Defining the undefinable.
by Dave Skipper
(from the programme notes for a concert of traditional Japanese music at the National Theater in Tokyo)
Labels, categories, pigeonholes. Anathema to not a few musicians and noisicians and sound artists of every stripe. I get it, and I resist it too to an extent. Definitions, assumptions, caricatures. To even talk about and analyse music and sound and noise as I do on this blog goes against the very heart of noise culture and experiential audiology, some will say. Isn’t the whole point of sonics to escape and transcend the limitations and expectations and baggage of words? Forget noise, forget music. Some sounds you enjoy, some you don’t. Don’t think about it. Focus on what you like, ignore what you don’t. That’s all there is to it.
Music critic/theorist Simon Reynolds puts it eloquently:
The problem is that, to speak of noise, to give it attributes, to claim things for it, is immediately to shackle it with meaning again, to make it part of culture. If noise is where language ceases, then to describe it is to imprison it again with adjectives… So the rhetoricians of noise actually destroy the power they strive to celebrate… As rhetoric enfolds a group or initiative, so fibres of meaning interpenetrate strand of sound, ensuring that the experience reaches us already placed in a general scheme of significance.
– Simon Reynolds, Blissed Out
If this is all that needs to be said, then the rest of this article, and the bulk of this blog, can safely be ignored. And I should probably shut down my brain.
But I simply have that kind of inquisitive mind that enjoys dissecting, connecting, reflecting. I like patterns, lists, words, and ideas. I think there are huge benefits to be had from analysing and talking about sound and noise. I believe that the mind complements the heart and the ears – we are whole beings. It can be good to emphasise and de-emphasise different aspects in different contexts, and this doesn’t mean that one way or another are necessarily related in some hierarchy.
For example when I am at a noise show, immersed in the harsh textures, I am not usually in analysis mode at all. I just love the sound, the sensations of the noise textures ripping and rippling through my brain and flesh. But then when I am alone in the silence I can’t help but ponder and muse and take my thoughts deep and far, contemplating the why and what and how of noise. I love both modes, and I regard them as vitally inter-connected. We live in one world, one reality, diverse and detailed, everything at root cohering under the sovereign hand of God.
This article is about defining noise, and the next article in this series – Classified Noise – is about classifying noise. They are intended to take the topic of ‘what is noise?’ a little further. Referring back to my article What Noise?, I need to reiterate that in writing about noise I am straddling this basic trio of noise terms: noise, noisy sounds, and noise music. At times I use these interchangeably, while at other times I consciously zoom into one of them.
Definitely noise… maybe
Noise is notoriously hard to pin down. This very nebulosity is crucial to its nature, and vital to its appeal (for those to whom it appeals). The most common definitions and usages of the word ‘noise’ seem to boil down to these five:
- Unwanted sounds
- Unmusical sounds, as in irregular sounds with non-periodic waveforms
- Any distortion, disruption, or disturbance in the transmission of a signal
- Loud sounds
- Any and all sounds!
The 1828 Webster’s American Dictionary entry for noise is interesting as this was written just as the Industrial Revolution was getting underway in the United States, and so it is readily apparent that the emphasis and perception of noise was quite different to today.
1. Sound of any kind, or proceeding from any cause, as the sound made by the organs of speech, by the wings of an insect, the rushing of the wind, or the roaring of the sea, of cannon or thunder, a low sound, a high sound, etc.; a word of general signification.
2. Outcry; clamor; loud, importunate or continued talk expressive of boasting, complaint or quarreling. In quarreling, it expresses less than uproar.
3. Frequent talk; much public conversation.
NOISE, verb intransitive
To sound loud.
NOISE, verb transitive
1. To spread by rumor or report.
2. To disturb with noise
The current online Oxford English Dictionary widens these definitions to incorporate the influence of industry, technology, and advances in the scientific analysis of noise.
1. A sound, especially one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance.
1.1 A series or combination of loud, confused sounds, especially when causing disturbance.
1.2 Conventional remarks made to express something.
2. Irregular fluctuations that accompany a transmitted electrical signal but are not part of it and tend to obscure it.
2.1 Random fluctuations that obscure or do not contain meaningful data or other information.
1. Talk about or make known publicly.
2. Make much noise.
There have been many varying and ongoing attempts to define noise more precisely, whether in terms of physics and physical characteristics, or conceptually, or by any number of subjective criteria. The proliferation of studies, materials, and theories about noise are testimony to what continues to be arguably the noisiest era in history, for better or for worse, from the late 19th century and on into the future. A more comprehensive survey of these disparate definitions will be forthcoming following more extensive research, but here is a smattering of tasty examples for now:
“Noise is a weapon and music, primordially, is the formation, domestication, and ritualisation of that weapon as a simulacrum of ritual murder.”
– Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music
…the shriek, the caterwaul, the chainsaw gnarlgnashing, the yowl and the whizz that decapitates may be reheard by the adventurous or emotionally damaged as mellifluous bursts of unarguable affirmation.
– Lester Bangs, “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise”
Noise resists – not (necessarily) politically but materially because it reconfigures matter in expression, conduction and conjugation.
Noise subsists – insofar as it relates the event to the field from which expression is drawn and thus subtends all being.
Noise coexists – as its ontology is only relational and does not come into being by itself but only as the by-product of expression.
Noise persists – because it cannot be reconfigured or recontained, cannot become thetic as it passes into expression, but remains indelibly noise.
Noise obsists – since it is fundamentally anathema to stasis and thus opposes all illusions of fixity, pulling form beyond itself through expression and bringing about the collapse of meaning.
– Greg Hainge, Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise
Noise is a prison.
Noise is a weapon.
Noise is a nuisance.
Noise is interference.
