Savouring the mystery.
by Dave Skipper
The noise is in full flow. You are enveloped in the confusing mass/mess of sound. Disorientation! Saturation! You love that feeling of being taken out of your comfort zone, where you cannot make sense of your sensations.
Ricocheting acoustics in smoke-filled caverns.
Come in here without fear:
Technical alchemies delight and confound.
Get a fix.
All in bits.
Knowledge unfound and heads spinning round.
Anonymous contraptions pulsating and flashing.
Come and hear without fear:
Wizards ply blizzards of noise outlasting.
Questions asking and shadows casting.
Molecules vibrate in esoteric patterns.
Come adhere without fear:
Overflowing whimsies spiral out without erring.
Comfort deterring and wonder stirring.
The noise weaves its magic,
Draws you in,
Brings you home.
I had heard of Jimi Hendrix. I knew he was a revered electric guitarist, I knew he took drugs, and that was about it. I had the vague impression that he was somewhat dark and mysterious. I still clearly remember buying a cassette called The Jimi Hendrix Concerts, a compilation of some of his most electrifying live performances. The first time I listened to it I was almost scared. The playing was so out-of-this-world, and so far beyond what I had at that time realised could be achieved on the neck of a guitar, that I just did not understand what I had just listened to. The strangest thought I had was, “How come music this good isn’t illegal? How come everyone isn’t raving about this album?” I felt like I had stumbled into a hidden secret, so potent it was dangerous.
All these years later, and some of those tracks still blow me away every time I listen to them. It’s not just Jimi’s technique and mastery of the fretboard (in fact countless modern guitarists have taken technique far beyond anything Jimi could do). It was also the mystique, the atmosphere, the emotion. And above all it’s the fact that his most stellar solos of them all, which still give me goosebumps, were improvised on the spot. Completely improvised, yet with such momentum, and structure, and passion, and coherence that they seem minutely planned out, even down to the feedback tones and string noise.
Now, I will be the first to say that there are many of Jimi’s songs that I don’t care for. Moreover, many of his live improvised solos are variously boring, predictable, meandering, out-of-tune, terrible. There, I said it. But when he was on fire, boy did he nail it!
I used to fight that lack of understanding, specifically regarding the electric guitar. I learnt many of the technique and tricks, and even though I will never become an accomplished guitarist, at least now I know in theory how the shred masters do what they do. But that became a bit anticlimactic, the awe and mystery removed. I still love a soaring shred guitar solo, but I need something more. It also needs passion to ooze through the fingers and notes, which narrow down the field a lot, but even then it’s still much rarer for me to be truly blown away and left speechless by passionate virtuosity. Advanced technical proficiency is essentially comprehensible, even if far beyond my own ability.
My music world really opened up when I was introduced to the British psychedelic-space-jam-rock band Ozric Tentacles at university – but that’s another story for another day. Over the years various artists and styles of music have captured my imagination through their energy, craftsmanship, and innovation. There has always been a particular lure for me in that element of the unknown and the unexplainable, when i cannot for the life of me understand or figure out how they played that, how they programmed that, how they made that sound. Then when all the elements come together to create a piece of music that evokes wonder – it’s magical!
When I finally entered the world of noise music, the mysteries of sound opened up wider and deeper for me than before, and I was sucked into the freshness and vibrancy of a vast sonic realm that I hadn’t really contemplated or imagined…
Noise permits – indeed beckons – endless permutations of and explorations in sound, limited only by the imagination and the physical and/or electronic constraints of the materials being worked with. Intricacies. Interstices. Interactions.
Furthermore, noise inherently accentuates different modes of unpredictability. Vibrations and manipulations through electronics and acoustics, as electrons and molecules in machines, in instruments, and then in the air, are subjected to unstable states of being that are intentionally highlighted and exploited. Randomness, feedback loops, chaotic systems. This unpredictability makes for noise being a veritable playground for the noisician, and again opens up interesting questions about who is control of the noise, man or machine? The myriad surprises and turns that I stumble into when playing with my gear is one of the chief charms of making noise.
The combination of these elements – both the sounds themselves and the directions those sounds take – make noise, for me, the supremely enigmatic form of music.
