What Noise? (series: The Word On Noise, part 2)

Noise is sound is music?

by Dave Skipper

Introduction

In this article I consider briefly what I mean by the word ‘Noise’ in the name of this blog, ‘The Word On Noise.’

What is noise?

A new aesthetic, or beauty thrown out the window?

Different definitions, different spheres.

Excess volume leads to ringing in your ears.

Noise causes irritation and missed conversations,

Debilitating distractions that break your concentration.

Sensory overload:

Too much information.

Incoherent messages:

Distorted information.

Helpless confusion:

Lack of information.

Inharmonious caterwauling:

Destructive information.

Noise is disruption, impurity, glitch.

Noise is everything that does not fit.

Noise is signal undergoing corruption.

Noise is sound on the path to destruction.

Noise is the opposite of silence and peace.

Noise befits industry, conflict, disease.

Noise is simply pain, at all costs to be avoided.

…And noise is great pleasure in the ears that so behold it.

So I guess my daughter was about 3 or 4 years old. The workmen had started early that morning, although probably not much earlier than normal. I think they must have been clearing the way for whatever upcoming construction project had been approved for that nearby patch of unused land. Anyway, they were making quite a racket: clattering, drilling, banging. Smashing things, dropping things, scraping things. Hard to tell exactly, but it was all suffused with the noise of heavy machinery in the form of various construction (destruction?) vehicles and tools.

Stepping outside to set off to youchien (Japanese pre-school) that morning, the previously muffled noise that had crept through the walls of our home suddenly crescendoed into our consciousness. It was then that she spoke, in a voice of simple innocence and delight: “Daddy, I LOVE this music!”

Noise is Sound is Music?

They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. By extension, music is in the ear of the hearer, and therefore noise is also in the ear of the hearer. What is noise to one person is not noise to another.

(clip from the Marx Brothers film Horse Feathers, 1932)

So are we left with a free-for-all? It’s a tricky topic, as many artists (in whatever medium) dislike tags and styles and genres. No-one likes to be pigeonholed. And yet to classify and delineate is not only our natural tendency, but is often a very practical and even needful exercise. If noise music likes to posit itself as outside of all classification, how can we then find it, identify it, and connect it? There are noise artists who shun the term and don’t want to be described as making noise or noise music. Moreover, there isn’t a single identifiable ‘noise scene’, though it may be perceived as such from a distance. It is more of a disparate smorgasbord of overlapping communities, sub-cultures, musicians, and individuals loosely connected to each other through events, record labels, word of mouth, the internet, and 101 angles into an appreciation for decidedly ‘out of the box’ music (or non-music or post-music or whatever).

I will leave the implications and resolutions/non-resolutions of this philosophical conundrum of classification for another day, but suffice to say that noise music isn’t a simple genre, it isn’t a clear box in which to file certain artists or records. It’s a diverse umbrella term that can be as much about aesthetics and attitude as it is about the nuts and bolts of the sounds themselves and how they’re put together.

Very basic categories

Noise takes many forms. Although often taken as a negative concept, it isn’t always used or meant in a negative way. In terms of specifically sonic noise (as opposed to noise in signal processing or statistics, or visual noise, etc), one simple way to delineate types of noise could be into noise, noises, and noise music. This is not meant to be a strict exercise, just something simple for now as we start to navigate this fascinating topic.

Noise: unwanted sounds. Maybe loud, maybe stress-inducing. Noise pollution. Construction site din. Heavy metal music. Pachinko parlours. Traffic. Screaming kids. Radio static. Snoring.

Noises: any sounds generally characterised by the widest possible palette of timbres and a lack of melodic form. Ripping. Clattering. Sneezing. Buzzing. Scraping. Barking. Screeching.

Noise music: intentional use of “non-musical” sounds as a prominent or dominant part of an artist’s creative aesthetic. Harsh noise. Musique concrète. Power electronics. Field recordings. Quiet noise. Cut-up noise. Harsh noise wall.

Noise music involves generating, utilising, and manipulating noise and noisy sounds as a creative, intentional sonic artform. Often characterised by chaotic, discordant sounds. Lack of melody, harmony or traditional structure. Freedom from the rules and boundaries of what is normally understood to constitute music. “But is it good music?” you may cry! That’s a different question for a different day (for example the article series Noise Tools will delve into these attributes and more in greater detail).

Whichever way you cut it, there is clearly an absolutely vast array of noises in this world, an incredibly wide spectrum of textures that can be called noise or noisy – both natural and man-made. We’re not just talking about white noise here.

