Infrasonic Sound: The Black Noise Kinship of David Bowie and William S Burroughs
Can sound be used as a weapon? The short answer is yes, but the full answer requires a little bit of history first.
During the Cold War, many countries were throwing money and researchers at new ways to cause damage to others.
In France, in 1957, a research group was formed by and led by Dr Vladimir Gavreau. The team was given full access to a building full of equipment and living quarters. The main attraction in the laboratory was an “infrasonic generator”. This baffling bit of kit resembled a giant referee’s whistle and was encased in concrete.
Infrasonic sounds are so low in frequency that the human ear cannot hear them. Like scentless gas, this can make them troublesome when handling.
Gavreau had experienced the potential danger of these silent sound waves before, but that didn’t stop a few close calls from happening when investigating them so thoroughly.
Due to the fact that sound was undetectable by ear, there were many instances of the machine being left on without anyone realising it. By the end of the experimental period, every member of the group had suffered from either nausea or pain in their eyes, ears or even internal organs.
After the infrasonic generator caused a few local earthquakes and demolished the building it was housed in several times, Gavreau’s conclusion was that infrasonic sound could certainly be used as a devastating weapon, without a doubt.
Subsequently, the French authorities released statements saying that neither themselves nor Gavreau were working on a weapons system, and the matter of infrasonics as a weapon went quiet.
That was until the discussion of black noise came about.
WHAT IS BLACK NOISE?
Before answering this question, we must first introduce two men responsible for the discussion of black noise being so prominent today. These men are American writer William S Burroughs and English musician David Bowie.
David Bowie and William S. Burroughs with A. Craig Copetas for Rolling Stone Magazine (1974). Credit: Terry O'Neil/Wikimedia Commons
Despite not being overly familiar with each other’s entire works, they were keen to meet. This led to Burroughs interviewing Bowie for the Feb 28, 1974, issue of Rolling Stone.
Unlike white noise, which contains all frequencies, black noise is the absence of frequencies and sounds.
Nowadays, many people listen to black noise when meditating as it drowns out other background noises, and there are hours upon hours of it available online for people to stream.
There is another use for it though. A rather sinister use, in fact, and Bowie was one of the first to talk out loud about it.
When interviewed by Dick Cavett in 1974, Bowie was asked to explain what is black noise.
Bowie replied: “Black noise? Black noise is something Burroughs is getting interested in. One facet of black noise is that everything – like a glass – if an opera singer hits a certain note, the vibrations alter the metabolism of the glass and it cracks it.
“So black noise is the frequency at which you can crack a city or people. It’s a new controlled bomb. It’s a noise bomb, in fact.”
Sound familiar? It should. Bowie’s description is incredibly similar to Dr Vladimir Gavreau’s discoveries from the infrasonic generator.
HOW IS BLACK NOISE INCORPORATED IN MUSIC?
Burroughs said in the interview with Bowie that black noise is “like infra-sound, the sound below the level of hearing”.
He explained: “Below 16 Mertz. Turned up full blast it can knock down walls for 30 miles. You can walk into the French patent office and buy the patent for 40p. The machine itself can be made very cheaply from things you could find in a junk yard.”
Now, imagine a loud 1970s punk gig creating so much noise that glasses, furniture and the walls are vibrating; Burroughs saw the same thing.
What’s more, with his extended knowledge, he could also see how combining black noise and music into some type of “sound bomb” could be used as a form of dissent or control. That might have just been the fiction writer in him, but many people picked up the idea, even if they didn’t realise it at first.
Johnny Ramone of The Ramones. Credit: Masao Nakagami/Wikimedia Commons
There was plenty of music that caused audiences to feel their bones and organs shaking back then, but that didn’t end with punk music.
Numerous sub-genres of post-punk, rock and metal make use of uncomfortable or even black noise, almost like a deterrent or gate-keeping device in some instances. The phenomenon isn’t limited to headbangers though, just about anything with a heavy bassline can give the same effect.
A gentle amount of black noise can be used in music to emulate the sound of silence before introducing other sounds or to ensure that nothing can be heard.
You can also search online and find hours-long tracks of black noise to sleep to, if, for example, you live somewhere noisy that has background noise you wish to drown out.
THE INFLUENCE OF BLACK NOISE ON ARTISTES
An invisible bomb made from infrasonic sound is nightmare fuel for most people, but for two out-of-the-box creative thinkers and storytellers, it was an exciting and engrossing topic to debate.
THE BLACK NOISE BOMB
Although they were two different fields, both Bowie and Burroughs were intrigued and inspired by the deadly black noise bomb.