Live harsh noise takes this even further with the sheer power and comprehensive frequency-range-filling shards of noise that leave no crevice of time and space in the vicinity unmoved. When noise is as visceral as that it certainly goes beyond any intellectual beard-stroking into another dimension to be absorbed in that cannot be explained adequately or understood quantitatively.
And then it’s actually liberating to not understand what an artist is doing! To be freed from that mental game, from the competition, from the pressure to know it all. It’s a joy to simply listen and enjoy, to be fed from the table with exotic morsels and confusing dishes.
Noise restores a sense of childlike wonder, a welcome antidote to the internet age which seduces us into thinking that we can fathom all mysteries and knowledge. Yet this is not at the expense of craftsmanship and the knowledge that comes through expertise and experience. The skilled noisician can understand his equipment and wield and mould sounds into pastures both planned and new, but always with a freshness and momentum that captures the listener.
If noise does become stale and predictable to listen to, then there are always new artists to discover who will reawaken that wonder. As for the artist who becomes bored with his own sounds, there is always the welcome and freedom to start again and take a completely different approach and trajectory. The noisician needn’t ever settle down in that place where mystery has been displaced.
The abstract nature of noise is certainly a key strength in this matter of mystery and mysteriousness. It’s so hard to pin down, to describe, to sum up, to decrypt. There are as many interpretations and experiences of a piece of noise music as there are listeners. By extension, there can be few if any clues as to the driving force behind the music, and often (though far from always) noise artists will leave any explanation of motivations or agendas aside.
The DIY aesthetic that runs so strong in noise circles adds further to the mystique. Limited-edition merchandise, cassette and vinyl releases, album artwork with little or no information about the artist. Handmade instruments, customised machines, unlabelled devices. Ambiguous methods, undisclosed sound sources, unexplained techniques. These common (although not ubiquitous) characteristics of noise culture may or may not be done for the sake of mystery or anonymity per se, yet they do contribute nevertheless to the apparently indecipherable and impenetrable nature of noise music.
At a deeper level, I love to ponder the unfathomability of the universe in the light of noise music. In my studies at university in theoretical physics I was especially enamoured with those strange and beautiful theories of relativity, quantum physics, and chaos theory. There are limits to what can be observed and measured in the physical world, and these limits are actually inbuilt into how the universe operates (at least according to current theoretical models). This idea is stunning to me. The presence of these unresolvable paradoxes excite and comfort me, and I find ready parallels in both noise music and in my Christian faith.
[side note: For a closer but non-technical look into how chaos theory and quantum physics relate to concepts of noise and faith you will need to wait for the eventual Noise. Life. Death. article series sometime in the future.]
There are both costs and benefits to maintaining mystery and withholding knowledge on the one hand, and to revealing secrets and seeking knowledge on the other. We need both mystery and knowledge. How we handle them, and what weight we give to them as they balance each other, is determined by context, human relationships, and motives. These combine together to determine what kind of effects are desirable.
I will just touch very briefly on a couple of aspects.
Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practises divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.
(from the Bible – Deuteronomy 18:10-11)
Fascination with the occult and associated imagery can be found in noise culture, but it certainly isn’t inherent to what noise is and represents. However it does clearly fit well with noisdom’s unrestrained values of crossing boundaries, embracing the esoteric, and exploring extremes. Power from below, sacred mysteries, secret knowledge, initiation rites – ostensibly non-religious parallels to these forms can find expression in connection to noise as well as other extreme and underground subcultures.
What (or who or where) is the source of mystery and knowledge? From our minds or spirits, from the physical world, from the spirit world, from God the Creator?
What is the function of mystery and knowledge? For power, for fulfilment, for self-advancement, for service?
How does noise in its methodologies, motivations, and associated mythologies express theories of mystery and knowledge?
At the other end of the scale from guarding hidden knowledge is the belief that knowledge, or the pursuit of it, is in and of itself bad and the root cause of all human wrongs and woes. In this view, since we cannot know anything with certainty it’s best not to imbue art with any meaning. The truest form of art can then be seen as that which highlights and expresses its own ultimate meaninglessness, and noise appears to facilitate this outlook remarkably well. Maybe the supposed ‘mystery’ is just that there is no meaning at all so everything is a free-for-all – which also fits the bill for noise values. You can start to see how noise can be approached from so many different angles!
