Adventure and discovery.
by Dave Skipper
Extreme frequencies. Extreme timbres. Extreme volume. Extreme aesthetics. Boundaries fascinate us. What happens when I push this or that parameter to the limit? Can I go past the limit? What will I find there? How will it make me and others feel?
Race to the space
In your ears, brain, and mind.
Through your ears, between your ears,
Strange noises to find.
By all and any means.
And heights surpassed.
Yield soundscapes vast.
Pandora’s box sets
The candle keeps burning,
No rest for the wick.
Destroy what was fixed.
We are opponents
Of the safe and the bland.
Of brand new lands.
(If you enjoyed this poem, you can read more of my poems here.)
I have enjoyed gritty and aggressive sounds in music for donkey’s years, but always as elements or textures within the music. That was until I experienced noise shows first hand after moving to Tokyo. Then it was as if the light turned on – this was the sound and approach that I had been missing without realising it. Noise music – and in particular ‘harsh noise’ – explored those kinds of aggressive sounds that I liked, but with no compromise and no distraction. An exercise in un-dilution or pre-dilution. It was a breath of fresh air and like coming home musically (though I continue to love many other kinds of non-noise music too!)
There are various gigs and experiences that stand out in my memory as I journeyed into the world of noise. One of those was a live set from Polishman-in-Japan Zbigniew Karkowski. He was especially known for his fearless and uncompromising approach to life and to sound. He wasn’t afraid to push through any limitations, exploring extreme frequencies and volumes with no regard for what any given sound system could take, nor for what anyone thought.
At this particular gig Karkowski was doing something with the frequencies that I had never experienced before. It truly felt as though the sounds were emanating from inside my head. Not just that the tones were piercing through my skull, but as if my brain was the actual source of the sound! It was an incredibly intense and surreal experience that I remember vividly to this day.
One of the things that Karkowski believed, taught, and practiced is that you should give noise and sounds space to be themselves. You don’t need to be in total and unceasing control of the music. You don’t need to constantly decide and direct where you want the music to go. Instead, have the courage to allow the most extreme noises to run their course. Let them exhibit and share their characteristics unassailed, however uncomfortable or unnerving that may be.
These vignettes contributed to forming a web of experiences that have really inspired me and freed me up creatively to think further outside the box than I had previously dared.
The possibility to play around with sound textures and dynamics with no rules of what can and cannot be attempted is undoubtedly one of the great appeals and advantages of noise music. There can be a vitality and verve to noise music that is exciting and fresh.
Teetering along and over the extremes can make for visceral experiences to be sure, but exploring the edges with noise is much more than just pushing the limits for the sake of it. It is at its heart also about curiosity. Fascination with sound. Seeking out new sounds.
The whole dimension of vibrating airwaves tickling our ears (and ribcages) is a vast playground to be explored and enjoyed.
“To all perfection I see a limit…”
(from the Bible – Psalm 119:96a)
Note that the pursuit of the extreme is not to be confused with the pursuit of perfection. I am not talking about a quest for some ultimate limit or target in how far sound and noise can go. Perfection implies plateau. Perfection is an upper limit, a ceiling. Infinity, by contrast, is by definition beyond reach. The infinite can always be relentlessly, endlessly pursued.
Exploring the edges is about creativity, and so it implies restlessness: a good kind of restlessness. There will always be more to discover, imagine, explore. We will never saturate the possibilities. Exponential, asymptotic.
What kinds of extremes and edges does noise music explore?
- Extremities of volume: from silence and quiet noise to harsh noise
- Extremities of frequency: from infrasound and sub-bass to ultrasound (including sound weapons, medical ultrasonics etc)
- Extremities of dynamics: from cut-up noise [a style of noise of music that accentuates stop-start techniques, flitting between silence and searing stabs of extremely loud and cutting noise] to harsh noise wall [a style of noise music that focuses on a constant and unchanging barrage of dense, static noise]
- Extremities of aesthetics: from sheer beauty to rampant ugliness
- Extremities of feeling: from numbness ecstasy
- Extremities of purpose, vision, motivation
- Extremities of skill: from ‘anyone can do that’ to master sound craftsman
- Extremities of effects: from soothing calm through sonic illusions to damaging pain
- Extremities of performance: from innocent immobility to shocking performance art
- Extremities of content: from pure abstraction to confrontational power electronics [a style connecting industrial and noise roots with explicit lyrics about violence, gore, and generally taboo subject matter]
- Extremities of texture: from pure sine tones to chaotic multi-coloured noise
[Side note: future article series Effects of Noise and Noise Tools will go more in-depth into many of these topics mentioned in this article, e.g. noise dynamics, the effects of noise on hearing, uses of infrasonics and ultrasonics, etc]
[Side note: What is the loudest possible sound? Check out this nice little video: http://nerdist.com/what-is-the-loudest-possible-sound/]
The obvious issue to beware of is excessive volume. Pain in the ears, tinnitus, dulled hearing, hearing loss, deafness. Taken to extremes, high volumes can also damage speakers, walls, structures. The destructive potential of sound is even harnessed into sonic weapons for military use.
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’– but I will not be mastered by anything… Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”
(from the Bible – 1 Corinthians 6:12,19a)
The debate continues over how much volume is too much, but the noise world easily favours extreme decibel levels. It can even be a crucial non-negotiable element for some artists and approaches to noise – turn it down and it’s not true noise music anymore! But should we treat our own long-term hearing lightly or disregard other people’s property in the name of artistic freedom and the urge to explore those edges? The boundaries are not always clear.
