Music, the opposite of noise
I’ve recently learned the difference between noise and music.
“Noise” is something I experience almost every waking moment of every day. While some of it is auditory, my other senses are constantly bombarded as well: by motion and color, by fragrances sweet or repugnant, by the shuffle of objects and children around me.
Once upon a time, my ancestors knew primarily those noises native to their environments and clans. Their senses got glorious breaks I can barely even fathom today, in a world where I am reachable at all hours by text message, phone call, email, and snail mail … before I’ve even reached my office, with its own messaging, phone, email, and snail mail beacons.
I know noise intimately these days, but I only recently became acquainted with its opposite: music.
The day I bought a copy of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton, I also bought a book about Aaron Burr. I read a few pages at home. I was taken aback by the book’s aggressive tone, and so set it aside in favor of reading Alexander Hamilton.
Sleepless at some friends’ house a few weeks later, I googled “Hamilton” and began perusing articles. One of the first I read was a Rolling Stone interview with Lin-Manuel Miranda, the man behind the musical Hamilton: An American Story. I laughed at one particular statement by Miranda: “And then I read another Burr biography that I couldn’t even get through two chapters of because it was so defensive in its tone.”
I was virtually certain I knew which book he had in mind.
I fall asleep reading traditionally printed books.
Unfortunately, I finished reading Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton before I had my next print book lined up for reading. I thought of the Burr biography I’d abandoned and picked it up again.
I stopped reading Nancy Isenberg’s Fallen Founder at page 136, but I was actually done in the middle of page 119. Where Chernow gave the wider contexts for various peoples’ actions such that I could easily see how those actions could seem reasonable, Isenberg reviled Hamilton, Federalists, and anyone else who appears to have ever opposed Burr. While Burr is considered, dedicated, and scrupulous, those who didn’t hold him up on a pedestal “observe[d] acidly,” acted as “snoops” before “breathlessly” reporting back to their “cronies,” and “engaged in low intrigue.”
Over the course of many pages in his Hamilton biography, Chernow explains that there was reason to believe Hamilton once procured a couple of slaves on his sister- and brother-in-laws’ behalf. Isenberg, by contrast, excuses Burr’s slave-owning with a single sentence concluding that “John Jay and Alexander Hamilton were both slaveholding members of society.” She similarly waves off Burr’s speculation as just what folks of his time did, before peculiarly concluding that Burr was (otherwise?) “too independent” to play by others’ rules.
Federalist concerns with supporters of the French revolution? Base classism that had nothing to do with the rampant bloodshed in France! Their dismissal of French ambassador Charles Genet was similarly because he visited “the lower orders of people,” and not because of his–not mentioned–attacks against British ships and attempts to engage American citizens in siege against Britain, all in considered contravention of America’s Proclamation of Neutrality.
Until page 119, I was interested enough in Isenberg’s tender accounts of Burr and his wife, Theodosia, to keep pushing through her agenda laden presentation of history. There, I found yet another stab at Hamilton followed by a sentence its author doubtfully intended ironically: “All political campaigning, then as now, relies in some way on distortion, on portraying the opposition as a caricature of a negative behavior.”
Instead of illuminating the source of her passion for Burr and his wife, she was herself engaged in “political campaigning” as she defined it.
But what, pray tell, does this have to do with noise?
And what of music?
I’ve already written about how the musical brought forth something in me I hadn’t even realized was missing.
(You might even say, “There is so much more inside me now.”)
It’ll take me ages to express this fully. The best way for me to express it succinctly now is to bring this back to noise.
Every day until a couple of months ago, I’ve felt more and more frazzled by inescapable noise and obligation. I’ve longed ever more intensely for a little bit of calm for all of my senses, preferably in each and every day. I understood the wish as incapable of fulfillment; that’s just not the world we live in today.
In the notes and lyrics of Hamilton, I found something as foreign as it was elating: the opposite of noise, which depletes and harries. I found music, which existed not in the notes but in the way it refueled me. My car became my personal bubble of rejuvenation, where I could unwind and rejoice the absence of noise.
Every day I listened to Hamilton, I found it easier to discover music in things that had felt like obligations before: in rinsing sweet potatoes to cook, in responding to my kids’ demands to do this or that now, in making the long drive to work.
I discovered I could find music in anything, but that to do that, I had to focus on finding it. I had to be able to focus on it, which became more difficult the higher the noise level.
Noise can so easily overwhelm music. Reading Isenberg’s Burr biography, I could only barely catch the tune beneath all the aggressive noise.
And then, then I couldn’t catch the tune at all. I set the book aside, finding sweeter tunes by far in the silence.
My copy of The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr is en route to me now.
When I receive it, I hope to hear not cacophony, of which there is already so much in the world, but the Symphony of Burr.
Where noise exhausts,