I believe that there is a healthy middle ground that holds both mystery and knowledge together in harmony. I believe that this place finds meaning and purpose and possibility to blossom most effectively in the light and not in the darkness.
Mystery, wonder, and the pursuit of knowledge are part and parcel of art and science and of being human. We can’t avoid these things, they compel us and they define us. Whether we wrestle with the unknown or welcome it, it is always there, seemingly larger than ever: ‘the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.’
Understanding sound and noise, as with anything else, is never complete. We can know things truly, but never fully. What a magnificent, wonderful universe we live in!
‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
(from the Bible – Isaiah 55:8-9)
As with noise and all else, so with God himself. In fact far more so. He is a mystery far beyond our reckoning. We surely can never know him fully, for how can the finite grasp the infinite? How can we know him at all, he who dwells outside of time and who created time and space out of nothing?
The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children for ever, that we may follow all the words of this law.
(from the Bible – Deuteronomy 29:29)
Yet the Bible proclaims him as truly knowable. Never fully knowable, but really truly knowable. Not knowing about, but knowing in our very core, knowing in our deepest experience, knowing beyond understanding. To grasp anything of God requires revelation, his self-revelation. He reveals himself in the Bible and he reveals himself in the creation, but in order to see him and know him we need his Holy Spirit to bring that revelation home.
Therefore the mystery of noise speaks to me of the mystery of God. Being immersed in noise I remember that I am always immersed in God, for he is everywhere. Being surprised at the strangeness and unpredictability of noise I remember that God is remarkable in his all his ways, for he is answerable to no-one and does as he wishes. Not comprehending how sounds are made and woven together I remember that I only glimpse the tiniest fraction of who God is, for he is far beyond our comprehension.
‘Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever;
wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons;
he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to the discerning.
He reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him.
(from the Bible – Daniel 2:20-22)
I can rest in the paradoxes of God because he reveals his character to show that he is trustworthy, powerful, merciful, holy, wise, just, faithful, loving, perfect in every way.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(from the Bible – Philippians 4:6-7)
Living peacefully with uncertainty, tension and the apparent randomness of life seems to be a depressing or futile proposition. Yet the Bible promises peace beyond understanding!
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
(from the Bible – 1 Corinthians 13:2)
The pursuit of knowledge and certainty, unlocking or owning mysteries, seems to be a mostly worthy (if impossible) goal. Yet having love is far greater than unlocking all the mysteries that there are!
Peace beyond understanding and love that matters – savouring mystery in this world is a good thing, for we can bask in the infinite wonders given to us to enjoy, and rest in our finititude. The enigmatic nature of noise and the mysteries it encompasses help me to appreciate my own place in this dynamic.
My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
(from the Bible – Colossians 2:2-3)
Jesus Christ holds all mysteries, including the mysteries of noise. And it is possible to truly know the mystery of Christ. In him there will be no end to the discovery and wonder of mystery in all its purest and most diverse forms.
The pursuit of noise music is an inherently exciting road which highlights our own limitations of knowledge and understanding. Noise surely conveys and celebrates mystery. We cannot fully comprehend ourselves or our world or the nature of sound itself. The unpredictability and diversity of noise only serves to accentuate the mystery. Noise broadens the horizons of listening pleasure beyond the widely accepted realm of music, and it does so in a way that restores and increases a sense of wonder.
I want to allow these wonders of noise to be tiny windows that enable me to worship the wonder and mystery of God.
Where then does wisdom come from?
Where does understanding dwell?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing,
concealed even from the birds in the sky.
Destruction and Death say,
‘Only a rumour of it has reached our ears.’
God understands the way to it
and he alone knows where it dwells,
for he views the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
When he established the force of the wind
and measured out the waters,
when he made a decree for the rain
and a path for the thunderstorm,
then he looked at wisdom and appraised it;
he confirmed it and tested it.
And he said to the human race,
‘The fear of the Lord – that is wisdom,
and to shun evil is understanding.’
(from the Bible – Job 28:20-28)
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!