Nice Noise

Pre-previously on Overlord-in-terms-of-the-Über-Feral, I looked at how Tolkien used the word “noise” and concluded that he didn’t use it well:

He heard behind his head a creaking and scraping sound. […] There was a shriek and the light vanished. In the dark there was a snarling noise. – “Fog on the Barrowdowns”, Book One, VIII

Now I want to look at a much better writer: Ian Fleming. At first glance, he might seem to be using “noise” badly too in this bit of Live and Let Die (1954):

At about the time he [a treasure-seeking fisherman] should have reached the island the whole village of Shark Bay was awakened by the most horrible drumming noise. It seemed to come from inside the island. It was recognized as the beating of Voodoo drums. It started softly and rose slowly to a thunderous crescendo. Then it died down again and stopped. It lasted about five minutes. – ch. 16, “The Jamaica Version”

Should “drumming noise” not simply have been “drumming”? Well, no: Fleming got it right. The phrase “X noise” or “noise of X” should be used either when a noise resembles X but isn’t X or when there’s some doubt about whether it is X. In the extract above, Fleming’s choice of words captures what must have gone on in the minds of the observers, or rather the auditors: “What is that horrible noise from the island? It sounds like drums. Wait, it is drums. But how on earth could etc.” This is confirmed by what Fleming writes next: “It seemed to come… It was recognized as…”

And once the noise has been recognized, it can be described without qualification. This bit comes later in the chapter:

Strangways described his horror when, an hour after they had left to swim across the three hundred yards of water, the terrible drumming had started up somewhere inside the cliffs of the island.

In the previous chapter, there’s a use of “noise” that I’m not so sure about:

After a quarter of an hour’s meticulous work there was a slight cracking noise and the pane came away attached to the putty knob in his hand. – ch. 15, “Midnight Among the Worms”

Would “slight cracking” have been better? It’s not as clear-cut as “drumming noise”, but I think Fleming got it right again. “Cracking” is ambiguous, because it could have meant that the glass cracked physically but not audibly. Fleming was writing considerately, leaving his readers in no doubt about what he meant.

Now try this from Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags (1942), as Basil Seal watches one of his girlfriends panicked by an air-raid:

But Poppet was gone, helter-skelter, downstairs, making little moaning noises as she went.

Waugh was an even better writer than Fleming, but did he misuse “noises” there? I don’t think so. These alternatives don’t conjure the scene as effectively:

• But Poppet was gone, helter-skelter, downstairs, emitting little moans as she went.
• But Poppet was gone, helter-skelter, downstairs, uttering little moans as she went.

The noises Poppet was making weren’t real moans and the trailing phrase “making little moaning noises” mimics what Basil would have heard as Poppet fled downstairs.

I conclude that, unlike Tolkien, Fleming and Waugh were making nice noise:

nice, adj. and adv. … Particular, strict, or careful with regard to a specific point or thing. Obs. Fastidious in matters of literary taste or style. Obs.Oxford English Dictionary

6 thoughts on “Nice Noise

  1. Should “drumming noise” not simply have been “drumming”? Well, no: Fleming got it right. The phrase “X noise” or “noise of X” should be used either when a noise resembles X but isn’t X or when there’s some doubt about whether it is X.

    And “horrible” has an informal meaning of “bad”.

    “Horrible drumming” could mean that the drumming was substandard (out of time, Lars Ulrich-esque, and so on), but when it’s “horrible drumming noise” the meaning becomes clear: the drumming noise inspired horror.

    • Plus “horrible drumming noise” is phonaesthetic, like Waugh’s “making little moaning noises”.

      …the drumming was substandard (out of time, Lars Ulrich-esque…

      They say of Ringo that not only was he not the best drummer in the world, he wasn’t the best drummer in the Beatles. Not that I ever noticed that Ulrich was bad. But Metallica were never the most technically competent band anyway. Megadeth seem much better and bands like Suffocation are jawdroppingly proficient to my ears.

      • They say of Ringo that not only was he not the best drummer in the world, he wasn’t the best drummer in the Beatles.

        That’s a funny line, but there’s things to be said in Ringo’s defense.

        He popularised the idea of performing on a raised platform. Elvis Presley’s drummer was hidden behind Elvis’s ass the whole time. Ringo was up high, where everyone could see him. And instead of the traditional “mixed grip” (right stick held like a club, left stick held like a chopstick), he used the modern “matched grip” (both sticks held like clubs). He realised that rock drumming requires power more than it requires finesse.

