More than meets the ear.
by Dave Skipper
In the darkness something was happening at last. A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. It’s lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. There was hardly even a tune. But it was, beyond comparison, the most beautiful noise he had ever heard. It was so beautiful he could hardly bear it.
[from The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis]
How can noise be beautiful?
When familiar usage of the word noise denotes ugly and unwanted sounds, it may seem incongruous to seek out beauty in noise. One of the purposes of this blog is to shed new light on how and why ‘beautiful noise’ is real and worth pursuing. I am even planning an article series (tentatively called Beauty in Noise) dedicated to contemplating parallels between noise and other things in the natural world that we more readily associate with beauty.
If noise can be beautiful, then maybe we need to reconsider what noise really is in its deepest essence, beyond the usual physical, musical, or social definitions.
Abstraction and Symbolism
One of the strong appeals that noise music holds is how abstract it is. With no words and no tune, it leaves far more to the imagination than regular music. I find this very exciting and freeing both as a listener and as a performer. Artistic expectations are wonderfully removed, leaving each noise artist to pursue their own sonic path with undiluted focus. This also allows for a huge spectrum of approaches to making noise which I find very refreshing.
I think that the embrace of noise music specifically in regard to its abstractness can be either an attempt to escape meaning in music or an attempt to uncover deeper meaning than may be apparent in other forms of music. Put another way, abstraction involves either de-symbolising sound and music or re-symbolising sound and music. What do I mean by this?
For example, for some people noise music is intentionally a non-political activity: a distancing from agendas, perspectives, and factions. In contrast, for others noise music is very much connected to a political (or anti-political) viewpoint: rejecting the system, upholding an ecological cause, making a stand against oppression.
Another example: noise music can on the one hand be a reaction against the information saturation that bombards us in the modern age: a drowning out of the ‘information noise’ through a numbing or exciting of the senses through saturation in ‘informationless noise’. Or on the other hand noise music can be an exercise in exploring the inner reaches of the human mind and our place in the cosmos: opening up new lines of thought, experience, and insight.
Thus to de-symbolise is to actively strip away meaning from sound, or to deliberately disconnect noise from cultural confines, or to disassociate noise from value-laden leanings.
And to re-symbolise is to find or express or give fresh meaning, value, direction, focus, and purpose to noise. Contextual association with a specific worldview or conviction. Resonating with something in the ethos or physicality or sonic characteristics of noise and noise music culture.
It fascinates me that despite such apparently mutually exclusive starting-points, they in fact often lead to a similar spectrum of results sonically. The many sounds and forms of noise music in all its guises come together in a community that embraces such a wide range of outlooks.
Therefore it seems to me that pure abstraction is a myth, for even the process of de-symbolising also speaks of a point of view that is strongly adhered to. It’s impossible to engage in any artform with complete neutrality: our values and perspectives on the world inevitably shape our art, even if only via such a subtle seeping in that we artists ourselves may be unaware of.
Creation as Symbol
With any art or craft, something of the artist or designer is imprinted in our work. Whether it’s our experiences, our personality, our philosophy, our influences, our specific skillset – art is inherently and inevitably connected to its creator. You could say that art is a symbol of the artist – a glimpse of their character, an aspect of their abilities, a moment of time in their life encapsulated and transformed into an image, a sculpture, a performance. The art doesn’t need to preach or be explicit about it’s symbolic nature, it simply is that way by virtue of having been created and moulded by its creator. If this weren’t the case then all art would be the same, or there would be no art at all!
In the same way, the universe unavoidably reflects and demonstrates the character and artistry of God the Creator. The creation cannot be removed and abstracted from its Creator without distorting and diminishing its full identity and reality and meaning.
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
(from the Bible – Romans 1:20)
This is one of the most essential Bible verses for my writings about the Bible and noise. Everything that exists has been created by God, and the whole universe depends on him constantly to be sustained in its existence. The creation is therefore revelatory of who God is. It can’t help it, it bears the stamp of its Maker.
This means that reality is richer and deeper than ‘just’ the physical, objective ‘stuff’ that surrounds us and that we are made of. Truth itself is richer and deeper than brute facts and the things we identify as being literally true. We reflect this every day in the use of language which utilises metaphors, word pictures, idioms, stories, hyperbole, poetry… we naturally use words to function as symbols of ideas, realities, and fantasies that correspond to more than the mere definitions of the words themselves.
In other words, everything is at root symbolic. And I have to stress that this does not mean that the creation is in any way less real for its symbolic nature – rather, creation finds its fuller and deeper meaning and reality precisely in its symbolic nature. It can only be this way by virtue of it being created by God, out of nothing.
