Useful (adj.) serving some purpose
Complex (adj.) composed of many interconnected parts
Noise (noun) a sound of any kind
Thinking about Randy Thom’s blog post on Cacayanga, I thought about the fact that although the connotation is still a relatively strong and persistent one - particularly in everyday language - we are generally getting away from the idea that noise = unwanted sound. Across both sound design and music (and all the nebulous spaces in-between) noise is often an intended outcome; it is desired.
The concept of useful, complex noise, such as described in Thom’s post, the idea of having slightly randomised noise within your film soundtrack is an anathema to the school of thought that says as film sound designers we should be more concerned with taking elements away, decluttering the sound space, than adding to it with loosely defined (for want of a better term) noise.
While there is assured merit with this argument, useful complex noise, is a sleight of hand trick, a seemingly nonsensical lyric or rhyme that in fact makes perfect sense. It is through the judicious placement of useful complex noise that sound designers are able to mostly divert attention away from that which we would prefer the audience not to hear - or see - or add tangibility and even credibility to certain moments. Sometimes being literal, even with 'hard' effects or foley sounds, is not enough. Useful complex noise is, therefore, a gossamer with which to deaden sound elements that stand out egregiously, mask fades (for most sounds in nature do not fade, yet, when inserted into a scene, can sound pointed, exposed and strange, and so cannot just 'start', unless there is a desired dramatic motivation underlying it), and add believability.
To sum it up then, useful complex noise is such because it is useful - it helps complete the sound scene while at the same time complex, i.e one may not always be precisely sure how and why it is useful, but it is. I am certainly an advocate of Cacayanga, and have probably been guilty of over using it in the past, but what I think its use also probably highlights is our individualised sensitivity to literal and non-literal noise, but perhaps I’ll take that up in another post.