        Although he never wrote anything as good as “A Day in the Life”, he also never wrote anything as dreadful as “Wonderful Christmastime”, so it all balances.

        He had a talent for malapropism, and putting words together wrongly. “A Hard Day’s Night” was supposedly his title. And he performed just one drum solo with the Beatles, showing admirable restraint. It’s a little like performing just one Holocaust. None would have been even better, but if you have to pick a number…

      • Although he never wrote anything as good as “A Day in the Life”, he also never wrote anything as dreadful as “Wonderful Christmastime”, so it all balances.

        Almost all humans have never written anything as good as “A Day in the Life” or as dreadful as “Wonderful Christmastime”. But most humans couldn’t have done as well as Ringo with the role that came his way. His most important attributes were his ordinariness and his not being Pete Best.

        And he performed just one drum solo with the Beatles, showing admirable restraint. It’s a little like performing just one Holocaust. None would have been even better, but if you have to pick a number…

        In a very real sense, the Holocaust, as the ultimate moral and aesthetic obscenity, was also the ultimate drum-solo, with Auschwitz as the bass drum, Treblinka and Sobibor as snares, Mein Kampf as the click-track, and so on. The Nazis were the original National-Socialist Black-Metallers: Hitler vocals and rhythm guitar; Göbbels lead guitar; Himmler bass; Göring drums; Heydrich keyboards and SFX. David Britton developed this concept further in Basted in the Broth of Billions (Savoy Books 2006), which depicts World War Two as a “Battle of the Bands” that Stalin, fronting the drone-doomsters Gulag, wins by playing so loud that Hitler develops tinnitus and shoots himself in an agony of Nietzschean ressentiment and rancour.

        At least, that’s how some critics interpret the post-palimpsestic polytextuality of chapter 23. Other critics claim that Stalin wins by sabotaging the Nazis’ rider, so that Hitler shoots himself after learning that he’s eaten a pork sausage at a post-gig orgy. Ann Frank comes into it too, but not in ways suitable for exposition on a family-friendly blog.

  2. In a very real sense, the Holocaust, as the ultimate moral and aesthetic obscenity, was also the ultimate drum-solo, with Auschwitz as the bass drum, Treblinka and Sobibor as snares, Mein Kampf as the click-track, and so on.

    It seems so obvious, when you put it that way.

    I suppose neo-Nazis would be a cover band, or a staticky 3rd generation bootleg recorded at the back of a Munich beer hall. It’s noteworthy that fascism, even after it faded from success in Europe, was still big in Japan.

    Incidentally, there was actually an Auschwitz orchestra. They played “German marching songs”, and so probably had percussion. I can’t find information on whether they played drum solos: but if so, the Holocaust would have a fractal nature, the larger drum solo instantiating smaller ones. Clearly, the terrors of that dreadful place are still being documented.

    Ann Frank comes into it too, but not in ways suitable for exposition on a family-friendly blog.

    [CENSORED] Anne Frank?

    • I can’t find information on whether they played drum solos: but if so, the Holocaust would have a fractal nature, the larger drum solo instantiating smaller ones.

      Yes. And then there are bacterial flagella and cilia beating away inside the bodies of the musicians. Drum-solos at all levels. Which is reminiscent of Crowley’s “The Testament of Magdalen Blair”:

      Things innocent, things happy, things holy! every one unspeakably defiled, loathsome, sickening! During the vigil of the day following I recognized one group. I saw Italy. First the Italy of the map, a booted leg. But this leg changed rapidly through myriad phases. It was in turn the leg of every beast and bird, and in every case each leg was suffering with all diseases from leprosy and elephantiasis to scrofula and syphilis. There was also the consciousness that this was inalienably and for ever part of Arthur.

      Then Italy itself, in every detail foul. Then I myself, seen as every woman that has ever been, each one with every disease and torture that Nature and man have plotted in their hellish brains, each ended with a death, a death like Arthur’s, whose infinite pangs were added to his own, recognized and accepted as his own.

      The same with our child that never was. All children of all nations, incredibly aborted, deformed, tortured, torn in pieces, abused by every foulness that the imagination of an arch-devil could devise.

      And so for every thought. I realized that the putrefactive changes in the dead man’s brain were setting in motion every memory of his, and smearing them with hell’s own paint. — “The Testament of Magdalen Blair

      [CENSORED]* Anne Frank?

      Far worse than that. Faaaaaar worse. They don’t call Savoy “England’s Loudest Publishers” for nothing.


      *This is a family-friendly blog.

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