Even besides anything that can be realistically subsumed under the moniker of noise music, noises play a strong role in many other forms of music and sound art too. For example: ambient, drone, field recordings, industrial, new age, experimental electronic music, and more. Wider still, percussive (aka noisy or noise-derived) sounds feature in all manner of music genres which ultimately will include a huge proportion of the music enjoyed on this planet. So there really is no escape from noise within the realm of music!

Extreme and Exploratory Underground Music

I could have called this blog something like:

“The Word on All Kinds of Noise, Noisy Sounds, Noise Music, and Extreme and Exploratory Underground Music”

But that’s a little unwieldy perhaps? Doesn’t quite trip off the tongue does it? My focus is on noise music in particular, but it can’t be isolated from other forms of noise (see above), nor from other forms of music. Aside from noise music I have a particular inclination to what I call extreme and exploratory underground music, which obviously includes noise music but also far more than that. Inevitably, many things that I will be writing about noise music will also apply or bear relation to this broader music realm too.

Extreme. Pushing – or, better, obliterating – boundaries. Boundaries of speed, volume, texture, rhythm. Pushing upwards or downwards. Or sideways. Minimal ambient, grindcore metal, harsh noise, breakcore electronica, free jazz, math rock, punk, industrial, virtuoso progressive shred guitar, power electronics, gabba techno, thrash metal…

Exploratory. Seeking new sonic territories, new styles, new textures, new combinations, new instruments, new experiences, new sensations, new headspaces. Psychedelic space rock, electroacoustic composition, improv, post-rock, experimental electronica, prepared piano/guitar, ambient, prog rock/metal, psy-trance, dark drone…

Underground. This is music that is out of the mainstream, and likes it that way. Not seeking status or success, genuinely in it for the passion, and not infrequently proud to be unknown. DIY, personal, unique, unshackled creativity. Off-the-charts – literally, in every way!

Music. Traditionally this means the three legs of melody, harmony, and rhythm. Sometimes with the fourth leg of timbre thrown in for good measure. Yet there has been a proliferation of new musics over the past century or more that eschew some or even all of those first three legs. Not even a stool, let alone a chair! Ah, but that fourth leg of timbre (I prefer to call it texture) remains strong – a pogo stick perhaps? Not content to sit still, but hopping around into new sonic vistas! If music is at its very heart about creativity in sound for the purpose of enjoyment or communication or expression, then why not drop some of those traditional legs along the way? Again there is a spectrum of approaches here too. Some musicians despise melody or harmony or rhythm. Others care for them all but are wanting to pursue some different combination of them for whatever reason.

Cross-pollination and the evasion of categories is the name of the game. This is a world (or web of worlds more accurately) broad, deep, rich, and untapped by the masses. This is where you will find amazing characters and astonishing expressions of artistry and craft, a meshing of every imaginable background and outlook.

Too much writing in this world already!

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

(from the Bible – Ecclesiastes 12:12‬)

If this is true of books, how much more so of the internet, saturated as it is with so much unnecessary rubbish! And here am I adding to this bottomless pot of stew!

Music should just be enjoyed, right? Music reviews and musicology are for the middle-class elite who want to sit around pontificating, right? It’s about the experience, the escape, about the music, right?!!!

And if that’s true of music generally, arguably it’s even more true of noise music, which so often seeks to wholeheartedly escape convention and analysis. Noise is especially meant to be engaged in as a physical experience.

Some people say that noise music should not be analysed and discussed, and that ideology and words have no place in noise music. Yet of course this is in itself an ideology that has thus already been communicated through words! Words which are representations of ideas, facts, opinions, things, theories, and realities.

Escaping from ideology is impossible. I will discuss these issues more in future articles, but the point here is that I decide to embrace and pursue words, ideas, and analysis as I ponder noise and engage in noise-making. It’s how I’m wired, and I also think it’s important to talk about noise. I believe that words can massively enrich our participation in noise, whether as a listener or as a practising ‘noisician’.

Conclusion

So, noise that I will consider in this blog is actually much broader than just noise music per se, though this is the primary (or maximal) application. At one time or another, I will touch on probably just about every conceivable type of sound that there is except for speech, singing, or melodic music. Actually, speech sounds will also figure at some point too! I will look into both the positive and the negative connotations and categories of noise.

Some of what I will write in this blog will be about music in general, or underground music in general, or sound in general, or creativity in general, or the artist in general. But most of what I write will be specifically applied to the world of noise music, as that is a world I love to inhabit.

The next article in this introductory series will look at what I mean by the word ‘Word’ in ‘The Word On Noise’…

He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

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