by Dave Skipper
I love pylons. This is a recent photo I took, subsequently edited. It seems to me that pylons are a great example of multifaceted noise.
Sonic noise – the fizz and crackle from above as high voltages zip and zap along the cables. It’s a noisy sound. I love it. I love those kinds of crispy crackly textures, at once constant and moving, static and dynamic. A blot on the soundscape to some, but for me it’s the sound of life and familiarity, of technological progress and possibility, of laboratory experiments and sci-fi soundtracks. I grew up on the edge of a town, and would often play in the nearby fields and chalk downs with my brother and our friends. The sizzling overhead cables suspended between towering pylons was an unceasing backdrop to our summer adventures. For us it wasn’t an intrusion, but blended gently behind the sound of birdsong, the moos of the cows, and our own shouts and scamperings.
Visual noise – a blot on the landscape, marring the great outdoors? It’s easy to understand the distaste some have for these ugly monstrosities webbing their way throughout the countryside. I love to gaze at the unsullied beauty of nature as much as the next person, but somehow I’m also drawn to the pylon’s aesthetic. The intricacy of the patterning that shifts across the angles, the elegant simplicity of their basic form and function. I have a thing for industrial landscapes in general, and the ubiquity of the pylon gives me regular access to one slice of the industrial milieu.
Social noise – as a symbol of disruption to the soundscape and to the landscape, pylons can also be construed as representatives of unwanted change, of uglification, and of the reckless exploitation of nature at the hands of the greedy. Enforced encroachment on private property, imposition of unsightly industrial/technological development, potential health hazard. Yet on the other hand, we want/need/demand the comforts, efficiency, and freedom that electricity brings.
Emotional noise – if noise is required to take on the characteristic of unwantedness, then pylons also manage to find room in that department for me too. When I was a boy I remember watching a short film warning children of the dangers of climbing pylons, and the very real danger of death by electrocution. The images haunted me, especially in the climatic context of grey drizzly skies and dark winter evenings – depressing! Those feelings were noise in my mind, a bitter taste and ominous foreboding in what we wish should be a carefree world.
Edit: found the video, but it was actually more specifically about electricity substations rather than pylons:
Full version, with more pylons:
Cicadas – aesthetically and experientially the cicada is the pylon’s big brother in my mind. They are the unceasing soundtrack to the Japanese summer where I now live. The mere memory of the sound, or their appearance in some anime film, instantly evokes those balmy summer nights that drench Tokyo in sweat-inducing humidity. Far louder than pylons, their noise is extraordinary and enchanting. Never having experienced cicadas before moving to Japan, I was instantly transfixed and amazed that electronic synthesisers have such incredible natural counterparts! Theirs is a welcome noise. I expect that many more people find the cicadas’ racket far more agreeable than that of pylons. And of course they bring none of the potential emotional, social, or visual noise that pylons have the capacity to impart. Except that they are perhaps a touch ugly or scary to look at… Check out this footage of the sounds of 13 different species of Japanese cicadas. Absolutely amazing!!!
Noise music – I could listen to pylons and cicadas all day long as forms of music, and certainly their timbres are ready for use in creatively constructed noise music contexts. One of the recurring themes of noise is its chameleonic ability to twist and turn and morph into both wanted and unwanted functions at a whim, eliciting a range of responses depending on the circumstances and on the listeners themselves. The difficulty of noise being so loosely and amorphously defined, and of too readily having a negative meaning, is at the same time its strength and its appeal. But does that mean the subjectivity of noise always wins? Is it time to dismiss notions of good and bad altogether when it comes to noise? Is that even desirable, let alone achievable? Participating in noise music at least provides one outlet and forum in which to positively explore and tackle these issues head-on, even if and when no clarity is forthcoming. The search for a tighter definition of noise is not satisfied here.
Alan Lamb – I am hugely indebted to my friend DJ Evil Penguin for introducing me to the stunning ‘pylonic’ field recordings of Australian artist Alan Lamb, notably Primal Image (contact microphone recordings of kilometre long spans of telegraph wire) and Night Passage. These albums are captivating, haunting, inspiring. Please listen!