'Building in Flaws - But On Purpose' by David Swanzy

November 17, 2016 - A new rule has just been released by the federal government, requiring that sound (noise) be added to electric/hybrid automobiles traveling at low speeds because, it seems, the noise associated with nearby cars will help to avoid accidents with pedestrians. I can understand that to some extent, but unnecessary “federal regulations” are somewhat distasteful to me. Whether or not this regulation crosses the line of necessity, it seems particularly premature. Will we want more noisy cars when, in a few years, all could be moving down the highways silently? That time is fast approaching; I have a 2016 model with a gasoline engine that hardly makes a sound at slow speeds, and I fully appreciate the near silence of its engine.

Speaking of noise, I had a friend in England (now deceased) who spent the last years of his life re-mastering vinyl to digital recordings, electronically removing scratch and surface “noise” that tended to diminished listeners’ enjoyment of beautiful music. In the last year of his life (about ten years ago now), he was overly perplexed that a company in California was adding, on perfectly clean-sounding CD’s, surface noise readily heard and accepted on pre-digital recordings. Just as with the addition of noise to silent-running automobiles, the rationale was that customers felt the recording was more realistic with some surface noise because that was what they expected. I can’t think of anything more absurd. It is as if the customer had never attended a live concert. Indeed, adding the sound of a baby crying or an enthusiastic crowd responding to a particularly delightful passage would have been preferable to adding surface noise!

On the other hand, there are intentional “mistakes” (really, nuances or personalized variety) that both composers and performers employ to add flavor as well as delight, even to great works of music. One such alteration to allow performance freedom from the written notes in classical music is called rubato. And a period of silence, indicated by “rests,” has an aesthetic reason for being there, but to some (sound editors of background music in advertisements, as an example), such silence seems so useless that it should be eliminated. Jazz and popular music have even more intentional “mistakes,” among those readily known and recognized by performers and listeners are elements of improvisation, “blues notes,” the rhythmic interpretation by the performer of a dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth note, and syncopation. And there are many others.

The point is this: irregularities (intentional “mistakes,” if you will) sometimes are dominant influences affecting beauty in music, the visual arts, and even nature itself. (Of course, God does not make “mistakes” in nature, but that is another story.)

Such are the wonders of aesthetics, and even the choice of an automobile can be dominated by its aesthetic appeal. I frequently choose first the color of automobile I want (aesthetic decision); on the other hand, I don’t have a desire for my car to be noisy. So, for now at least, I can’t endorse the addition of noise to a car engine that is actually appealing because it is quiet. Those really noisy ones on the road that whiz by certainly attract my attention and probably make me swerve away rather than toward them. But they also irritate me to the extent that an accident might be “waiting to happen” at the next pedestrian crosswalk.