The Noise School

I was in my Tuesday morning class, preparing tape loops to celebrate our transport network, when Dr Abbot sent me out to get more cassettes. I left the classroom and turned right towards the staircase. I loved the eeriness of the corridors while everyone else was in a lesson.

The worn tessellating tiles of the wooden floors needed sweeping and there was a homely, familiar smell: something like dust on a valve amp crossed with the rich fruitcakey smell you get from the inside of a piano. The central heating creaked.

I walked past a classroom — Year 7s learning the basics of serialism, their sweet, unbroken voices rising atonally. I climbed the stairs to the third floor and paused at the window to see a rugby match in full flow. A small but eager crowd were gathered at the touchline singing the school song, its phasing rhythms intertwining.

The storage room was lit by a single bulb. Its shelves were piled high with instruments and equipment. I thought about how nice it would be to stay here for a while. I suppose I always relished the opportunity to be on my own at school. The chances were so rare. I remembered as a young child hiding away at lunchtime in the changing rooms, burying myself beneath piles of coats. Lying totally still. The musty smell of jumble sales.

I looked out of the room’s only window. It was grimy on the outside. I couldn’t see much. The high street, a world away, in the morning rain. Beyond the row of houses was the motorway flyover. I put my ear to the glass and could feel the slight vibration of the sighing traffic.

I hadn’t been feeling too happy with my tape loop. I’d incorporated some field recording of buskers performing mechanical techno and a high, mournful violin sample that I’d found in the basement archives. It was always so nice to go down to the library of sounds; the kind-faced curators in their blue overalls were a welcome relief from the abrasive teachers. Plus the library had the best canteen, serving exquisite onion soup every Friday lunchtime.

The violin line had a singular quality to it but it felt too specific and, as Dr Abbot had drilled into us, I needed to make it ineffable. Keep it vague. It was a hard lesson to learn in the tape loop class. To constantly aim for otherness. If we needed to celebrate something — a royal wedding, the opening of a performance space in Berwick, the anniversary of the Dimly Lit Revolution — it had to be done with sincere vagueness. ‘There is meaning in the anti-meaning!’ Another of Dr Abbot’s maxims.

The room was stuffy so I opened the window and put my head out into the rain. It felt clean and fresh. Looking down I realised that there was a kind of ladder below me. Iron rungs cemented into the brickwork that led down to a narrow path in the valley between two steepling roofs. Strange, I thought. I kept my head peeping out of the window, grateful for the fresh air.

What would I do next year? It was to be the year of my graduation and my parents were pressing various career options on me. To be a Foley artist like my father, or to follow in the long line of mastering engineers on my mother’s side? Neither grabbed me. I had been handed prospectuses for Outsider Art at Exeter and ‘Ambience’, a five-year long intensive course at Warwick. But I sometimes felt I was more scientifically minded, which is why a course on time signatures in industrial settings at Birmingham felt more suitable. The problem with the school was that the application process was so arduous: endless forms and personal statements. And university courses were so career-driven. You couldn’t study noise for noise’s sake — you had to stress its practical application. I needed to have more experience of sound installations for example, but in order to create a state-approved installation you needed to fill in an impossibly detailed form, a mandatory part of which was to list your previous installations! Blackshaw in my class had just finished a piece for the city’s bakery which had involved attaching contact microphones to dough during the fermentation process. But how had he got that gig? Nepotism, surely.

Whatever happened I’d be glad to move on from the school, with its covert allegiances and suppressed hostility. This term had seen significant disruptions by a small minority of melodicists, one of whom, Dr Hayward, had even heckled a school assembly: ‘What experiments are you actually performing with all this experimental music? I’d love to see the results!’ He was forcibly retired soon after.

Melody was a dying language, we were told. Noise offered up so much more purpose, it was so much more expansive! It was used to raise workers from their beds, to soundtrack government broadcasts, and to honour the fallen! ‘Melody is a solar system, noise is a universe!’ as Dr Abbot was fond of saying.

The poor melodicists with their crumbling rooms and sparsely attended lectures. Since music had become largely instrumental in order for meanings to be conveyed more clearly the lyricists were under threat too — the Metaphor Department would be closing next term. I was sympathetic to these mavericks, but I was more strongly in favour of traditional noise. It was hard to imagine our football team singing a national anthem with a recognisable melody! Much more comforting was the incantatory chant and pummelling drone which made the crowd go wild.

