Noise and God’s word.
by Dave Skipper
DEPARTMENT PAGE FOR THIS SERIES: A BRIEF HISTORY OF NOISE
PREVIOUS ARTICLE IN THIS SERIES: Creation of Noise 1/5
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In this series I am taking a unique approach to telling the story of noise:
- surveying the broad sweep of history from a Biblical-theological perspective, and specifically applying this journey to noise.
This article is the second part of the second part of the series:
1. Chimeric Noise
2. Creation of Noise
___i. Noise and God’s transcendence
___ii. Noise and God’s word
______– Command & Contingency
______– Creativity & Craftsmanship
___iii. Noise and God’s image
___iv. Noise and God’s evaluation
___v. Noise and God’s plan
3. Curse of Noise
4. Cure for Noise
5. Culmination of Noise
As I continue through this series I am just scratching the surface and introducing a few themes, there is so much to explore! I hope you find this journey as exciting and rewarding as I am!
2. Creation of Noise
iii. Noise and God’s word
Any Christian understanding of creation and origins is inseparable from a discussion about God’s word. Not only does the creation account in Genesis 1 reference the creative power of God’s spoken word many times, but numerous other Bible passages also connect creation with the voice and word of God.
- Command & Contingency: the obedience of noise
Eight times in Genesis 1 there is call and response pattern: “God said… and it was so.” God is revealed as the great instigator, the original imaginer, the the first maker.
Command – God said…
Words reveal intentions and priorities. They lay bare the mind and heart. God deliberately planned and executed the order and manner of that first week of creation. He didn’t suggest, he commanded. But his commands are also an invitation – an invitation that cannot be refused. There is gentleness within his power, care and love enveloping his bidding. As creator, he calls the shots, he decides the course, he proclaims the reality-to-be.
God spoke, yet he has no voice box and has no ears to hear, and needs no air. He spoke, and so he is not silent, and nor is he defined by silence. He spoke sound into being: he is sound before sound, the true voice of which created voices are pale imitations. Sound, voice, noise – these are a part of his image manifest in his creation. All sound and all voices are subordinate to and dependent upon the reality of his Voice.
Contingency – …and it was so
These creative commands were no experiment. God didn’t think, “Hmm let’s try this and see what happens…” There were and are no mysteries, no unknowns, and no surprises for him. His will, made plain through his commands, is unobstructable. What he says happens. What he says comes to pass. This is the providence of God. What is the nature of scientific laws? They are an approximation, a modelling, of how God sovereignly chooses to sustain the universe. The predictability of scientific laws are a direct consequence of the faithfulness of God. He does not change, and this is reflected in the stability of how he runs and sustains the world moment by moment. He is not random, he is never capricious. He is faithful to his word. He is faithful to his holy and good and merciful and just character.
But the universe is not a machine, and neither is it autonomous. The universe is not sovereign, nor is it the source of life. God is in control of the cosmos, and he breathes upon it constantly. And so he is not bound by any physical laws – he can and does do things differently according to his purposes. The strange phenomena of quantum physics (like the Uncertainty Principle) find their source and resolution in God. He commands the spin of the quarks, he determines the position and momentum of subatomic particles, he decides the outcome before it happens. The same goes for the unpredictable infinite intricacies of fractals and chaos theory – the evolution of weather systems have the way charted by him.
It’s not the case that God sometimes intervenes in his creation. Rather, he is permanently and intimately ruling and guiding and arranging all things. Miracles are thus easy to explain in this paradigm, they are simply God choosing to do things differently for a specific purpose.
Noise therefore also does God’s bidding. The complexities of the acoustic properties of sound and noise fall just as much under his command as everything else.
- Creativity & Craftsmanship: the structures and functions of noise
God’s is the truest, and in a very real sense the only, creativity because he alone actually creates from total scratch, and because his ideas have absolutely no reference point or context or starting point outside of himself. Thus what we witness in Genesis 1, as the account of the origins of the universe, is a phenomenal and unique insight into the most masterful creative process ever.
