Mud… (series: Beauty in Noise, part 3)

…messy, stinking, vital.

by Dave Skipper

‘Mudioms’

There are a number of English idioms with the word mud in them:

Mud-slinging.

Throwing insults, hurling abuse, and name-calling.

Provocative, combative, antagonistic.

Often a two-way fight – generally unedifying, but makes for good entertainment.

As clear as mud.

Confusing, muddled, unclear.

Indecipherable instructions, cumbersome contradictions, obscure orations.

Supposed to be enlightening and clarifying, but the abject failure to succeed in communicating is instead met with this somewhat mocking retort.

Drag through the mud.

A reputation in tatters, a name brought low.

Sordid details revealed, or false rumours circulated.

What better description of the public humiliation and ruination of the supposedly squeaky clean?

Stick-in-the-mud.

Boring. Stubborn. Trapped.

Unable and unwilling to move, explore, or live freely – according to those who deride.

Mud is the stifler, the life-sapper, the ender of dreams.

Muddy the waters.

Suspicions aroused, grey lines blurred, integrity questioned.

Water is clear when settled, but turns opaque when stirred.

The mud hides secrets – good or bad, welcome or unwelcome.

Bad mud/noise

Mud – and its cohorts dirt, muck, filth, waste, and so on – has a bad rap, and not without cause. It brings with it disease, stench, bad hygiene, parasites, and death, or at least the potential for these. Being clean and making clean is a common ideal, a basic part of being healthy. And of course the above idioms refer not to physical cleanliness (or the lack thereof), but to the heart and mind and soul. Value judgments, ethical standards, and relational expectations are in view. To be muddy or dirty in thought, word, and deed is to fail in some way in someone’s eyes.

In the same way, noise seems to naturally slot into and depict the same categories. Noise can be an aggressive intrusion, a tool of protest, a disrespecter of persons. Noise renders communication difficult or impossible. Slander, criticism, and deception can be perceived as forms of social or moral noise. Noise stifles joy and creativity, and is emotionally destructive and draining. Noise brings confusion, distortion, and uncertainty. In short, noise is audio mud.

But is mud (and with it, noise) all bad news? Of course not.

Good mud/noise

At the simplest level mud accentuates cleanliness by the very contrast. Emerging from the shower or bath feels all the more glorious when preceded by the uncomfortable state of being caked in mud, dirt, and sweat.

And at the most profound level, mud holds and yields the phenomenal presence and potential of life – from the microscopic creatures doing their bit for the ecosystem, to the growth-inducing nutrients waiting to be absorbed and transformed by multitudinous plant-forms.

So with noise: on the one hand the unpleasantness of much noise contrasts so starkly with the peace we crave, that it only serves to make those opportunities for audio respite and escape so much the sweeter. And on the other hand noise is so rich and diverse in all its easy-to-miss nooks and crannies that it actually forms the building blocks for a simply incredible array of sounds that when distilled and appreciated for their own worth far out-reward the effort. Noise is itself an entire ecosystem of sound nuggets waiting to be explored and marvelled at.

Muddy work

Here’s another English idiom, this time about dirt rather than specifically mud:

Getting your hands dirty.

Working hard. Getting stuck in. Confident and determined.

Soil for the gardener, engine oil for the mechanic, domestic waste for the rubbish collector.

Sawdust for the carpenter, sweat for the athlete, blood for the surgeon.

Not put off by the difficult or even painful aspects of a job, but keeping the higher purpose in view.

I must confess that I don’t like getting my hands dirty in a literal way. But oh the satisfaction of a hard job done well! Thinking specifically of the gardener, or the forest ranger or the conservationist, I imagine that getting muddy hands isn’t just something to be endured, but is actually a welcome feature of their work. The mud, the soil, the very earth of the earth – it is the very core of their work and the chosen dwelling-place of their passion in life. The feel and the smell speak of life and joy!

Working with noise, with the ‘tougher’ textures of sound, is a wonderful and homely environment in the same way for the passionate noisician. While many people may prefer not to get the ‘hands of their ears’ muddy with noise (I couldn’t resist the phrasing!), for us noisicians we thrive and feel joy in immersing ourselves in the ostensible muck and stench of it!

Muddy music

Of course ‘muddy’ is sometimes used to describe music, but not in a good way. It indicates that sounds are muffled, the mix of sounds or instruments is incoherent, and that it is significantly lacking in clarity and quality. Think lo-fi instead of hi-fi. Think nth-generation cassettes copied from cassettes copied from… Think disappointing, frustrating, irritating. Think deficient, lazy, worthless.

But for some these characteristics are desirable and to be pursued. Maybe from a sense of nostalgia for past technologies now obsolete. Or maybe in a conscious drive to revolt against the over-produced, over-saturated commercialisation of modern (pop) music. Or maybe for no other reason than a preference for that kind of sound.

Beautiful mud

Now, once you start to get your hands dirty you reach a point when you think, “Oh well, might as well get really dirty then!” Once that threshold is crossed there’s no turning back – you dive in and just don’t care about the mess any more. “I’ll wash it all off later anyway!”

I think a journey into noise is often like that. Get enough of a taste for it and you realise there is so much to be explored and – yes – enjoyed, so don’t hold back any more!

I believe that there is beauty in mud. Looking for beauty in all the ‘wrong’ places is, for me, often actually looking for beauty in just the right places.

So what’s lurking beneath and inside the mud? How intriguing it is that mud, something so seemingly plain and bland, can be a such a mask of mystery: a holder of hidden treasures or of dangerous nightmares. As for noise… is it only a nightmare to you? Or can you find treasure beneath – and even inside – noise itself?

[There is mud… but there is also grit, for another time… and then a whole spectrum of types and methods of sonic distortion which I will look into more in the Noise Tools article series…]

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