Saturday, 2 April 2016

Music, Meaning and Harsh Noise

I am back blogging again and, as usual, it is thoughts on things I've observed that is animating me. If you are an electronic musician the first quarter of the year is an interesting time because it is the time when all the manufacturers show their new products for the year. There is much wonderment and awe at what boffins in sheds or industrial scale manufacturers in corporate headquarters have produced. There is then the febrile atmosphere of the Internet to deal with as any number of informed and uninformed people (the Internet does not discriminate) comment on what has been revealed and say where they would have done things differently, what they want and what they hope to get. Or, like me, they just stare and wish because they are poor. Of course, this is not to suggest that making electronic music is about a big, fancy studio full of thousands of pounds worth of gear. This is to fall prey to the commercialist myth that if you don't have something expensive then you don't have anything worth having. This is snobbish rubbish and I utterly reject it. The simplest piece of battery-operated electronic crap is enough to make electronic music with if you can find something to record it with.

Now I have lots of time to look at the Internet. Probably too much. And so, naturally, I see a lot of these discussions as well as product demonstration videos, people jamming with their gear and round table discussions such as the plethora of electronic music podcasts which have sprung up lately. If you were to take too much notice of all of this stuff, stuff which is growing exponentially, then you would certainly never have time to do anything else. You become a person who talks about doing rather than one who simply does and music is about doing not talking. But these things, should you pay heed to them, are indicative of a kind of community sense of ideas that are at large amongst your average common or garden electronic music maker. Its some of these notions that have animated me this week enough to want to blog about it. Specifically, I have found over and over people commenting about what they regard as "music" or "musical" uses of things. Worst of all is that phrase "musically meaningful" which I find sprayed about from time to time. Its worrying.

A typical scenario of the type I'm talking about here (for example, a demo) is some person noodling on a modular synth or with some small electronic device. Often there will be some simple arpeggio or sequence playing at these times and if the person concerned hasn't prepared in advance it might not be the sweetest melody you've ever heard. At some point someone might well say, embarrassed by the sound they are making, "Let's try and make something more musically meaningful". Its at this point that, should I be drinking one, I will splutter out my cup of tea across the computer keyboard. What, I wonder in my provocative way, is "musically meaningful" when its at home? Now in the sense these people usually mean it this is saying something about what they perceive music to be at all. In short, they are revealing their prejudices. These prejudices are often on display when, for example, modular synth music is discussed. Its bleeps and bloops and that is "not musically meaningful" is what they mean. But when did this rule come out? Who decided that bleeps were devoid of meaning? Who says static isn't beautiful? Who, indeed, got themselves elected to the Chair of Musical Meaning with the right to decide what sounds mean something and what sounds don't? Wouldn't an arbiter of meaning be a god?

With such nuclear prejudices on display one can start to wipe out whole areas of culture. One form of electronic music today is known as Harsh Noise. This is exactly what that description makes you think it is. And I am sure that to people who talk about things being "musically meaningful" it is the exact antithesis of that kind of music that they would find meaning in. It has no tune, it is not sweet or subtle and it is extremely challenging to even listen to. I have dabbled in this form myself recently but not with any conviction because I seem more constitutionally drawn to the abstract nature of sound rather than its harshness. Harshness for me is part of a palette of sounds rather than the palette itself. Harsh things can be brutal and brutalising and that is not where I am. But I can appreciate that others are and I have been listening to some lately. I get it but at the same time I know that if I was doing it myself it would not seem authentically me. But this world of ours is about more than just you. There are a multitude of voices out there and trust me when I tell you that you are not unique in wanting to be heard. Its a basic human need. This a good thing for I find, in my idealistic and optimistic way, that the multitude of human voices comes together somehow in a choir of all human possibilities, hopes and fears.

We are many people with many voices. You get the point. And none is valid and none is invalid. Or, if you prefer, all are valid and all are invalid. For they just are, extant in our world wherever someone feels the need to make a sound and say it means something. And that is really all it takes for something to be meaningful. A sound is made and someone finds meaning in it. There are no overarching arbiters here. We do not live in a situation where we can ascribe meaning to something and then someone else can come along and rule it out of bounds. Well, we live in a situation where people will try to do that all the time. But so long as someone gives something meaning then, for them at least, it has it. That might be bleeps and bloops, abstract, wandering sounds or 10 minutes of harsh, full volume static. Who are you or I to decide when or if something is meaningful for anyone but ourselves? What arrogance would such a leap take? What bogus notions are involved in coming to such a preposterous conclusion?