Genesis 1 is a supremely rich source of inspiration for what human creativity and creative processes can aspire to (which is not suggest that we can in any way match or mimic God’s creativity). I believe that the account in this chapter of the creation week offers a template and clues to fundamental categories and patterns that crop up in all spheres of study (sciences, arts, social sciences, etc). Here I offer some first ideas on some principles that have a bearing on the world of noise and creative noise-making.
- Day 1: Clarity and Contrast
“And God said, ‘Let there be light.’”
First words are often significant, whether at the start of a political speech, the opening words of a novel or poem, or a personal introduction to a stranger. First words can reveal a lot about the speaker, and so too with artists and the first steps of their creative processes. The first notes or sounds of a piece of music, the first splashes of paint on the canvas, the first moves of a dance routine.
God’s first words in Genesis 1 are not only a declaration of intention and an introduction to his creative acts, but are indicative of his personality, his purpose, and his priorities.
Light – for God himself is Light. He is pure, perfect, and holy. He sees all of time and space, and knows himself completely. Created light reveals and reflects the essence and glory of God. Although audibly noiseless, light as an amalgamation of electromagnetic frequencies is an intriguing parallel to noise as a superposition of sound frequencies. (See the first article of this series – Chimeric Noise – for some more thoughts on God as Light and the relationship of light to noise.)
Clarity – light lays bare, brings into the open, allows for sight and the knowledge, sensations, experiences, and memories that come from sight.
Contrast – light immediately accentuates its opposite, darkness. Sharp distinctions are delineated and brought into focus. The possibility and presence of shadows that shift and mutate are byproducts of light.
Clarity and contrast are the first tools, the first principles, to be considered and coaxed by the artist. Without clarity of vision there is no direction, no process, no outcome. Without clarity of materials and techniques there is no medium, no craft, no art. Without contrast there is no possibility of form, no formation, no focus. Without contrast there is no balance, no interplay, no dynamic.
This first phase of creation-through-word-power sets some stable markers, defines some primary parameters, and sets the stage for subsequent surprises and detailed enhancements.
- Day 2: Cataclysm and Constraints
“And God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water.’”
The second spoken command is about movement, reconfiguring the waters that were created to cover the earth at the very beginning (see discussion on Genesis 1:1-2 in the previous article Creation of Noise 1/5). No new materials were made here, but a significant space was created over the earth – the sky. What God made here was a new stretch of apparent emptiness, but of course the sky is actually anything but empty. The atmosphere is teeming with gases, air flows, winds, eddys, and turbulences. Thus a whole new category of sounds and dynamics are generated through the separation of the waters.
Cataclysm – can you imagine the sudden upheaval and chaos of waters ripping apart, half of them pulling against gravity, half of them left splashing and thrashing below? Can you picture the droplets at the interface caught in the new mid-air, struggling upwards or relaxing back down, together accelerating the deafening roar of countless trillions of collisions? ‘Let there be a vault’ sounds so calm and undramatic, but the reality was truly cataclysmic and exceedingly noisy.
Constraints – the waters were separated, brought into their distinct domains. More than a mere contrast of sky vs water (already a new direction on day one’s light vs darkness contrast), each are now given new boundaries, and functions that are in part defined by those boundaries. The opening up of the sky hints at more unknown possibilities yet to come.
Cataclysm and constraints – or crisis and separation – are the next set of creative tools. Without cataclysm, art remains predictable, underdeveloped, even pathetic. Cataclysm implies smashing expectations, awakening the senses to new realities, and a fearless spirit of exploration. Yet when left unattended without any form of constraints, art loses focus and becomes amorphous, meaningless, and sterile. Constraints allow for contrasts and distinctions to find their place and for nuanced dynamics to explore effective territory.
Noise indicates a rupturing. A crackling or confusion at the borderlands. A grasping along the ragged edges. A straining at the limits. A seeping and flickering past the boundaries. Noise embraces the cataclysmic, and toys with the constraints enough to disturb the equilibrium, but not so far as to obliterate its artfulness.