This begs the question: how do we interpret the symbolism of creation correctly? What does the creation symbolise? What does it point to? And how do we consider these questions without compromising or ignoring the place and value of created things in their non-symbolic dimensions?
The Bible verse above affirms that creation reveals God’s invisible qualities, and the whole Bible is full of examples of how this is so. These examples and applications are sometimes explicitly explained. But often they are more subtle; the literary forms of poetry and story make them deeper and more effective that way. Reading and studying the Bible is a challenging endeavour, but the tools for how to do so are found within the Bible itself so we are not left guessing.
Let me explain and clarify what Biblical symbolism is, and what it it isn’t. This will be an essential foundation for much of the future material in this blog.
Biblical Symbolism is not a Code
We tend to think of a symbol as being less substantial than the reality it represents, as only a pointer to or reminder of the real thing. It acts as shorthand for a person, or institution, or idea. Although true to an extent, the problem then is that the symbol arguably has little or no inherent meaning in and of itself.
To read the Bible in this way would be to treat it more like a codebook. And to read the world around us as symbolic in this superficial way would be to trivialise the creation itself as not having meaning and value placed within in beyond what it teaches us about spiritual or abstract truths. This is the trap of allegory, reducing stories and people and things to mere analogies of ‘the real thing.’
This problem of ‘over-spiritualising’ the Bible has consequences. Taken too far, the result is to deny the value of artistic endeavours, or to retreat from history, or to be fearful of scientific progress.
The roots of this unhelpful codebook approach lie in the dualistic thought of Ancient Greece which posited the mind and the spiritual realm against matter and the physical realm. Although Christianity (alongside much of the history of Western philosophy) has often been infected with this false dualism, it is not the viewpoint of the Bible’s writers who unanimously affirmed the value of history and of the world as part of God’s good design and plan.
Thus there is an important distinction to be made between a creational symbol and a creational reality. Both are real and both are true, but neither are exhaustive in the kind of truth that they hold. The richness of this kind of symbolism and image-bearing truth-revelation shouldn’t be simplified into a code with literal one-to-one equivalency.
The key to understanding the symbol is the association that it bears, through connotation, experience, or explanation. This association is meaningful exactly because the symbol carries something in itself of those characteristics.
Biblical Symbolism is Crucial
A balanced approach to Biblical symbolism sees a perfect harmony between the physical, created world, and spiritual truths about God, eternity, ethics, and humanity. God’s ‘two books’ – the creation and the Bible – must dovetail together and be in harmony with each other. To assume otherwise is to reposit God as ultimately irrelevant:
If God is only revealed in the Bible and not in his creation, then the Bible is reduced to a book of spiritual ideas and ethics, i.e. Christianity is then a private religion, unnecessary for the world at large. On the other hand, if God is only revealed in his creation and not in the Bible then he is essentially unknowable beyond our own imagination and theories, i.e. God is made in man’s image and we must evolve our view of him on our own terms in our own time. Either way, God is abstracted out of the fulness of everyday reality.
Therefore the Bible expects us to take seriously how it talks about the physical world, both in its general sweep and in its details. As a Christian I have a responsibility to study, understand, and apply what the Bible teaches me about my love of listening to and making noise music, as much as any other part of my life. If I don’t do this I will miss out on ways in which noise can enhance my appreciation of God’s character, and I will miss out on ways in which God’s character deepens my appreciation of noise music.
Biblical Symbolism is Clear
Not a smash and grab, the Bible builds up specific word pictures and associations with God’s attributes, human behaviour, and spiritual truths of all kinds. This requires reading the Bible literarily, as distinguished from literally.
Reading literarily means taking into careful consideration the literary language and literary devices employed by the Bible writers: poetry, wisdom literature, prophetic literature, metaphors, parables, proverbs, historical accounts, and so on. I take very seriously the Bible’s claims to historical accuracy, literal miracles, etc, but it is naive and simplistic to interpret everything literally when the Bible is so full of figures of speech, anthropomorphic language (describing God with human features), and rich symbolism.
In short, the Bible needs to be interpreted and understood on its own terms, in reference to itself. It is often the case that different parts of the Bible interpret or reinforce each other, so taking the context into account (within a chapter, within a book of the Bible, within the whole Bible) is also vital. This only makes sense when I assume that the Bible, as inspired by God, is internally consistent, reliable, and true (which is how it describes itself).
