la—my tongue arches and lands against the front of my upper incisors, a slight compress and then a pull back and a tuck behind the lower. Throat of fleshy nodes and folding tissue opens—la.

An interlocking motion makes forms for language to enter. Limbic, nervous, tensile. Muscle matter in co-movement with vocal tissue and skeletal clamouring. A glinting articulation. An event in the throat.1

la—like the sound of the warm up, or the substitute for syllables of an always incomplete lyric as it pulses through the airwaves. Or in French and Spanish, the feminine the. In Portugese, there. In English, an old word for oh look!

Bodies exceed themselves in noise. In phonemes, glossemes, bass, percussion, a shock, a scream, a gasp. There are noises half formed and spontaneous. There are noises rehearsed and rotting. The noise might be imagined by the gut, or sore feet. The stomach pain or the dry throat. The headache and the hangover. Fleshy orchestral moments released in improvised ensembles of place.

A noise, by definition is a sound, especially one that is loud or unpleasant, or that causes disturbances. There are those noises of interpellation which punctuate the ordinary. The stubborn loop of Althusser’s police officer shouting hey! or the siren turning the corner which produces and marks the impending2. The ring of the telephone rattles through the house. It moves you to action. There is a voice, somewhere, and it wants a seat in your ear. There are those noises which nestle suspicion in the furrow of our brows. The telephone doubles down. A call in the middle of the night signals alarm, someone must be in trouble. Nerve endings tingle. And then, those new sounds. The fresh sounds. The unexpected creak of the boiler. We turn our heads towards it, ask the machinery a question with the sleight of our body.

What was that?

In Anne Carson’s reading of the triad of characters in Sophocles’ tragedies, the action happens in harrowing triangular situations where two characters bring pressure to bear on a third who is trapped between them and cracks open, or two knowledges that collide together to force out a third that nobody wanted to see.4

This noisy relationality co-composes the ambience in phrases, refrains and bridges, and comes to form in talk, in laughter, in petition, in complaint, in uncontrollable eruptions of disgust when the HUH slips out during the meeting. Sometimes, our noises get spiky.

What was that?

Hear, a chorus of augmented breaths as they strike and curl on their way from our lungs and settle in some rhythmic continuous where minor disturbances accrue and hang, pollinating symphonic gestures of flail or attention. The bumblebee gathers nectar in its honey stomach and sweats from its chest to steady the hive. The wasp, on the other hand, chews wood, cardboard and other fibrous matter and in their chewing things over, they transform boxes and buildings into a gluey concrete for their nest. This is how emissions gather on the tongue and fortify an apparatus.

Hear, the sound of the jaw clawing at the mulch. Like a food language fills the mouth.5 A rhythm of relation which confirms that each voice, as it is for the ear, demands at the same time an ear that is for the voice6 before it gets to the law, which like the grammar of the sentence and its defining order of relation determines our informational cadence.

On a road trip across the American southwest, late February 1989 David Wojnarowicz speaks into his tape recorder: In these moments I hate language, I hate what words are like. I hate the idea of putting these preformed gestures on the tip of my tongue or through my lips or through the inside of my mouth, forming sounds to approximate something that’s like a cyclone, or something that’s like a flood, or something that’s like a weather system that’s out of control, that’s dangerous, that’s alarming.7

Words are stewed, tempered and served in repetition, meanings gleaned among gummy membranes and carved in relief by the pressure of memory. These grafts of intonations stirring behind the tongue rehearse the melodies of I’m hungry or I’m tired in pure sound until the form of un-, grrr, eeeee and ire begin to bear meaning. All inherited language and disinherited meanings gather in a tempered accent at those tentative meetings when the voice is an instrument brought to bear in the occasion of its obligation8 and the world enters as it is and as it could become.

This voice, mine (so called), is spongey and prone to swerve, sung, gasped, stumbling, stuttering, mirroring like a habit—always repeating the last few lines—involuntary, caught, creaking at authority, being placed in authority, cracking. In the feel of a room arranged in false-courage and over-energetic blurts, we hear ourselves la-ing in the feedback of surplus noise. Caught in the echo and the hiss.

Noise can also describe irregular fluctuations that accompany a transmitted electrical signal but are not part of it and tend to obscure it. The radio static or glitch in the broadcast. In John Cheever’s The Enormous Radio, the Westcott’s radio breaks. With the replacement comes a climate of interference. Not only is the new radio physically enormous (they struggle to work out where to put it), its volume swells beyond their control. Slowly, the radio begins to receive voices from the apartment building and transmit them into Irene’s day. She hears arguments, lullabies, theft, a party, illness, a fight. After the children go to school each day, she can’t help but turn the radio on and listen to the building and its many worlds. These other worlds, in their banal cruelties and sweet passions are magnetic ruptures while grief swells in the static. I’ve been listening all day and it’s so depressing, she says.

There is also the archaic definition of noise which is to talk about or make known publicly. Lauren Berlant defines noise in the making of political address as all that accompanies the transmission of speech. Here, an object might come to form in ‘the’ speech, but noise is all the extra in the broadcast. That which provides binding affects and determines a listening relation between power and public. A parasitical sucking and blowing punctuates the temporality of something like “speaking to the people” which sometimes sounds like a lot of noise to me.

The seasoning of the surplus of transmission when there’s noise on the line and the archaic to make known publicly sings in tune with the music of the interaction and adds a little bit of the subtle violence of the interaction9into the mix. I like to think of noise as a wild texture of the duet which is speaking and listening. The extra-material which complicates the two positions. Which ornaments the mouth and the ear, those porous, capacious membranes.

  1. Michel De Certeau, ‘Vocal Utopias: Glossolalias’, Representations, No. 56, Special Issue: The New Erudition, (1996), 29-47 p 38
  2. Josh Rios and Matt Joynt, “The Siren and Social Space: An Essay in Fourteen Stanzas”, On/Rules (Chicago: Shelf Shelf, 2019), p 74
  3. Anne Carson, A Lecture on Corners (2018) <> [accessed 1 November 2020][/efn_)note] In this way, we can sense how all that we register in our ear canals, everything that gathers, dwells and ferments there, could bring pressure to bear on what comes from our mouths. Sounds like: the music of the interaction.3Erving Goffman, Forms of Talk (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981), p 186
  4. Brandon LaBelle, ‘Private Call – Public Speech: The Site of Language, The Language of Site’, in Writing Aloud: The Sonics of Language, ed. by Brandon LaBelle and Christof Migone (California: Errant Bodies Press, 2001), p 64
  5. Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice: Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression (California: Stanford University Press, 2005), p 170
  6. David Wojnarowicz, Weight of the Earth: The Tape Journals of David Wojnarowicz (California: semiotext(e), 2018), p 148
  7. De Certeau, (paraphrasing)
  8. Brandon LaBelle, p 70