- Day 3: Contours and Composition
“And God said, ‘Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.’”
Cataclysm part 2! Again the understatement here is breathtaking. The forces involved in lifting the continents from the depths of the mono-ocean would have been absolutely phenomenal. And to think that the waters obeyed such a simple act of a few calmly spoken words. The ground, at first smothered and concealed, is now uncovered and revealed. The movement and appearance of dry ground introduces a whole new slew of sounds: earthquakes, rocks splitting and smashing, landslides, and more.
Contours – gathering the waters together has to do with compressing and uniting like elements together (in neat contrast to the previous day’s separating of the waters), and thus creating space for something new to appear where some of those waters had been before (in neat parallel to the previous day’s waters creating the space in between for the sky to inhabit). The shape of the waters become more defined now they are bounded by ground, and vice versa. The contours are mutually defining and thus beneficial to the individual strengths and characteristics of each.
Composition – at last some form is appearing. The originally formless earth is now taking shape. It takes time for a work of art to develop some form and structure, but those earlier stages of choosing the tools and parameters and direction are essential precursors, even if they are undertaken in a spirit of experimentation and uncertainty. The gradual (or sudden) emergence of form might be played out in real-time (as in improvised musics) or behind the scenes during the unrevealed compositional process.
With the utilisation of contours and composition we start to see some clues as to the artist’s overall trajectory. Without contours it can be hard to discern intention and coherence in the art. Without composition of some kind there are no choices made, and so no role for the artist, and therefore no art.
Noise music often appears to eschew these concepts, but even the free-for-all anything-goes aesthetic has its own rules and ways of making decisions and pulling materials and time into some more-or-less controlled orbit. I mean composition in the broadest possible conception: any decisions made regarding how sounds are generated and manipulated (including by stochastic or unplanned methods), and the subsequent (or simultaneous) use and conjunction and interplay of the designated materials, sounds, and frequencies. Thinking laterally and outside the box with regard to convergence and composition is by no means to be downplayed or shunned – God himself had no box at all to even think about being constrained by in the creative decisions he made!
- Day 3 (continued): Causation and Complexification
“Then God said, ‘Let the land produce vegetation… according to their various kinds.’”
Causation – here we have the first instance of ‘creation within creation’. Inbuilt into the creation-out-of-nothing is the miraculous potential for new life from barrenness, new forms from simple origins, and growth from apparently nowhere. There is a connection – land produces vegetation – but it is an unanticipated and unpredictable connection. This is a clear-cut creative act, God making something completely new but within the context of, and on the basis of, the previous days’ works. One thing leads to another, but cause-and-effect need not be predictable, linear, or like-for-like.
Complexification – plant life is of a completely different order to anything that was there before. That vegetation could spring from the ground implies at the very least an underlying order capable of yielding countless permutations and developments. Organic from inorganic is some leap, requiring the divine word to bring life into being. The diversity and intricacy of the plant kingdom is wondrously mind-boggling. This is also the power of art, to create ever-new manifestations and imaginations that stem from basic ideas and concepts and tools.
Causation and complexification enable the artist to go to the next level. Discovering, deciphering, and deciding upon new patterns and connections, then in turn open up new vistas of possibility – this is the unique role of the artist. Without causation everything remains static or a jumbled mess. Without complexification there can be no change, no development, no originality. Note that the results of complexification need not be complicated in form nor difficult to understand; the results can be startlingly and disarmingly simple. That is also a mark of a skilled artist: able to rein in extraneous and unnecessary details, and not allowing the art’s recipients to get bogged down or overwhelmed by inaccessible or elitist sensibilities.
This point reminds me of fractals – a perfect balance between simplicity and complexity, self-repeating patterns at every scale, yet infinitely intricate and varied in their detail. This is also how I perceive noisy sounds, at once simple and complex, full of life and dynamics and possibility. The skilled noisician connects the noises horizontally through time and vertically through layering, the interactions and trajectories resulting in new sounds, new experiences, something both familiar and surprising.