Noise is a disease.
Noise is a pollutant.
Noise is a trespasser.
Sound is a bridge.”
– Khadijah White, from Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise, various authors
Noise is the opposite of music, as the antithesis of beautiful things admissible as art; this noise pertains to aesthetics and affective modes of cultural expression.
Noise is the opposite of classification, in its violations of categorical objectivity; this noise stands at the margins of musical history and typologies of style and form.
Noise is the opposite of communication, against meaningful transmissions of information; this noise embeds discourse in a binary signal-to-noise relationship.
Noise is the opposite of the natural world, and its silence; this noise emerges from the urban industrialised environment and in technological conditions of social production, regulation, and control.
Noise is the opposite of public consensus and corporate and state-ordered collectivity; this noise relates to the mediation of subjectivity by overlapping projects of globalisation, cultural nationalism, local infrastructure, and subcultural identity.
– David Novak, Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation
There are countless more pithy quotes out there on what noise is or is not, but I picked these out as interesting perspectives that are worth chewing on.
What is the ‘noise’ of ‘noise music’?
[Noise music is] the expedient moniker for a motley array of sonic practices with little in common besides their perceived recalcitrance with respect to the conventions governing classical and popular musics.
– Paul Hegarty, Noise/Music: A History
Noise music is most easily understood as being a form of music activity that actively pursues or emphasises sounds, concepts, and approaches from within the above definitions of noise. But aesthetically and conceptually noise music is construed in countless ways. It would seem that there are as many definitions of noise as there are people. There is nothing like a consensus among ‘noisers’ as to what constitutes noise and music, nor what differentiates or unites noise and music. Indeed some artists consciously reject all terminology, including even the very terms noise and music.
In his book Japanoise, David Novak highlights a delightful conversation he had with Kyoto musician Shimomoto Taku in which Shimomoto pointedly described the absolute antithesis in his view between noise and music. His position is that any intermingling of noise and music renders the noise void of its own essence as noise. Noise + Music = Music. Noise must retain its own independent status, its own purity. Noise doesn’t compromise music by its presence because noise is completely separate from music, or else it is simply swallowed up and subsumed by music, surrendering its ‘noiseness’ in the process.
This variety of opinions on what noise/music is was demonstrated for me very nicely in a couple of compilation CD releases that I curated (Heavier Than Jupiter Volume 7 released in November 2013 and Heavier Than Jupiter Volume 12 released in February 2015). I asked each contributing artist (mostly Japanese noise artists) to answer the question, “What is noise?” in seven words if possible. Here are their (and my) answers which were included in the album liner notes. I have included the respective tracks titles here too.
- “By will, it can become music or anti-music”
– BLACKPHONE666 – NOSTROMO
- “Lest we forget the beauty of silence”
– KELLY CHURKO – WARTHOG VIGNETTES
- “音の拡大解釈 / Extended interpretation of sound”
– SPORE SPAWN – TOOL-ASSISTED SLOWRUN
- “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
– YOUSUKE FUYAMA – CACNA1S (quote from Michelangelo)
- “A gritty, invigorating, fascinating, tangled, beautiful gift”
– DAVE SKIPPER – SUBTERRANIUM
– JAH EXCRETION – TRIP
- “Creation, destruction, silence, violence, meditation, awakening and absolute alone”
– HIROSHI HASEGAWA – EXOCYTOSIS
- “1. Music
6. Phase of sound
7. Metaphysical wave form”
– LZ129 – OLD KARATE MACHINE
- “Remembering the generous and uncompromising Kelly Churko”
– DAVE SKIPPER – PHOTON SPHERE
- “F*** YOU WE NOISE”
– SCAB MINDED – A!AA! (AKACHOCHIN AKABANE)
- “Mind of Supplement or Drugs”
– MO*TE – A MUDDY STREAM
- “I M P U L S E”
– Zr3a – 7 CONTINENTALS
- “Antithesis against something or The sound can feel it.”
“気さくなヤクザ / Frustrating yakuza”
“Low-dimensional sound. But it is free.”
– (((AMNESI-HUH-CHANNEL))) – BLACK HAMBURGER
- “生活音、環境、心境、感情、自己のフィルター、各自の耳、空気の振動 / Living, Environmental, Mental state (emotion?), Self-filter, Respective ear, Vibration of air”
– HANAKA – THOUGHT DEC 2014
Honestly, I far prefer the immediacy and concise nature of these artists’ definitions – born as they are out of hands-on noise music experience and passion – over the drier, academic definitions. There is something more direct, raw, and real about them. Although it is necessary for me to be familiar with available literature on noise, there will probably be more mileage (and more fun) in the noise artist interviews that I will be undertaking over the coming months and years.
My all-encompassing definition of noise… I wonder what it will be? I’m a long way off figuring that out. Maybe it will be ready to be revealed in the last ever article I write for this blog, x years down the line!
I think that a strong definition of noise for me needs to cover the following points:
- It will need to consider the broadest spectrum of ideas and definitions of noise from as wide a range of sources as possible;
- It will need to clearly delineate the differences between noise, noisy sounds, and noise music;
- It will need to cover both the positive and negative causes and consequences of noise;
- It will need to be concise enough to be easily grasped;
- It will need to be comprehensive enough to cover all the relevant aspects;
- It will need to be meaningful and practical, not just a theoretical construct or abstract philosophy;
- It will need to be creative, offering something fresh and worth contemplating;
- It will need to build from and integrate Biblical themes and perspectives, as that is the underlying purpose and motivation of my whole undertaking in writing about noise.
How about you? What is noise? What is noise music? Leave a comment (or email me) and let me know! The choicest morsels may even get edited into this article!
He who has ears to hear, let him hear!