Thinking About Noise (series: The Word on Noise, part 8)

Why do I do it?

by Dave Skipper

Introduction

Why do I personally want to think and study and write about noise? The short answer is that I find it fascinating to combine my specific passions for harsh noise music and for Biblical theology. In this article I want to tease out a few of my underlying ‘noise study’ drives that derive from my faith perspective…

Compulsion and curiosity

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter;

to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”

from the Bible – ‭Proverbs 25:2

Utilising, developing, and exploring noise creatively – and even, at times, analysing noise – is surely an exercise in ‘searching out’, yet at the same time noise somehow always maintains and celebrates the ‘concealedness’ of God’s glory in the sonic dimensions of his creation. In other words, I view noise as crucially straddling both sides of the equation, both halves of the above verse from Proverbs. The concealed aspects of noise – the mysteries and paradoxes of noise, the gaps in our understanding of the physics of sound, psychoacoustics, etc – at one and the same time reveal the glory of God as the Master Designer, Ultimate Noisician, and Unmatchable Creator and also drive and inspire scientists, artists, engineers, and psychologists alike to reach further into the unknown, to uncover more of those mysteries. And as we further our knowledge, God’s glory does not diminish one iota, but rather it glows and blazes the brighter as we marvel at his handiwork and as we discover how much more we don’t yet know or understand. His glory is not confined to that which ‘science cannot yet explain’, for his glory is constantly manifest across the whole spectrum of all we do and and all we do not know, let alone all we cannot know.

But his glory is not only dazzling radiance. It is also his glory to conceal a matter: subtlety, restraint, surprise, mystery – these are the domain of his glory too.

We are meant to develop the creation, but we need to enjoy and celebrate the raw creation too. Both are healthy and necessary. Noise, for me, is a way to celebrate that rawness. It connects me to the creation, the cosmos, in a way that standard music doesn’t (I do love listen to ‘regular’ music too, by the way!). There’s something wild and glorious and intriguing about noise that I find invigorating.

What a privilege that we are made to search out the mysteries of the universe! What a thrill to partake in the flow of history and to etch out our unique role!

Worship in work

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
‭from the Bible – ‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭10:31‬

For well over twenty years I have been grappling with this simple question: how can my passion for (non-vocal) music be pursued for the glory of God? It’s facile to reduce the question of music and faith to just song lyrics, as if it’s only the words that count for anything, that mean anything. And I don’t believe for a moment that there are certain styles or genres of music that are inherently more or less ‘Christian’ than others. Moreover, being a Christian or not is no guarantee whatsoever for the resultant quality and effectiveness of an artist’s output.

At root, I am sure that the answer to my question is primarily about the heart: my attitude, my motives, and so on. If I am genuinely and wholeheartedly seeking God’s glory to the best of my ability (the classic 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration), then the rest will follow and the music will do its job.

But my analysing mind needs to go further and deeper and higher. Intriguingly, it was once I traversed from acceptably musical territory into pure noise that my question was reignited with new possibilities. As I pondered anew, with Bible in hand, the strands started to converge with vigour. The Word On Noise was born.

In summary I believe that God is glorified in noise/sound/music in these key ways, to be aspired to in parallel:

  • Acknowledging that Jesus is the eternal Word of God through whom and for whom the universe was made, i.e. he is the source, the meaning, and the end-point of noise/sound/music;
  • Observing, studying, and contemplating the created world of sound and noise in the creation as revelatory of God’s attributes, i.e. his power, divinity, glory, love, wrath, mercy, judgment, beauty, wisdom, holiness, etc (and following this process with an open Bible to help interpret and ‘read’ the creation aright);
  • Exploring and creating sound/noise/music as an intentional act of worship to this God, and as an intentional act of love and service to other people (thus not as a hateful, destructive, self-serving, or aggravating activity);
  • Growing as an artist in integrity, honesty, striving for excellence, depth, the quest for truth, and desiring change for the better, both in oneself and in the world at large.

Surrender and sublimity

“On that day ‘Holy to the LORD ’ will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the LORD’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar.”
‭from the Bible – ‭Zechariah ‭14:20‬

This prophecy is a promise and a guarantee that God’s purposes and kingdom will ultimately prevail and be seen to prevail in human culture and history. The ordinary, the everyday, the mundane will be dedicated to the one true and holy God. Even the tiniest noise-makers – even the horse’s bells – will be precious and special in their place, not overlooked by the Lord of the cosmos but noticed and loved by his eternal eyes, treasured and enjoyed by his all-hearing ears. Purpose and meaning will characterise even the tinkling of those bells, a sweet sound in his ears. The condition and precursor to this state is the softened and transformed human heart, willingly committed to seeking the sublime and awesome holiness of the Lord forever. This heart only He can mould.