The fresh air was intoxicating. I knew it was the wrong thing to do and that Dr Abbot would probably already be wondering where I was with the tapes, but I seemed to be moving before I had thought it through.

I clambered out of the window and down the ladder onto the path. The rain was steady and the ground was mossy and scattered with puddles. I skipped over them and carried on through the valley between the roofs. It felt like the further I moved away the more reckless my behaviour was. But I pushed on, aware of the thread holding me back to the school that I was stretching to its limit.

The path opened up into a square. A rooftop square! How come I hadn’t known about this before? There were tables and chairs, cheap white plastic beer garden furniture. But they hadn’t been used in a long time — black moss stained the plastic, and seats and tables and parasols had been thrown about in the wind. What was all this for? Was it a forgotten place that had been used for graduation ceremonies or concerts?

At the far end of the square was a squat brick building. It looked like a little outhouse, or a kind of bunker. I walked the length of the square towards it. I noticed broken glass and overturned ashtrays on the floor. Through the ashen windows I saw a desk with an old cassette four-track on it. Filthy with dust. And beyond that, ancient bass guitars, warped with age.

I walked around the building and saw that there was a narrow gap between it and the wall. I could see an indentation in the wall where the bricks folded inwards. I squeezed myself into the gap and looked at the indentation. I pressed my hand to the folded brick and felt a vague thrumming. I walked right through the gap to the other side and back out onto the square. Then I walked around again to look at the gap and I knew before I got there that the indentation would be different this time. I sang a line from the school song to myself: ‘The only way to get there is by going round in circles.’ This time, the indentation had expanded to a gap in the brickwork. I knew that it would only sometimes be there. I knew that if I tilted my head or blinked my eyes it would disappear. I knew that if I walked in a different direction, approached it from a different angle, it wouldn’t be there. It had a squint-your-eyes-and-you’ll-see-it quality. I felt a blurring in my head, like the prelude to a migraine, or like waking up from a nap where you’ve fallen too deeply asleep.

I crawled through the narrow space in the brickwork. An earthy, mossy corridor. I came out into a room, an almost mirror of the storage space I had started out in. The same rows of dusty equipment. A door at the far end of the room led out into a corridor. What part of the school was I in? I didn’t recognise it. And looking down at the floor something seemed different. The wooden tiles. They didn’t tessellate in the familiar chevrons of my school. These were arranged side by side like brickwork.

Walking onwards I started to hear something. An enchanting noise. A drone, but filled with a kind of alien sadness, like nostalgia for something that wasn’t mine to remember. But it contained multitudes — the violin, the sighing motorway, the morning rain. I got closer to the classroom from which the noise appeared to be emanating and looked through the window in the door. I saw a teacher before a mixing desk, his fingers skilfully playing the faders, adding textures to the luminous drone, as a class of teenagers looked on in awe.

There was something not quite right about what I was seeing. It wasn’t just that I didn’t recognise any of the children. I looked closer and then it struck me: the school children were not wearing the right uniform. My uniform had the floral crest of a modular synthesizer on the lapel of the blazer whereas these students had an emblem of what looked like a microphone in front of a waterfall — an allusion to field recordings presumably. I started to panic. Dr Abbot would surely be wondering where I was by now.

I stumbled back the way I had come, the richness of the alien drone filling my head. I found the mirror storage room and gazed around me at the equipment. Why did I not recognise any of the brands or even the instruments on the shelves? I looked more closely at what appeared to be a synthesizer, made by a company I had never heard of called Sattler. The output socket on the Sattler seemed strange, certainly not compatible with a standard quarter-inch jack. It was a triangular recess with numerous fragile looking pins. What instrument was this? Where had it come from?

A triangular output? My North Star was off its axis.

I felt like that poet we had memorialised during the celebration of the Unenclosure Act last year. My class had taken the coach to Northampton where a fellow sixth-former had lain under a piano in the woods, reciting poems which had gently resonated the strings. During the build up to the ceremony I had read that the poet once walked so far away from his home that he said he felt out of my knowledge, and that he couldn’t even recognise the wild flowers in the hedgerows any more. I looked at the controls of the Sattler in puzzlement and gently pushed one of the unfamiliar parameters.

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