Noise & Resistance

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Noise & Resistance

by Gabriel Saloman


The following is an outline of a talk given at the Surrey Art Gallery’s Sound Thinking Conference in 2010Listen Again: The Changing World of Everyday Sound, Audio and Noise and the Future of Sound Studies. It will eventually be expanded into a text for the purposes of publication.


What is the territorial dimension of our sonic space? By “territorial” I am asking who owns it?

Who controls it?

Who polices it?

Who defines it?

I propose that our sonic space is a contested territory in all of the same ways that our bodies, our economies, our psyches and our physical environment is contested territory. More to the point, I argue that there is in fact a conflict over this space that mirrors a broader social conflict and a broader struggle for our survival.

All sound must be understood in it’s context, and understood to be shaped by a context.

Two examples of Sacred Noise in Vancouver illustrate the complexity of Noise as a social product. Both of these examples I believe qualify as Sacred Noise, both tolerated and unwanted, to different degrees by different communities.

i.    The Nine O’Clock Gun

…an heirloom of our Colonial heritage, it blasts in the direction of CRAB Park, the only poor people’s access to the northern waterfront, every night at 9pm.

ii.    The Intersection of Hastings and Main

… the very center of the city, in front of the Carnegie Center, exists as a lawless epicenter of human traffic and illicit trade. It is an example of visual, aural and social noise that is uncontrollable and openly in defiance of the City’s own self-image.

The existence of these spaces represent different designations of territory. At the same time they reflect different conditions of power and powerlessness in their origin.

It’s worth quoting R. Murray Schaffer here…

“The important thing to realize is this: To have the Sacred Noise is not merely to make the biggest noise. Rather it is a matter of having the authority to make it without censure”

He continues…

“Wherever noise is granted immunity from human intervention, there will be found a seat of power”.


My desire is to complicate our perception of Noise, and Resistance, and to do so by both simplifying and generalizing their definitions.

What is Noise?

It is a wholly subjective sound who’s meaning can only be measured by it’s effect.

For my purposes I will appropriate from Paul Haggerty’s definition and say that Noise is a sound that Disrupts.

But disrupts what?

Using the tradition of the “classical music riot” as an example we can say that:

The Noise of the symphony disrupts the aesthetic norms of the audience.

The Audience’s reaction is a Noise which disrupts the continuity of the performance.

The riot itself can disrupt the equilibrium of society, ushering in larger disruptions as occurred in 1830 when Daniel Auber’s La Muette de Portici  ignited a riot that led directly to the Belgian Revolution of Independence.

A definition of Noise…

  • A sound which disrupts.

What it is not under all conditions…

  • An unwanted or unpleasant sound.
  • An unmusical sound.
  • A loud sound.
  • A confused or ill-defined sound.

I’ll frame my definition of noise this way – as part of a broader description of the Subjective experience of sound.

Ambient Sound – a sound which we aren’t conscious of or which we do not respond to.

Augmentative Sound – a sound which augments our internal or external (cognitive or sensual) experience.

Disruptive Sound – a sound which disrupts our internal or external (cognitive or sensual) experience.

For the purpose of definition, I insist that we don’t place value judgements on these experiences of sound, nor do I view any hierarchy among the creators or listeners of a sound, regardless of intention.

This is critical because when we assign values we are either doing so from a purely subjective position – “I don’t like this sound” – or we are conforming to a societal structure that privileges certain noises – and certain noisemakers – over others.

I would articulate a definition of Resistance that is similarly broad…

  • A response, conscious or otherwise, to external forces which impose their will – socially, politically, environmentally or physically – against another.
  • For such a response to be understood as Resistance, the force being resisted must have some kind of hegemonic or authoritarian power.

Here again, I insist on not placing value judgements on our definition of Resistance.

Thus, in its context, a Gay Pride Festival is resistance…

and in another a Neo-Nazi rally is as well.

My interest in opening Resistance to include a wider array of positions is to isolate its nature as a Social Relationship independent of a pre-disposed political position. What this means is that Resistance is only legible in its context. My argument is that this is true of Noise as well.