It’s toward the fulfilment of that prophecy that Christians – including Christian musicians and noisicians – should seek to work towards. Studying noise is part of my journey to open up what that means, not only for my own benefit but also as a foundation for future generations of Christian noise artists to build upon.

Deepness and desire

Want wisdom? Want knowledge? Want treasure?

Wisdom about noise? Knowledge of noise? Treasures of noise?

Then don’t stop at the surface. Don’t be content with the obvious. Go deeper, deeper, deeper to the very Source of it all.

“…in Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”
‭from the Bible – ‭Colossians‬ ‭2:3‬

Such a simple statement. Does it seem impossible to you? Nonsensical? Strange? Confusing? If Christianity and the Bible are just for inner contemplation, private consumption, and being a nice person, then the meaning of ‘all’ in this verse would be better changed to ‘some of’ or ‘just the so-called spiritual or moral bits of’ the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

I take this verse at face value and as foundationally true. Throughout my blog, one of my recurring themes is seeking to understand the glory of Jesus Christ in noise, and to expect to find connections between noise and Jesus. I can imagine this may seem weird, contrived, or quasi-something, but I am convinced that this is the way to go. Jesus is either supreme in his deity and wisdom, or he is just another false prophet. I try to demonstrate in series like The Ultimate Noisician that the former is true, specifically in terms of noise.

“Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar”

This was the name of an all-instrumental album from eccentric and groundbreaking guitarist/composer Frank Zappa. Improvised guitar solos culled from various live performances, ‘Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar’ was followed by the similarly-constructed albums ‘Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar Some More’ and the wonderfully titled ‘Return of the Son of Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar’. The three albums were combined in one release in 1981, as ‘Shut Up ‘n Play Yer Guitar’.

Aside from the cool music, the title always brings a smile to my face. When all is said and done (and often better experienced before anything is said at all), the power and connection of music to express, excite, educate, inspire, terrify, or delight is phenomenal and unique. I was actually seriously tempted to call this article ‘Shut Up ‘n Make Some Noise’ and have no text whatsoever, haha! But it brings a serious point. Writing about noise/music can never be a substitute for actually listening to and/or making noise/music. Nevertheless, I am convinced that words are able to enhance and augment the auditory experience.

So this begs the question: who is the true noise expert? The thinker? The writer? The listener? The noise-maker? I guess anyone who expends most of their energy in one or other of these pursuits is likely to think their chosen area is most important. At least that’s our natural propensity isn’t it? But humility and a balanced perspective require us to value the necessity and diversity of the range of skills, interests and endeavours. But when it comes to noise music as an artform i itself, then surely the experts (if that term is required) are those who actively and skilfully engage in making noise music (I am emphatically nowhere near the expert category, I hasten to add!)

To wit, the Bible has a great passage on the high value of acquiring wisdom through practical experience and hard work. So let’s pose the question like this: What makes a good farmer?

“Listen and hear my voice; pay attention and hear what I say. When a farmer ploughs for planting, does he plough continually? Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil? When he has levelled the surface, does he not sow caraway and scatter cummin? Does he not plant wheat in its place, barley in its plot, and spelt in its field? His God instructs him and teaches him the right way. Caraway is not threshed with a sledge, nor is the cartwheel rolled over cummin; caraway is beaten out with a rod, and cummin with a stick. Grain must be ground to make bread; so one does not go on threshing it for ever. The wheels of a threshing-cart may be rolled over it, but one does not use horses to grind grain. All this also comes from the LORD Almighty, whose plan is wonderful, whose wisdom is magnificent.”
from the Bible – ‭Isaiah‬ ‭28:23-29‬

Here is a beautiful affirmation of the value of practical work and the accumulation of years of experience as a source of real knowledge and wisdom. A good farmer doesn’t need a degree in agriculture or biology. That is not to dismiss the importance of scientific research and technological developments. These can and do add vital knowledge and resources for the farmer to improve and develop his work. But undoubtedly the scientist needs to learn much from the hands-on know-how from on the ground too.

The wisdom of ‘knowing the land’ is attributed as coming from the Creator Lord God, and is described as magnificent. And note that the teacher is not the land and plants themselves, but God himself. He teaches all, whether acknowledging him or not, by virtue of him being the giver and sustainer of life, the giver and sustainer of the cycles of ‘nature’, indeed the giver and sustainer of all good things. The Bible’s declarations about God as Creator give no room for Mother Nature. The earth is not the source of knowledge, our teacher. God himself is behind it all.

And so the good noise artist, the expert in noise, is a doer, a listener, an experimenter who gets his or hands (ears?) dirty. Knowledge of physics, acoustics, engineering, or philosophy may help and enhance their activity, but not necessarily so. And on the flip side, surely the other study-ers of noise would do well to listen to and learn from those who are proficient practitioners of noise as art, for the practical wisdom and experience with sound that they offer.