- Day 4: Configuration and Cooperation
“And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.’”
The noise of the cosmos is a particular topic of interest to me. Sound may not travel through a vacuum, but what if we could eavesdrop on the innards of other celestial worlds? Think of the storms on Jupiter, or a supernova explosion, or asteroids crashing into far-flung moons. Most of all (as a love of harsh noise music) I like to imagine the sounds inside stars, those vast raging infernos, incomprehensibly bright and hot… and incomparably noisy! The creation of the galaxies, quasars, pulsars, stars and more was also the creation of the most terrific set of impossibly loud noises there could be. The eerie silence of space suddenly populated by noises supra-audible from within the spheres, but inaudible in all the vast reaches of intervening vacuum…
Configuration – the arrangement of the stars in the sky may seem haphazard, but there is order within the apparent randomness. The delicate balance of myriad gravity fields form an ever-evolving web of forces with predictable interactions and motions guiding stellar objects at macro and micro levels. Orbits, spirals, and collisions are all both cause and effect in this cosmic dance. Closer to home, the placement of our galaxy’s stars in our sky have for millennia prompted designations for the constellations, groupings of stars into familiar shapes which would lose all such patterns if viewed from elsewhere within our galaxy. We may think we impose order on the night sky in this way, but we are told from the start here in Genesis that the configuration of the stars in our sky is by design – design with purpose.
Cooperation – incredible as it sounds to the modern scientific mind, the sun, moon, and stars were created and placed in the heavens to fulfill specific functions, functions that serve humanity. They are for marking sacred times, for measuring the passage of time, for giving us day and night, for generating the seasons, and for giving light on the earth. Above all, they are there for God’s own pleasure and for displaying his glory (‘the heavens declare the glory of God’, Psalm 19:1). The ‘rolling spheres’ do his bidding unceasingly, and in fact one of the ways the Bible describes God’s faithfulness and reliability and truthfulness is that he promises that day and night and the seasons will not fail. And so ‘the lights in the vault of the sky’ cooperate with God’s design, thereby cooperating with us on earth to navigate the times and seasons of life and history, and to navigate our way around this globe by day and night.
So too art helps us to navigate through life, the ups and downs, the concrete and the abstract, solitude and relationships, ugliness and beauty, meaning and hope, life and death. Music excels in exploring and sharing these and other themes implicitly, expressing the inexpressible without words. Noise music does this incisively through its boldness and subtleties, its extremes, at times its brutality and destructive power, its aesthetic diversity and sonic inclusivity, its disconnecting of expectations and connecting of disparate modes, its unceasing contradictions and unquashed juxtapositions. Art augments the created order and helps us in our quest for truth, knowledge, harmony, and ultimately worship.
Configuration and cooperation – physical elements interact and work together (which we endeavour to model and understand through the laws of physics). Without these principles all would be truly random, unquenchable chaos, and inherent conflict. The reverse is actually true: purpose, order, and harmony underlie the immensities and turbulences of outer space.
In music, the artist’s vision guides the configuration of sounds and materials into navigable patterns, and as the components cooperate (or deviate) from the artist’s plan so markers are made that enhance our appreciation of and experience of time. Times can even be rendered times sacred – devoted to the artist’s god or God. In noise music the deviation and conflict of sounds can often in themselves be part of the artist’s vision, whether as a relinquishment of artistic control, or an exploration of the meaning of chaos, or as a celebration of the unknown spirallings of noise following its own course as it does in the fiery balls of the heavens.
[Side note: One question this verse raises is this: if the sun and stars were created on the fourth day, what was the light created on the first day? What was the source of that first light? It’s a good question. I have thought a lot about this, but you’ll have to wait for my theory because it’s a digression from the focus of this article. I will postpone this issue to a future article, Light Before the Sun, though I don’t know which article series that will appear in yet.]
- Day 5: Consciousness and Commotion
“And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky.’”