The problem we face in Sound Studies when we talk about Noise is that we still tend to think of it as “unwanted sound”. This describes an experience of Noise, but it doesn’t tell us what it does.

If a Noise disrupts, it is more critical that we ask “What is it disrupting” and “why is it being made… for what purpose”.

I believe the most common answer is that Noise is a reclamation of space.

A direct grab at physical territory.

I’m going to briefly run through some North American examples of what this means…

i.    Postpostfuckfuck

PPFF are a Bellingham, WA  based womyn’s noise collective (similar to Vancouver’s Her Jazz Noise Collective) who have used the playing and performing of noise as a means for creating and asserting a feminist space…

PPFF wrote a “Wombinifesta” that deserves reading as it brings out many of the conerns that this talk wishes to address.

“We use noise as a form of dissent because noise is tied directly to the female body.”

“We are here to be weird/loud/hungry/angry/messy/chaotic/real/smelly/beautiful”


“we are not just girls who don’t know how to play our instruments.”

“We want to disrupt the restrictive structure of the male monopoly on musical and artistic


“Women who make music are often criticized for their lack of technical mastery. THIS WILL NOT KEEP US SILENT.”

“ Drums = (heart) beat + soulforce VOICE = yr first instrument VOLUME = space”

ii.    Raves/Punk Shows/Noise Shows

In The Soundscape R. Murray Schafer points out that “early noise abatement [laws] were selective and qualitative” privileging Art music over street music, the indoors of private property over the outdoors of the commons. This was part of a larger concurrent theft of the commons (which certainly continues today) and so we can see that counter-cultures and (borrowing from Brandon Labelle) Counter-sonics have continually attempted to disrupt property relations by asserting communal rights over territories, sonic, cultural and otherwise.

iii.    Car Stereos / Side Shows / Philly Flashmobs

Another way of understanding the act of Noisemaking is as an act of making visible the invisible. Even as the economically and socially marginalized have been banished from the street, and many other place, they have consistently used noise as a tool to re-enter public space. Car stereos and engines, portable music players, voices and bodies appear in our urban space as the insistor that we witness their existence.


Noise is a direct response to Civilization’s escalating dominion over Sonic Space.

I personally believe that Urban Development, like industrialization, is imposed on a populace even as it is being constructed on it’s behalf.

The claiming of physical space by our bodies…

… of visual space…

… and of audio space…

all represent a collective Will towards Corporality – the individual, invisible and silenced citizen claiming territory and resisting the hegemonic dominion of the city.

This, again, is not to ignore that these activities can be problematic, inefficient and even themselves oppressive. The noisy neighbor may be asserting their own autonomous self-authority, but they’re still an asshole.

So I ask that we view Noise as a re-Territorialization, a response of fighting noise with noise, tearing down the master’s house with the master’s tools. While this may run contrary to the cause of Silence, it can’t be assumed that legislating and policing Silence into being will bring us the results we desire. Noise is a kind of hard power that is used when people feel they have no other options, acting in polarity to Silence much the same way that Violence and Pacifism problematize one another in other discourses around Resistance.


Noise has historically surfaced as a tactic for social and political revolution.

An example I think is especially pertinent is the CACEROLAZO, which takes the form of a public street demonstration making noise banging on ponts, pans and other household objects.

(This tactic originated as a right wing protest against Allende in Chile, but became most famous when it was successfully used to oust a series of governments in Argentina during the financial crisis of the early oughts.)

This tactic became widely appreciated by anti-globalisation protestors and was replicated elsewhere in the global south and eventually the north. In 2009 this tactic was used to overthrow the neo-liberal government of Iceland and in 2012 was used to dramatic effect by the student movement in Quebec.

In the last decade this kind of noise protest has been used specifically to create solidarities and to support refugees incarcerated in European and N. American countries. It has become a staple of anti-prison protests, dubbed “noise demos” and practiced as a ritual across the globe on New Years Eve.


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