The Best Is Noise

Damon Krukowski, The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World

MIT Press, 240pp, £19.95, ISBN 9780262037914

reviewed by James Cook

In 1972, John Berger published the hugely successful Ways of Seeing, a collection of seven essays on how to better understand art and the visual image. Damon Krukowski’s first book, The New Analog, does something similar for the perception of sound in a digital age, and deserves to be equally successful. Indeed, its title could easily have been ‘Ways of Hearing’. Like Berger, Krukowski is reflecting on a period of recent change – in the case of sound, the paradigm shift from analog to digital. The book’s central premise is a simple one: analog media will always contain noise (defined as anything which isn’t signal, i.e. the actual content), but digital media are capable of separating signal from noise absolutely. His thesis, advanced through seven wonderfully readable chapters, is that ‘noise is as communicative as signal.’

So what precisely does noise communicate? Krukowski suggests that far from being merely the hiss, feedback and distortion found in analog recordings, noise forms a constant backdrop that enables us to orientate ourselves in the world. In the first chapter, ‘Headspace’, the ability to determine location and time is illustrated by a short vignette. A woman wearing headphones falls from her bicycle in the middle of the street; when the author helps her up and asks what happened, she replies: ‘I was totally absorbed.’ She had become disorientated aurally by the reduction in background noise.

In an illuminating chapter on microphones, ‘Proximity Effect’, the question of location is expanded to the way we gauge social distance as we address one another via our smartphones. Many years ago, when the ‘Plain Old Telephone service’ (POTS) was the only way to communicate long distance, we could hear crackle and echo; now, on a mobile, there is merely ‘digital black’ – the silence when the other person isn’t busy speaking. In ‘Real Time’, Krukowski investigates music streaming services, where information about the community of musicians, producers, and graphic designers involved in making a record (the history or ‘noise’ that enhances the listening experience) is erased, leaving only the signal: the music. Furthermore, he notes that ‘filtering out noise requires a definition of signal. Whose definition that is – which signal is chosen for isolation, which noise for elimination – is not an engineering problem but a political question.’ A nuanced reading, and one which relates noise to its wider social context.

Krukowski, it emerges, has a special interest in the record-buying public’s acquiescence to the digital age. Originally a musician in indie band Galaxie 500 – and currently one half of the folk-rock duo Damon and Naomi – he might have written a bitter book about what he’s lost as a result of the digitisation of the music industry. ‘I began writing on these topics because of a particularly small royalty cheque for use of my music by the streaming services Pandora and Spotify,’ he admits, at one point. Instead, he argues rationally, yet with much passion, against the digital status quo.

This could all make for dry reading, or be of little interest to a non-musician or non-sound engineer, but Krukowski’s sprightly, clear, and above all, even-handed prose holds our attention. Having gently condemned streaming services in ‘Real Time’, he describes how Spotify’s ‘Top Recommendations’ sent him three albums he hadn’t heard before: ‘And damn if I didn’t enjoy every one.’ Equally impressive is his frame of reference: from Ptolemic astrology to Pink Floyd; John Cage to Joan Crawford; Thomas Edison to the Troggs’ Tapes. And a well-chosen epigraph from Kafka’s ‘The Aeroplanes at Brescia’ – a description of an unclean inn where the dirt ‘in a certain sense makes life more tangible, more earthly’ – ably echoes his theory that noise completes the information we need for a truly full perception of the world. Engaging, idiosyncratic, and highly enjoyable, The New Analog takes the changes since the analog era, and brilliantly uses them as a lens through which to examine the digital culture we all consume.