It is also essential to point out that symbolism and imagery in the Bible never teach anything new about God (his attributes, his character, or his ways) that isn’t explained and described clearly in other ways elsewhere in the Bible. Whatever helpful and fascinating connections between noise and God are waiting to be unpacked, they will always support and demonstrate Christian beliefs and doctrines that are well-established and derived clearly from the Bible. I am not going to be unlocking any previously unknown mystical secrets!
Biblical Symbolism is Cosmic
The creational symbolism we find in the Bible gives us some concrete starting-points and principles for learning about God from the world around us.
The examples of symbolism in the Bible of are representative: covering enough ground for us to know what to look for in the creation and for us to know what God’s character is like. But these examples are not exhaustive: there are countless aspects of the creation and countless realms of human activity that are not mentioned at all (and inevitably so regarding technological developments and cultural diversity, for example).
This is exciting because the Bible gives just the tools we need to explore new connections and new realms of symbolism in nature and art, but within safe parameters that prevent us concocting myths and fables at whim. There will always be more to discover and more to explore. This is part of the joy of being an artist (or scientist, or anything else).
The kind of symbolism I am talking about is not just that creation reveals things about God, but that God reveals himself in the creation. This is what makes this process of discovery so deep and thrilling.
Noise as Symbol?
What about noise? What is the function, meaning, and symbolism of noise? Does noise play a deeper, more symbolic role within the creation than is usually attributed to it? A symbolism that makes it somehow more real and more exciting than imagined?
If God created everything, then every last square inch of the universe and every last second of time belongs to him. If creation reveals God, then that includes noise too. As it turns out, noise itself is addressed many times in the Bible. Although the artform and practise of modern noise music is obviously not mentioned, there is immense overlap between natural noise and noise music that simply begs to be thoroughly explored.
How does noise reveal God?
This is the main question that will guide the studies in the article series The Ultimate Noisician. In those articles I will look at what kinds of noises appear in the Bible that are associated with what God does and that reveal aspects of his character. The series Elemental Noises will explore more widely how natural noise in the creation relates to different spiritual truths.
My thesis goes even further: noise doesn’t just reveal or reflect who God is, but noise in its very particular characteristics and potentialities can only even exist because of who God is. Noise automatically means simply because of its God-given place and potential within His creation.
How to Read the World
It is my contention that in order to read the world aright we must first read the Bible aright, as it is God’s Word to us. But it’s not just a one-way street: observing and understanding the world around us then gives us further insight into the Bible. Thus a positive feedback loop begins.
The Bible helps us to read the world, not by giving us textbook guidelines or black and white answers, but through the vastly more powerful (and empowering) richness of its diverse literary styles and devices and structures. Stories, parables, narratives, history. Observations, poetry, visions, metaphors. Logic, philosophy, ethics, case studies. It’s all there.
One caution to bear in mind is that association, connotation, and symbolism are tied up so closely with culture. I’m sure I do and will fall into that trap too often and too easily without realising it. Untangling universal principles of symbolism from these varying time-and-space cultural specifics is a complex and easily overlooked necessity. At the same time, timeless truths must be embodied in real people and in the real world. Abstracted truth loses all relevance and power.
This task relates to interpreting and applying the Bible correctly across the ages, as well as to understanding social and cultural perspectives on noise. This is one reason that I am publishing my blog publicly, because I want to engage in accountable discourse to work through these issues in community.
Moreover, studying the Bible is not primarily an intellectual exercise. It is primarily a spiritual activity because the Bible is the Word of God and because the human mind and heart is fallen – distorted and tainted by sin and rebellion to God. Approaching the Bible on my own terms, relying on my own reason, or elevating my own thinking is not going to get me very far. The Holy Spirit of God is described in the Bible as the one who divinely inspired the words of the Bible, and as the one who ‘guides us into all truth’, and so I rely on him to help me in my studies.
In summary, noise enriches theology and theology informs noise. They belong together because God created noise and because all of creation is designed to reveal him. Creation is the context in which the creature interacts with their Creator. Art, music, and noise have their role to play in enhancing our relationship with God.
Polly was finding the song more and more interesting because she thought she was beginning to see the connexion between the music and the things that were happening. When a dark line of firs sprang up on a ridge about a hundred yards away she felt that they were connected with a series of deep, prolonged notes which the Lion had sung a second before. And when he burst into a series of lighter notes she was not surprised to see primroses suddenly appearing in every direction. Thus, with an unspeakable thrill, she felt quite certain that all the things were coming (as she said) ‘out of the Lion’s head’. When you listened to his song you heard the things he was making up: when you looked round you, you saw them. This was so exciting that she had no time to be afraid.
[from The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis]
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!