time they ever used audio to this effect. Unintentionally, the music has a similar effect. Masahiro Takada’s score is great, but due to the length of the Tokio chapters, the apartment and computer themes start to grate. Maybe it is intentional? There’s a line between charitable interpretation and cope, but the effect is the same. That I could look at my window and see construction thudding away at some still unrecognisable project/grift only added to the immersion. It also gave me pause. Fuck, is my life the same as this fictional 90s videogame character?

Tokio Morishima talks to his turtle 'You feel like growing huge and fucking with the construction downstairs?'

Swap his turtle for a rabbit, Japan for China, the Jack Hammer bar for 7/11 Asahi, freelance reporting for hobbyist writing. Well, I have a nine-to-five, so my sleep schedule isn’t quite as fucked as Tokio’s, but still. Games can be comforting in the sense that they are limited by rules that, sure, can sometimes clash and cause bugs or otherwise unintended consequences, but in being crafted, they are far more consistent than any rule or law in the real world. It can make you feel in control. A visual novel can provide that same comfort, allowing you to make relatively consequence-free decisions, or else reduce relationships to simply showering a particular love interest gifts or making a few right choices (Tokimeki Memorial being an exception, with the arcane equations governing it being far more complicated than any relationship I’ve had). That control is nominally present in The Silver Case. You can walk around, occasionally choose topics to talk about, solve puzzles and so on. None of that applies when playing as Tokio.

While I’m writing this in a coffee shop, a fellow customer is watching a TV show at two or maybe even three times speed, the voices beyond chipmunk, impossible to parse without reading subtitles. I’m aware this shouldn’t bother me. It isn’t that loud, and while I think it’s bizarre to watch things that way, hyperfixating on someone else doing that is way weirder. And yet. Staring at my laptop screen, I can feel it chipping away at the edges of my attention, peering around the edges of my Google Doc. What am I even doing? I could just talk to this person, tell them to put in some earphones. Does buying a coffee give me the right to be a petty tyrant over sound? Why not just move somewhere else? In an early draft of this article, I wrote that “writing nonfiction brings order to chaos. Writing fiction draws its rhizomatic connections between nodes of thought embraces the noise. It’s not a coincidence that I’ve been finding the former easier these days.” Aside from sounding like something Jordan Peterson would say after finally reading Deleuze, I’m not sure it’s true. Sure it’s easier to use non-fiction to vent, but it only sometimes produces catharsis. I managed to sort through my thoughts on “Evangelion”, but not on the “sad girl” phenomena in fiction. I’m pleased people liked “Memes of Loving Grace”, but was that worth making myself miserable over? Is this anything but a collection of neuroses catalogued for a few Twitter likes? This was supposed to be an easy one. A follow up to a fun little article I wrote about the different ways games use friction and how that can make them more memorable than something smooth. Focusing on noisy, borderline unpleasant music. Sure, an article can change in the writing, but how can I be sure this isn’t just noise?

Ahem. Sorry. I usually don’t include my mid-writing doomspiralling in my posts since it feels at once self-indulgent and also probably not fun to read. I have it here only to address the elephant in the room- that the noise is within, as well as without. As of now, it’s the Spring Festival holiday. In my (admittedly limited) experience, most jobs give a little less annual leave in China than in the UK (although not quite as bad as in the US, what’s with that?), but this is compensated with longer public holidays for the Lunar New Year, National Day, May Day etc. This has its quirks- it means if you’re travelling to a popular holiday destination, you best pick a god and pray- this is the time of year that gives us the Chinese idiom “people mountain, people sea”, after all. I’d always planned to stay in Guangzhou this time around because A) I felt super burnt out from work, B) I wanted to spend time with friends who were visiting from another city, and C) the relative quiet of the Spring Festival. My poor rabbit has to deal with the fireworks (still illegal in Guangzhou, but not policed), but it’s a much quieter city overall. Most people go back to their hometown, which almost always isn’t a Tier-1 city. It’s nice, in a surreal way.

Then I managed to smash my foot on a dumbbell and have been unable to walk properly for most of the holiday. Alas, I am not the floating head from my Twitter profile pic. It’s almost healed up now, but it’s close to the end of the holiday. Whether or not I’d have used my time better if I hadn’t injured myself is by the by. It’s the removal of possibilities thanks to one random stupid event. Even in silence, control was taken away. It’s given me a lot of time to think about this topic. Just as the first game was a timesink in the first stages of the pandemic, so too is Nioh 2. A dizzying game in terms of depth and breadth, and ironically very noisy. Compared to Dark Souls, which has almost no background music save for boss fights, Nioh 2 has a constant (often in your face) soundtrack. Tim Roger’s once described “Hyrule Warriors” (codeveloped by Team Ninja, of Nioh and Ninja Gaiden fame) as “alive with this warm, white noise. It is hypnotic if you are in the mood to be hypnotised”, and compared it to a pachinko parlour. Having stood outside one of these parlours in Tokyo, I could see his point, even if I felt like I was going deaf. Nioh 2 shares some of its DNA- no, you aren’t flattening armies of moblins with a comically large sword (or boat), but it has all the bonkers upgrading and looting, as well as the frankly ridiculous amount of side content. Thanks to the more deliberate design, it feels less like a skinner box than a Warriors game, but it scratches some of the same itches. Anhedonia is hard to maintain amongst blown-out synths, and the same applies to aggressive yokai slaying.

Maybe too much. I can still think while listening to music. Flow might be a great state to be in when doing something creative, but it also lets you waste a lot of time. While I overvalue time being “productive” (hence the aforementioned desire to convert “wasted” time into articles), being stuck at home makes it harder to find the balance. It’s easy to indulge bad habits. Alcohol drank alone is but bottled silence for buzzing thoughts. Multitasking with junky YouTube videos and Twitter is why I have time limits set on my phone. And so on. Ray Bradbury is said to have predicted wireless earphones in Fahrenheit 451 with “seashell radios”, tiny devices placed in the ears to shut out reality. Protagonist Guy Montag’s wife Mildred uses them every night- “And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning.” In the throes of depression, there’s a desire for oblivion, if not in death (I’m thankfully past that point), then in something mind-altering. That desire can be mitigated into just wanting change, which is hardly a bad thing. But we can’t change everything we’d like to. We cannot escape The Noise, whether literal unwanted sound or reminders of all that’s out of our control. I don’t have an easy conclusion that I can make here—more something to work towards. The quiet of the Zone is a fantasy. It’s been said that it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism, in part because the apocalypse finally brings silence. It’s a desire that, like most, ignores the cost of what it would take to get it. Both Stalker and The Stalker are aware of this. He feels imprisoned anywhere else but knows it is not sustainable. He, perhaps without knowing it, paraphrases the Tao Te Ching in a monologue:

“Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When man is born he is weak and malleable. When he dies he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant, but when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being, because what has hardened will never win.”

Both he and I could do with internalising that a little more. I cannot fight the Noise, at least not through force of will. I shouldn’t fight it at all. In the Noise lies the Signal, just as friction causes sparks. I do not want to glide through this world. I will keep listening to noise. But I will try to live with the Noise, too.

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