What brown did for me

Heads-up: I spent the last month rolling out a Substack newsletter service called Silent Friends, if you’re interested. Each letter focuses on a single book of fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. And honestly I’m pleased with the subscriber pool that has already developed! 

One result is that the Substack platform is going to be the principal outlet for writing posts about books, which has been my habit for more than a decade of being online. That leaves the ole WordPress open to different kinds of writings and ruminations.

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I don’t like white noise. It’s coarse, rough, irritating, and gets everywhere.

Brown noise, on the other hand? Brown noise is the shit.

I was aware of the concept of sound colors since high school. You can mess around with them here. Noise signals can be divided into a spectrum of colors, based on the dB level within a certain frequency interval. Warmer colors are assigned to low frequencies while cooler colors denote the high end. They occur naturally as minimal drone tones, the eerie static on a CRT monitor, or the soughing of sea waves, or the traffic from the highway. 

This period also marked my first exposure to harsh noise music, which was a popular scene in Portland OR in those days. Harsh noise is a wonderful thing, after all how often can you claim a work of art is actively trying to hurt you? I’m also a fan of hardcore punk and extreme metal bands that approach the frontier of harsh noise in their sheer ferocity, such as The Gerogerigegege and Last Days of Humanity.

But now, 2023 is shaping up to be the year of smooth noise. Soft is obviously the more correct antonym to harsh, but I choose smooth to emphasize the timbre, and because white and violet noise still have a bit of edge to them. Brown noise as such was advertised to me on Instagram. It quiets your mind, slows down the racing thoughts, banishes your inner disquiet, helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. In my experience it’s all been true!

It’s established here at Second Slope that I’m a fan of conceptual edgework (or “edging” as I’ve come to privately call it), and the appeal of harsh noise and aggressive rock ‘n’ roll is in the edges created by putting different textures, timbres, and riffs together. And a noise signal of a given color is essentially a single musical timbre. Turns out the absence of edges, a smooth planar sound, is quite a pleasurable experience.

After listening to some low frequency brown noise tunes, a rabbit hole of sound hues opened. All sorts of colors and mixtures of stochastically generated audio tracks were brought to my attention at once like ice cream flavors for the ears. If brown gets you down, try Pink or Blue—or Violet. How about white, pink, and brown layered like a neapolitan treat? There’s also the “green” option of minimal nature soundscapes.

Spotify delivers a veritable cottage industry of smooth noise producers, artists with names like Sound Dreamer, Klangspiel, White Noise Workshop, and DJ GOTOSLEEP. They seem to have appeared within the last two years, without exception. The song titles can be poetically allusive like “plunging waterfall” or do nothing more than read out the signal’s frequency in Hertz. One brown noise track by Sleep Miracle called “Low Freq Brown Noise for Baby Sleep” is only 58 seconds long, but it tells a little story: you could hear a kind of glissando within the signal, descending down and down, like the doppler effect from a jet plane. Put the song on repeat, and the glissando descends forever, plunging into untold sonic depths. 

Smooth noise is like a red eye flight, or the humming engines of a spaceship, or a wind tunnel. Blast it to cancel out intrusive sounds in the environment, like construction or partying neighbors. Or keep it at an ambiance to support a podcast. I’ve even kept sound colors going while watching movies. It aids with focus and sleeping, while also aiding tinnitus and ADHD symptoms. It’s a “pure” art that is also of pure utility, as if its current TikTok-fueled buzz is a concession to how messed up we feel just getting by in our lives.

The “brown” of Brown noise is not a color, by the way, but the namesake of Robert Brown, of “Brownian motion” fame. The “proper” color for this frequency range is actually red. Perhaps we should compromise with russet noise? Brownian motion describes the random movement of suspended particles, and it’s happening everywhere from nature to videogames to avant-garde music.

Indeed, soft noise traces its origins back to the stochastic techniques of contemporary classical composers like Ianis Xenakis. Granular synthesis tracks are made by layering tiny samples—only milliseconds long—a technique pioneered by Xenakis with magnetic tapes in the 60s. (He also composed pieces employing probability mathematics like Pithoprakta.) Xenakis had already cut a cool figure in my book before I began the year of smooth granular noise music. He joined the Communist youth wing in Greece and was hurling Molotovs at Nazi tanks rolling through the streets as a highschooler. The “masses” of sounds he created in his early phase reflected the footfalls of the crowds marching in demonstrations and making history.

It was a pleasant surprise to run into this great 20th century composer again while checking out this utterly 21st century phenomenon of therapeutic smooth noise music proliferation.

In the meantime we’re blasting the downward sloped spectrum noise. I got a lotta reading to do!

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