Harsh Noise I find to be an instructive category in this respect. I do sometimes wonder at the motivations of people for doing what they do. It is very easy (all too easy) for each of us to imagine that everyone else is like us and this is a common human failing. Having recently been put in contact with some Harsh Noise makers who had joined together to make an album I ventured to ask them what it meant. It turned out that what they thought about their music was much like me about mine. They seemed to be people with ideas who wanted to interpret those ideas in sound. I suspect that it is important to them that this is "sound" or "noise" and not a melody because, as with the Kosmische musicians from the late 60s and early 70s in Germany, they want a sound which marks them out as different from other people and which leaves them free to bring self-expression to the fore. They want themselves or the improvisational situation they find themselves in to be the boundary and not some imposed social notion of what "music" is or of what is acceptable. They want something which they can regard as theirs. 

To make music in someone else's recognizable style is to associate yourself with it and what it means, either consciously or unconsciously. Nothing exists in a vacuum of meaning for us and so there will always be links to something else, a network of relationships. So where you insert yourself in this network matters. It has meaning. Harsh Noise has a history in socio-cultural and political contexts. It is a form of music about thought, ideas and social action. For example, I have recently added a track to an album of noise makers protesting at the UK government's social policies called "These Are Those That Kill With Cuts". In addition, one person from the Harsh Noise Movement told me that the records he releases through his Bandcamp page are about "free thinking" and I think that describes it very succinctly. Harsh Noise music is not about other people's conventions. It does not bow down to someone else's idea of meaning. It makes its own.

So here we have very deliberate harsh noise and we have people who find it meaningful to listen to and to make. Are they wrong? Are any of my readers prepared to say, definitively, that these people are mistaken and that's actually not the case? I suspect not because I expect that my readers are self-aware enough to realize that meaning comes from within and not from without. We human beings are the meaning-makers. We make meaning. If we are electronic musicians like me then we make it with electronic devices. There is no such thing as a sound that has no meaning just as much as there is no such thing as a sound that is inherently meaningful (although we have been trained to regard certain sounds in certain places as having certain meaning such as a door bell, for example). Sounds are tools we use to inscribe meanings into performances and recordings. It may be the maker is the only one who understands or even hears the meaning that they put into it. But this doesn't matter. Each of us has our own network of meanings and each of us can slot any sound we hear into that network. Indeed, we don't even have a choice in this because it is going on autonomically without our express permission. We are meaning-makers and we seek meaning. We can't stop so long as we are still breathing.

So what of those who find no meaning in the bleeps and bloops, the static and the distortion? Being polite, they haven't thought it through. They are, at best, merely dressing up a preference as a fact and this is another common human trait. Its one that jars with me because I see a broader canvas for musical meaning than a trite tune that relies on melody and harmony. I remember reading recently that in the late 90s Thom Yorke of Radiohead felt a similar way. A quote I remember is that he said the very idea of writing a melody at that time simultaneously depressed him and filled him with dread. He wanted freedom from the artificial socio-cultural boundary that said "music" was a melody and that anything else was somehow not ok or out of order. He wanted to flee into abstraction and I can well understand that because I have myself fled there too. I don't want to write a tune. A tune would say nothing I want to say. A tune would just be playing someone else's game by someone else's rules. For some people their music is therapy and a means to their survival and so, in this scenario, self-expression becomes very important and if other people conventions must be confounded to do that then so be it. I feel myself in a very abstract world and so it is a matter of some importance to me that I can express myself abstractly. I imagine that the harsh noise makers haven't chosen their form of musical expression by chance either.

But is it musically meaningful? You better believe it is. Its often a matter of life and death, or so it seems.

In writing this blog I referred to some harsh noise makers. I feel it only respectful to name check their album since they kindly replied to my questions so helping me formulate the blog today. 

The album is THE DANGER OF BEING SUBJECTIVE and is by @waynerex80, @Ghost_Jazz_ and @NoizeMuzik (to use their Twitter names). The album can be listened to at 

The other album I referred to is These Are Those That Kill With Cuts  on Sonic Entrails Records which can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Soundcloud and Bandcamp. It is soon to be released as a cassette.


  1. Interesting blog post. I am in agreement, to an extent (though not the extent you might expect). I use music as a means to explore my thoughts in a way that I cannot do with words . In that way, my music has meaning. A listener may or may not glean that meaning, but might ascribe their own meaning, which is absolutely fine. They may not ascribe any meaning, it may not move them. That too is valid, for it is their experience. Now for the part where I might disagree... One of the themes I regularly explore is actually that of meaning itself, and as a nihilist, I am increasingly of the belief that the universe hasn't any inherent 'meaning'. I believe that all meaning is applied by us, but we are just a temporarily stable system of energy transfer within the universe, which would mean that we too have no inherent meaning....

    1. Thanks for your response. If you read more of my blog you'll see I have nihilist tendencies too so I don't see what I'm writing here as incompatible with that.