Oh Lord, from the useless noises off deliver us
I can understand why MP3 players, Iplayers, Ipads, Kindle Fire, CD players, radios, tellies and online pcs are going to emit sounds. As I write, the wonderful musical poetry of World Party’s Put the Message in the Box is giving my lugholes a rare old treat via the totally free Jango Music site. Sounds like these, I like already. I love Pop, always have: I cry during the andante movement of Mozart’s 36th, and get onto another plane entirely during Brahm’s variations on a theme by Haydn. I think nothing can cut it late in the evening like some late 1950s Bluenote jazz, or Chet Baker’s trumpet after a few beers. But Blue Monday by Fats Domino hits the other cerebral hemisphere, as do Long Tall Sally by Little Richard, Whiter Shade of Pale by Procul Harem, Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks, Rocket Man by Elton John, My Sweet Lord by George Harrison, anything by Paul Simon, Tom Petty, Stevie Winwood and…oh blimey, we could be here all night – right the way through to Dakar Audio Club today. (Who are just fab, by the way: they’re playing Exmouth on October 29th, and I’m seriously thinking of actually going to a rock concert, God help me).
But today, every electrical thingy from a toaster to a coffee-grinder feels it has a contribution to make. It’s almost as if – as in the human sphere – every gadget in the bloody world wants to audition for X-Factor.
During the X-Factor series (a Thing that even Simon Cowell’s body has now rejected, as if might have been an early, horribly misguided transplant attempt) once in a very long while, somebody who really can sing and play comes on the show. They don’t win of course, but their appearance as the lonely petunia in a Gobi Desert of gigantic, smelly onions restores one’s faith in the fact that some people out there really do have talent. And it’s just possible – highly unlikely, but possible – that one day a latte machine somewhere will create a sound whose tones and/or rhythm make everyone want to hear the grass grow, tune in to the Universe, and overthrow the inner sanctum of Mammon, man.
But until that as yet uncharted time in the future, electrical gadgets make sounds that are thinly disguised noises. And the worst thing is, half the time nobody has the faintest idea why they’re making the jolting, silly, infantile, daft noise in the first place.
We’ve owned our Peugeot 308 Station Wagon for two years now, and we still don’t know why, ten minutes into every drive, it suddenly goes ‘Brrrp’. We have scoured the instruction manual and ransacked the dashboard, but we still don’t know what makes the noise, or why. I’m not a fan of unscheduled brrrps – especially in cars. They are redolent of on-screen messages from on-board computers giving out information like ‘a major error has occurred’. (All pcs do that, have you noticed? As a warning, such alerts are high on anxiety but low on detail, I find).
Our shiny new black kettle goes ‘ping’. Kettles have no business going ping. I did not go into the shop and say “Donnez-moi un kettle qui va ping mon bon homme, et le faites snappy”. I went in search of a kettle that would boil, period. If it went ping to warn me that it was boiling dry or something, then I would embrace the ping. But it emits the ping-thing at random. Click the start button, it might go ping. Pour the boiling liquid onto a tea bag, it might ping. Or then again, it might not. The truly irritating thing about our pinging kettle is, if the top spout is even slightly open, it will boil dry and immolate the kitchen. What it won’t do in those circumstances is go ping. I mean, look: the microwave finishes its job, and goes ‘boing’. This strikes me as entirely sensible: it’s the machine’s way of saying ‘grub up’. I just don’t have room in my life for attention-seeking, pyromanic kettles, that’s all.
Our frost-free fridge freezer goes ‘gloomalong’ when one opens the door. When left shut for longer than an hour, it goes ‘drubblelubble’. My mobile phone goes ‘prinninginng’ when a text arrives – which is good – but ‘pip’ when somebody rings me. That’s it. ‘Pip’. Not ring-ring, ring-ring, ring-ring. Just the ‘pip’. Jan and I have read every last page of the instruction encyclopaedia – it runs to 27 volumes – and we cannot find any way at all to alleviate the phone’s neurotic sense of urgency. I’ve had Interpol on the case, and they’re baffled too. I bought the phone 20 months ago, and have never yet answered a call in person. I now grudgingly accept that this particular mobile phone is for people who want their phone sewn onto the tympanic membrane.
The hp printer/copier goes gal-lal. It might be churning out 500 pages of ink-perfect dtp or mangling the one copy history has of Galileo’s birth certificate, but it will still say gal-lal. I use the word ‘say’ there, because there is something weirdly human about hp printer noises. Or rather, inhuman: it’s Hal the Computer in a minor key, and I freely admit it scares the bejesus out of me. I sense that, were I ever to raise my voice to this part-time paper shredder, it would whisper, “I really wouldn’t do that if I was you, Jahhrrrn“.
I suppose the point I’m making here is that a ping, pong, mung or jingle-jangle-dong is perfectly OK if there is some vague correlation between that noise and something important or useful. But in 90% of cases, it’s as if sound-waves are being agitated purely because the implement can actually do it. As in, “Hey man – look at meeeeeeeee: I’m just a dishwasher, but I can go cock-a-doodle-oodle-quack-quack. How ’bout that?”
And there’s a clue in that observation. For we are all, in 2011, being treated by commerce and manufacturing, banking and government, as if we were some kind of cross between a native American in 1625, and a deserving lobotomy case. “Look, oh loin-cloth sporting primitive child-person, see how this neat little pocket detritus makes pretty patterns, as it goes oo-gooka-joob too. Sign here, where it says ‘My Life Away'”.
Sorry to be a bit leaden there, but all this crap is really just ‘the beads’, isn’t it? “With these beads, I thee roger up the back-passage with a yard brush”. So: is there anything we can do about it?
Well, one thing you could do is what I do these days when cold phone sales interrupt me in the middle of that definitive 21st Century novel. To be truthful, I’ve only been doing it since the start of September, but so far it seems to be pretty effective. “Do you want to join our free double-glazing promotion in your area?” asks the drone. “Kabang Titang Zubingle” I reply. They usually stop there. So far, I’ve had termite treatment, car test-drives, and book clubs (these are all big in France) and it takes only a tyeeoing, bang or lingalangaloo to get rid of them. Even better, I suspect I’m now going on every cold-caller’s black list.
“We all have our private rebellions,” a sadly late friend of mine used to say. And he was right. Anyway, I must close now, as my camera is going tip-peep-o-lup. I’m keen to know what it sounds like underwater.