The noisiest of them all.
By Dave Skipper
The debate continues. Is noise music really music? Can music be redefined to include noise? Or are new categories required, such as ‘post-music’? There are noise artists who prefer to eschew all categories anyway, so are these questions even worthwhile asking?
I know noise artists, noise musicians, noise-makers, noisers. I know musicians, craftsmen, and sound artists working primarily or exclusively in noises of many colours. I know intellectuals, programmers, engineers, explorers, dabblers, outsiders, and eccentrics who love to make noise.
My favourite term for all of us together is noisician. This word conveys the sense or craft of a musician, but with the specific context and focus of noise. Noisicianship intersects with musicianship, but is distinct from it. Noise shares some common categories or values with music, whilst having many other characteristics all of its own.
The question of whether noise can be music is essentially redundant: noise-making is unquestionably a valid artform in my opinion. Whether it can be called music or not is an interesting discussion, and maybe helpful, but it doesn’t change the sounds themselves or the artists or the process of noise-making. It’s ultimately only semantics at this point.
Music and Noise as Human Activity
What distinguishes music and noise-making and any other artform from the diversity of sound and beauty and wonder in the natural world is of course the human element. All music, whether good or bad (as decided by who?), is intentional human activity. The results or effects may not necessarily be intentional, but creative decisions are made regarding the instrumentation or notes or rhythms or performers or algorithms or input parameters or signal chains at the outset of (or in the midst of) the music-making process.
Music – and by extension noise-making – involves the arrangement of sounds through time: structuring, layering, transitioning, performing. Context is also significant: a recording to be shared or released, a live performance in a music venue, an audience to participate in the experience, a collaboration with another artist, or even just a solitary activity through headphones at home.
Music/noise may communicate a message or feeling or outlook from the artist. It may be a form of self-expression. It may evoke an emotion or memory or response from the listener. It may provide a unique audio experience for the listener not available elsewhere. It may convey a sense of meaning: a declaration of truth, a celebration of life, an expression of despair, a raising of questions.
There are many ways to make noise, so the potential arsenal of noise sources at the noisician’s disposal is vast. Noise sources can be categorised in various ways, but for my purposes here I will break them down into the following:
- Vocal sounds (sounds generated by the human voice)
- Words and speech: talking, whispering, shouting, screaming, etc
- Melody and song: singing, humming, whistling, etc
- Vocal noise: screaming, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, clicking, blowing, sighing, spitting, burping, ululating, wailing, making animal sounds, etc. Arguably vocal noise is the primary, most instinctive mode of noise-making.
- Action sounds (sounds generated by the human body acting on/with objects)
- Striking, hitting, slapping, scraping, smashing, rubbing, dropping, flicking, plucking, stomping, kicking, squashing, etc
- Noise-making equipment (sounds generated by human-made instruments and technology)
- Acoustic instruments, electronic instruments, handmade instruments, computer instruments, circuit-bent instruments. Resonators, oscillators, filters, effects, strings, membranes, springs, pipes, amplifiers, circuitry, cables, knobs, switches, buttons, interfaces, sensors, fretboards, keyboards, contraptions, gadgets, machines, microphones, speakers, mixers, etc
- Sampled sounds (sounds recorded/sampled by humans)
- Field recordings, urban sounds, industrial sounds, organic sounds, natural sounds, weather sounds, animal sounds, found sounds, everyday sounds, manipulated sounds, any sounds.
Silence is a powerful tool for the noisician. I mention it here for completeness, and it will crop up in this series, but it will also warrant further treatment under the Noise Tools and Beauty in Noise article series.
Does God make sounds, music, noise?
- Vocal sounds
There are a good many instances in the Bible where it is recorded that God spoke audibly. In some cases the timbral characteristics of his voice are even mentioned. In addition there are many examples in the Bible of God’s words and actions being described in human terms as metaphors to help us understand the character of a God who is uncreated spirit and infinite in all his capacities.
- Action sounds, noise-making equipment, sampled sounds
The universe is (among myriad other things) God’s own hand-made noise-making instrument! This world is a dynamic, organic ‘machine’ comprised of diverse elements, natural processes, material interactions, creatures, movement, collisions, reactions, energy, vibrations. The Bible clearly and repeatedly portrays God not as a distant Maker watching the universe do its own thing from afar, but rather as the intensely personal, hands-on protagonist of history.
Many of the key Bible passages that I will study in this series intertwine God’s activity and purposes with the noises and forces of nature. God doesn’t need to go out and find equipment to use – the universe is his ready instrument! He doesn’t need to go out to find and make field recordings – he is the one who has created all the samples that are out there!
Once I realised that so-called natural noises are actually overseen and orchestrated by God, a whole new perspective was opened up to my ears. And I don’t mean that I now listen to the sounds of nature and pretend that I am listening to full and complete music compositions!
Most of the time God is sonically silent. Yet the Bible affirms that in other ways he is far from silent. The silence of God, and how it relates to his voice and his noise-making, is a theme that will emerge now and then in this series.
God’s noise-making is awe-inspiring, beautiful, visceral, intense, and fascinating. Usually the sounds and noises mentioned in the Bible are easily overlooked, or considered irrelevant or incidental. But I believe that the details are integral and meaningful. The poetic and truth-laden impact of the Bible’s descriptions of God’s noise-making evoke in me a heightened sense of excitement and enhanced purpose.
These descriptions are not just a good read though; they give us representative models for form, structure, flow, dynamics, sound categories, functions etc of noise and noise performance. Sometimes our human noise endeavours actually naturally reflect elements from these structures! The seemingly endless possibilities for uncovering and creating new forms and new sounds, and the necessity for mystery and discovery, are also present in these models.
By deliberately tapping into the intensity, power, and diversity of noise as an art form, and by generating and manipulating noises at the behest of our fingertips, we find an opportunity to ‘think God’s thoughts after him’, to glimpse aspects of his creative processes and character. This is a part of what it means to be made in the image of God, as all humans are. [side note: I will discuss the corruption and redemption of this image in the article series A Brief History of Noise.]
Does a noisician’s work have to express something or communicate something? This is an open question, but with God yes it always does. There is no abstraction with God: all he is and does is completely personal. God’s noise-making invariably communicates his nature and truth. This will be a recurring concept that I specifically address throughout this series.
Who is the king of noise?
Who owns the whole of noisedom?
Who is the greatest noise God of them all?
In this article series I will unpack some of the key Bible passages that describe ‘the noisiness of God’. I will draw out and summarise the attributes of God that are expressed through his noise-making. I will look for patterns and structures and concepts that help to elucidate the noise-making process. I will muse about how God’s noisicianship can inspire and inform my own noise-making.
I am eager to share these gems with you!
Ultimate. Inspirational. Archetypal. Beyond comparison.
The God of the Bible – Creator of heaven and earth, fully revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, made known to us by the Holy Spirit – is the Ultimate Noisician.
[side note: God has many names, titles, and descriptions in the Bible that refer to things, people, or concepts familiar to us: for example Shepherd, Father, Gate, Provider, King, Builder, Lion… to name just a few. Each name contributes to our understanding of how great and deep and marvellous God is.
Because God is revealed and reflected in his creation, I expect to be able to look and for and to find many more parallels in both the natural world and in human culture. I hope that this article series will convincingly demonstrate that he truly is a Noisician alongside his innumerable other roles!]
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!