Consciousness – what a moment as the voice of God calls forth living, breathing creatures from nowhere! The first environments to be created – the seas and the sky – are privileged to be the first habitats to host animal life. Seeing, moving, chasing – with minds of their own and choices to be made. The crafting of the creation reaches new dimensions here.
Commotion – oh the joyous riot of sounds! Splashing, bubbling, calling through the depths. Flapping, squawking, screeching in the heights. The noise of life from the start was hectic and eccentric, wild and free.
Sounds are not conscious of course, but noise certainly seems to have a mind of its own. As a noisician, that is one of its great appeals: cross-modulating oscillations and flickering feedback escalate and mutate at will. It’s sound exploration paradise and improvisatory fire. Those swarms of ‘noise creatures in the machines’ at turns delight and confound, and there is a deeply rewarding balance there between controlling the noise and being a witness swept along by the noise.
Without consciousness and the commotion of life our world would be the quieter, the lonelier, the sorrier. Without choices, art would not exist let alone flourish. Noise epitomises the concept of infinite outcomes and is the very essence of commotion; noise thus has a vital and vibrant role to play in the world of music and art.
- Day 6: Categorisation and Climax
“And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.’”
Categorisation – the expansion of the animal world now reaches land. One of the most interesting points to note here is the threefold grouping of land animals: 1) livestock, i.e. animals designed to serve people (beasts of burden, for food, etc); 2) crawlers and creepers, i.e. animals designed to serve the earth itself (cleaning and maintenance, etc); 3) wild animals, i.e. animals that traverse boundaries and function more dramatically across the interface of diverse ecologies. These are just my initial thoughts on some of the functions hinted at here. The division of labour is not limited to human activity, but is an integral aspect of the animal kingdom’s roles within the world. Not forgetting the plethora of noises that come from the animal world – a raucous hullaballoo of extraordinary diversity.
Determining categories and allocating functions are essential tasks in all forms of art-making. In music and noise, categories of instruments, sound sources, tones, timbres, and dynamics are all key considerations. What functions do the different sounds have? How do they serve and complement each other? Do they help the composition to flow and cohere, or do they fill needed gaps, or do they disrupt and surprise? Do they stabilise some element in the background, or do they come to the fore and draw attention? Are they tame or wild? Do they get mucky in the undergrowth? And so on.
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’”
Climax – at last we arrive at the apex of creation: mankind, made in the image of God. More detail on this in the next article in this series, Creation of Noise 3/5.
A good piece of music/noise will often have a focus, a high point, a climax. Depending on the form and structure this may occur at any given point(s) during the piece. The climax may supersede what has gone before, or develop past themes/sounds into new territory, or otherwise introduce a twist to proceedings. It will often tie together and make sense of the other concepts and principles that have been at play (e.g. the different themes I have picked out in this article from this journey through the six days of creation). Or the chosen climax may be no climax at all – a decision not to develop or enhance, another way of bypassing expectations or maintaining the value and integrity of the composition as a whole.
A quick recap of the keywords in this article:
- Command and contingency: the obedience of noise.
- Creativity and craftsmanship: the structures and patterns of noise.
- Clarity, contrast, cataclysm, constraints, contours, composition, causation, complexification, configuration, cooperation, consciousness, commotion, categorisation, climax.
There are no rules as such in making art, making music, making noise, but all of these general principles can be exploited and tweaked in any number of ways – that’s after all part of what makes art/music/noise so liberating and fun!
The physical and conceptual tools for making noise are all out there. Noise is like a stone, waiting to be sculpted into any number of works. Music is a uniquely human activity, and while a return to noise may be perceived by some as a retrograde maneuver, I see it as a more than legitimate and all too easily overlooked form of audio art.
I finish here with part of a psalm which describes beautifully the power, effectiveness, and gently artistry of God’s creative word, as well as urging our worship by way of inspiration from the obedience of the cosmos to his commands:
“By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere him. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.”
Next time: noise and God’s image.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!
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