As a noise artist, maybe the two most basic ways to study are:

1) listening to all kinds of sounds and music for education, inspiration, and joy;

2) trying out and experimenting how to make noise oneself via gear and technology (acoustic/electronic, analogue/digital, software/hardware, generating/sampling/synthesising/playing, etc) and exploring compositional/performative/recording techniques (signal flow, gestures, interaction of different technologies/materials/instruments, effects processing, indeterminacy, improvisation etc).

This is all an obvious point, maybe, but I think it’s worth stating explicitly in the face of all the time and effort that I am spending on writing words about noise. I need to learn from listening to noise records, I need to learn from other noise artists, I need to learn through doing. No one works in a vacuum. I think about noise and write about noise because I believe I can offer a fresh perspective that at the very least I hope will fuel and feed into my own noise-making, and if at any point it challenges or inspires someone else to open their ears or hearts to something new in the world of noise then it’s worth all the words. But engaging in this journey of thought and words is in no way to diminish or downplay the superior artistry of so many incredible noise artists out there who I love and respect.

A Noise Orchard

Well, where to go with all this?! The more I get into this project, the more it opens up new zones of possibility. When I first brainstormed topics for this blog I came up with a couple of hundred basic ideas to flesh out, and I figured it would take me a couple of years of blogging and then a few more years to expand it into a book… but finally I came to realise that I could probably blog until I die, and there would be enough areas to research to write a whole stack of books that I would never have time to complete. This blog is therefore about laying foundations, exploring the territory, providing an overview of the relationship between the Bible and theology with noise in general and noise music in particular. At some point I will need to decide which particular areas to focus on, to develop those topics in greater detail with thoroughness and clarity.

Having been thinking about these things over the months, I recently received a great encouragement. A handful of people from my home church in the UK were asked to pray for my wife and I in order to send us some words of encouragement or wisdom. These are people especially gifted in doing this, and interestingly we don’t know most of them (and we had no idea that they were praying for us), and they had no idea at all about what has been on my mind. So you can imagine my surprise to read this from one person:

“Starting an orchard, you have marked out the boundaries of the plot. Now select the apple trees. The harvest will come as the trees mature.”

Not only was this a direct confirmation of what I have been thinking about long and hard regarding my writing, but it has also provided me with a vivid and helpful analogy with which to visualise the issue. I had maybe thought when starting out that I was going to have to tend to just this one obscure tree – the tree of ‘the Bible and noise music’ – but it is actually a great big orchard, too much for me to tend to alone! This blog is marking out the boundaries. That is my first task. Many of the trees within the plot will be for others to look after, while some trees will be left alone or maybe even uprooted. My second task will be to select the apple trees. Which areas am I equipped to cultivate? Where do my main passions lie? My third and final task is to watch and wait for the fruit to grow. This means leaving the results to God, provided I do my part of planting, cultivating, and sharing with others. It means I may die without seeing the fruit I long to see. It surely means I will die long before I’m done saying everything I want to say. And so I have to trust God that he will preserve and use anything of value for the long-term future growth of his kingdom on earth. I just want to contribute something that others can run with and take further and deeper and higher than I ever could.

Another of the messages of encouragement also hit the spot, incorporating another tree analogy but this time addressing precisely the selection process that I need to undertake. I won’t print it here as I still need to process it further, but it will probably appear in another article sometime.

When choosing where to specialise, some other key questions come to mind. What is most important? What is foundational? What is most needed? What is most original? What am I uniquely equipped to offer insight into? What will be of lasting benefit? What will honour Christ the most? What will serve the church best? What will serve noisedom best? What will be the most appropriate formats and contexts to work in (articles, books, videos, podcasts, academia, record labels, other)?

Conclusion

Spiritual knowledge. Scientific knowledge. Practical knowledge. Three separate realms? No, they are overlapping, interlocking, bound together. I truly believe that Jesus is the key Who binds them together.

I am wired as a thinker and an analyser. It’s exciting for me to develop my ideas, to discover new perspectives, to make a unique contribution. It’s exciting for me to mesh together my passions for Jesus, the Bible, theology, noise, harsh noise, physics (more scientific content will be on the way), and the creative arts. It’s exciting for me to start new conversations about the interplay of noise with philosophy and practice. It’s exciting for me to lay some foundations for new impetus and concepts to inspire and integrate into my own future noise projects.

I believe that thinking is good. Arguably, doing is better. But surely, thinking and doing is best of all.

It’s always daunting to publish my blog posts, making my innermost thoughts public and vulnerable. But I am incredibly grateful to you, reader, for participating in this journey, and for keeping me implicitly accountable to maintaining a regular writing and publishing schedule. Let’s keep thinking and studying together!

He who has ears to hear, let him hear!

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