Aside from physical health, there is also the question of emotional, social, spiritual health. As a Christian I am troubled by some of the obscenity and profanity that can be encountered in parts of the noise spectrum. Whether vile lyrics in power electronics or violent and pornographic imagery in album art, exploring these extremes and taboos is not something I find constructive or necessary. I do understand that one of the legitimate motivations can be to highlight and expose the evils in ourselves and in the world, but being extreme for the sake of it in these ways seems only unhealthy at root. [I will revisit this topic in the article on Evil, Filth, and Decay later in this series.]
For some artists, breaking through extreme boundaries of societal taboos and controversial subject matter is a central tenet of their art, relating to free speech and the exercise of free will. Does this mean I favour censorship? I believe that the most important form of censorship is self-censorship. Irrespective of what society and the state can or should or should not do in regard to free speech, I have the responsibility before God for my own art, my own actions, my own decisions of what I choose to fill my mind and ears and eyes and heart with.
“A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed.”
(from the Bible – Job 14:5)
Noise cannot be infinite. It does have limits. We have limits. There are boundaries that cannot be crossed. The greatest danger of exploring the edges is if we think we can somehow grasp attributes of divinity for ourselves. To desire to become godlike in the metaphysical realm, even if we know it’s impossible, is a perversion of the exceedingly good desire to explore.
“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
(from the Bible – Genesis 1:27)
Why this impulse to explore the edges? What is the allure of extremes? While there are as many reasons as there are people, I believe that one of the key universal reasons is that we are all made in the image of God. We have an inescapable relationship with the divine, the eternal, the infinite. We can’t help but be pulled beyond and outside of ourselves towards God. But this connection to God can only ever be relational, ethical, subordinate. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian thinker, put it like this: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.”
- The extremity of the Christ
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
(from the Bible – Philippians 2:5-7)
We cannot cross the metaphysical boundary between creature and Creator. Yet God, in Jesus Christ, crossed that boundary in our direction. The incarnation of the eternal Son of God, born as a baby on this earth, was one of the most extreme boundary-smashing acts of history. Perfectly God, perfectly man, not only perfect but infinite in all his ways. This is one of my inspirations to explore the edges of noise. It leads me to worship in awe that he could do such a thing.
- The extremity of the cross
“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.”
(from the Bible – Matthew 27:50-52a)
Why did Jesus come in this way? He came to die, but not an ordinary death. On that cross he experienced the full weight of all my sin and guilt and shame. He experienced the full force of God’s holy and just wrath due to me. The eternal community of the Trinity of God was ruptured. Oh the silence and the noise in Christ’s mind and spirit and body in that moment! The most supremely extreme and boundary-obliterating moment in history! There are profound depths to plumb here. This is an even bigger inspiration to explore the edges of noise. It leads me to worship in awe that he could do such a thing.
- The extremity of the cost
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.’”
(from the Bible – Matthew 16:24-25)
To be a disciple of Jesus means to love, follow, serve, and obey him. This is not a comfortable path. It is counter-intuitive, counter-cultural. It entails risk. It requires self-denial. It is to belong to an upside-down kingdom. It is an adventure. It is messy and unpredictable. It expects social boundaries to be broken. It ever seeks new frontiers, more passion, better results, fresh experiences. All these characteristics of a disciple’s path are echoed in the path of noise-making in its exploration, discontent with normality, and disregard of expectations. Noise for me reflects discipleship. I choose this path.
The phenomenal diversity of creation. The incomprehensible possibilities and potentialities inbuilt into the creation. For all the remarkable advances in science and technology that mankind has undertaken so far, we are merely scratching the surface. I believe that God positively delights in our exploration and innovation and boundary-pushing. For sure the edges of noise too! I want to explore and celebrate those edges of sound and noise, in wonder and humility…
I will finish with a longer chunk from the Bible. It’s well worth basking in its poetry and pondering its truths. I love this section for its description of God in his extreme creativity, extreme noise, extreme power, extreme wisdom… truly he is beyond our reach….
1 ‘At this my heart pounds
and leaps from its place.
2 Listen! Listen to the roar of his voice,
to the rumbling that comes from his mouth.
3 He unleashes his lightning beneath the whole heaven
and sends it to the ends of the earth.
4 After that comes the sound of his roar;
he thunders with his majestic voice.
When his voice resounds,
he holds nothing back.
5 God’s voice thunders in marvellous ways;
he does great things beyond our understanding.
6 He says to the snow, “Fall on the earth,”
and to the rain shower, “Be a mighty downpour.”
7 So that everyone he has made may know his work,
he stops all people from their labour.
8 The animals take cover;
they remain in their dens.
9 The tempest comes out from its chamber,
the cold from the driving winds.
10 The breath of God produces ice,
and the broad waters become frozen.
11 He loads the clouds with moisture;
he scatters his lightning through them.
12 At his direction they swirl around
over the face of the whole earth
to do whatever he commands them.
13 He brings the clouds to punish people,
or to water his earth and show his love.
14 ‘Listen to this, Job;
stop and consider God’s wonders.
15 Do you know how God controls the clouds
and makes his lightning flash?
16 Do you know how the clouds hang poised,
those wonders of him who is perfect in knowledge?
17 You who swelter in your clothes
when the land lies hushed under the south wind,
18 can you join him in spreading out the skies,
hard as a mirror of cast bronze?
19 ‘Tell us what we should say to him;
we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.
20 Should he be told that I want to speak?
Would anyone ask to be swallowed up?
21 Now no one can look at the sun,
right as it is in the skies
after the wind has swept them clean.
22 Out of the north he comes in golden splendour;
God comes in awesome majesty.
23 The Almighty is beyond our reach and exalted in power;
in his justice and great righteousness, he does not oppress.
24 Therefore, people revere him,
for does he not have regard for all the wise in heart?’
(from the Bible – Job 37)
[side note: I will take a closer look at this passage in the series The Ultimate Noisician]
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!