During their meeting, Burroughs and Bowie discussed the potential of black noise.
Burroughs, already familiar with the matter, stated: “They have riot-control noise based on these sound-waves now. But if you could have music with infrasound, you wouldn’t necessarily have to kill the audience…”
Bowie finished his sentence: “Just maim them.”
On his television show, Dick Cavett enquired into how devastating a device like this could be.
Bowie told him, “It depends how much money you put into it. I mean a small one could probably kill about half the people here. But a big one could…destroy a city. Or even more.”
BLACK NOISE AND BOWIE
Singer-songwriter and acting legend David Bowie learned about black noise from William Burroughs.
The pair were initially talking about the relationship between musicians and their fans when the topic was introduced. Specifically, they were discussing the ever-evolving face of counter-culture that prompted artistes to develop increasingly niche genres/sounds to stand out.
Bowie said in his interview with Burroughs: “[Music] has very loosely shaped itself into the politics of sound. The fact that you can now subdivide rock into different categories was something that you couldn’t do ten years ago.
“But now I can reel off at least ten sounds that represent a kind of person rather than a type of music.”
David Bowie. Credit: Les Zg/Wikimedia Commons
How far some people would go to attain a unique style or enforce an aggressive political demonstration is worrying when you know that some sounds are actually dangerous.
There were already bands trying to knock down venue walls with the amount of bass they blasted into the crowds. Just imagine what they could do with infrasonic sound and ill-intent.
The hope was it wouldn’t escalate much further than bone-shaking-basslines and that the information and technology around the black noise wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
From his interview with Cavett, it was obvious that Bowie knew the dangers of black noise and he understood that he shouldn’t be messing around with it. However, that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t inspire him in some way.
As his music suggested, Bowie was already keen on experimenting with sound and sending his mind off to another planet, or into the silent vastness of deep space. This new knowledge was surely going to be useful to him and his fantastical means of expressing himself.
As well as in his music, Bowie loved to tell stories on stage, on screen and even in print. He was also seen as a working actor due to the various personas he employed in public and on screen for interviews.
His interest in fantasy and science fiction wasn’t limited to the works of Burroughs, but after the two met and got to know each other, Bowie’s mind was awash with inspiration and new ideas.
BLACK NOISE AND BURROUGHS
In his life, Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. On top of that, five books have been published containing his interviews and correspondences.
Burroughs was a post-war beat literature/paranoid fiction writer and visual artist, so his interest in up-and-coming government weapons and technological atrocities is rather self-explanatory.
Learning about the black noise bomb added to the arsenal in Burrough’s imagination while he continued experimenting with writing fictional totalitarian regimes and dystopian nightmares.
William S. Burroughs (1983) Credit: Chuck Patch/Wikimedia Commons
Often scaring himself (and everyone else) with how accurately some of his scenarios came to happen in the real world, Burrough’s head spun at the similarities.
He sometimes found it hard to see where reality ended and fiction began, especially when he heard about the noise bomb being used in crowd control.
With that in mind, and with Burrough’s well-known reputation for being a controversial character, he is still regarded as one of the most important post-war writers in history.
Both the cyberpunk and new wave sub-genres of science fiction owe Burroughs heavily, and they tip their cap to him and his works often.
As well as influencing writers such as John Shirley, William Gibson and Peter Ackroyd, musicians like Bowie, Kurt Cobain, Gary Numan and Lou Reed have cited Burroughs’ inspiration as a key element of their creative careers.
Burroughs also wrote about (and investigated, in his spare time) the mystical, the magical and the occult.
BLACK NOISE VS WHITE NOISE VS GREY NOISE
Now that you know all of that about black noise, you’re possibly wondering where white and grey noise comes into the equation.
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White noise is the polar opposite to black noise. So, in black noise’s case of containing no frequencies from the spectrum of audible sound, white noise has them all.
Also known as broadband noise, people often liken the sound of white noise to the static from an untuned radio or television.
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Grey noise, on the other hand, is a particular type of spectral sound that is designed around the psychoacoustic qualities of the human ear.
Where white noise contains all frequencies with equal energy, grey noise contains all frequencies with equal loudness. This gives the sound a “fuller” or “three-dimensional” effect.
Grey noise has been a great help in testing people’s hearing range.
Grey Noise Ambient Sound for Ten Hours
Cover: David Bowie and William S. Burroughs (1974). Credit: Terry O'Neil/Wikimedia Commons
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Writer | DB Damage
DB Damage is a freelance content writer passionate about creative subjects like music, film, and video games. He studied I.T. and music technology at college and has a background in managing and promoting local bands.