Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Music of Possibility: A Noise Manifesto

Today's blog starts with a question: what links French composer Edgard Varese, 80s sampling supergroup The Art of Noise, Industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle, silence-loving indeterminist John Cage, German Industrialists Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, the creator of Musique Concrete (Pierre Schaeffer), the name of a leading Eurorack manufacturer (Make Noise), the first all electronic score for a motion picture (Forbidden Planet), the more abstract entries into the canon of German Kosmische Musik, the harsh and unpredictable sounds of circuit bent instruments, the electronic jazz of Autechre, EBMers Nitzer Ebb, the glitch madness of Richard Devine, the Japanoise of Merzbow and Masonna, the IDM of Aphex Twin, the cut up, breakbeat craziness of Venetian Snares, a Berlin festival called Atonal.... and this list could go on forever!?

The answer is NOISE.

Actually, whilst the answer is noise it is more particularly the musical use and contextualization of noise, noise as a musically useful entity. But what even is noise? If it is members of German band Faust hitting a concrete mixer or Einst├╝rzende Neubauten using electric drills or the weird shrieks of something that has been circuit bent this seems quite obvious but how might we define it? The temptation is to describe noise as unmusical sounds put to musical uses and I'm sure more than one reader was tempted to think that. But is it that simple? As a recent blog of mine showed, such a composer as John Cage, plus other pioneers such as Pierres Schaeffer and Henry, would hardly be likely to agree with this. Cage was so extreme (as some would judge it) as to believe that all sound was music (even including the sounds you might want to call noises) whilst Schaeffer's term Musique Concrete actually means real music, music made from real sounds, or noises as we might call them.

Now it can't really be argued against that many of those who pioneered working with noises (which is directly parallel to the rise of electronics in music) did so in order to be unconventional or counter to the prevailing movements in music of their times. (They might have described it as broadening our conception of music itself, however!) Some musicians simply plugged in their electronic instruments and tried to make normal music, of course. But a large number of those utilizing electronic equipment did not. They were wise to the fact that electronics meant new sounds and noises. A stand out example for me is the work of Louis and Bebe Barron who composed not the score for the film Forbidden Planet, it didn't have one, but what is described in the credits as "Electronic Tonalities". It was likely called this because the sound FX of the film and the "music" of the film cannot be distinguished at all. It is just one endless stream of strange, otherworldly tones. Or noises. The Barrons built their own circuits to make the score and many of them were destroyed in making the sounds they made meaning the score was literally unrepeatable. So outrageous in musical terms was their sound creation for the time that they were banned from being nominated for an Oscar. This was as recently as 1956, or 60 years ago.

An even earlier pioneer with things electronic was French composer, Edgard Varese. Varese emigrated to New York City in 1915 and, as a composer, was beset by the idea of making new sounds. In 1917 he wrote "I long for instruments obedient to my thought and whim, with their contribution of a whole new world of unsuspected sounds, which will lend themselves to the exigencies of my inner rhythm." He went on to compose two avantgarde percussion pieces in the 1920s, Hyperprism and Ionisation, the first of which reportedly created a riot and the second of which used two variable tone sirens but it is in 1930, during a round table discussion in Paris, that he gives his "Liberation of Sound" manifesto and it is worth quoting at length here.

"The raw material of music is sound. That is what the "reverent approach" has made people forget - even composers. Today when science is equipped to help the composer realize what was never before possible - all that Beethoven dreamed, all that Berlioz gropingly imagined possible - the composer continues to be obsessed by traditions which are nothing but the limitations of his predecessors. Composers like anyone else today are delighted to use the many gadgets continually put on the market for our daily comfort. But when they hear sounds that no violins, wind instruments, or percussion of the orchestra can produce, it does not occur to them to demand those sounds for science. Yet science is even now equipped to give them everything they may require.

And there are the advantages that I anticipate from such a machine: liberation from the arbitrary paralyzing tempered system; the possibility of obtaining any number of cycles or, if still desired, subdivisions of the octave, and consequently the formation of any desired scale; unsuspected range in low and high registers; new harmonic splendors obtainable from the use of subharmonic combinations now impossible; the possibility of obtaining any differential of timbre, of sound combinations, and new dynamics far beyond the present human-powered orchestra; a sense of sound projection in space by the emission of sound in any part or in many parts of the hall as may be required by the score; cross rhythms unrelated to each other, treated simultaneously, or to use the old word, contrapuntally, since the machine would be able to beat any number of desired notes, any subdivision of them, omission or fraction of them - all these in a given unit of measure of time which is humanly impossible to attain."

However, there are even earlier precursors to the coming age of electronic noise than this. Around the time of Varese's emigration the Italian Luigi Russolo was writing his now famous The Art of Noises booklet. This booklet, of course, directly inspired both the name and musical practice of the 80s supergroup, The Art of Noise, who utilized the most advanced and expensive sampling technology of their time, the Fairlight and the Synclavier, to turn noises into instruments. A perfect example is their first hit, Close To The Edit. The video to this track is also highly symbolic as four characters destroy a piano with electric saws, a chainsaw and other implements. It almost seems as if traditional music, and its instruments, is being replaced by a new electronic noise music based on any sound that can be made or imagined. A technological, noisy future awaits.

But back to The Art of Noises a moment for within it Russolo describes our emergence from a bucolic past into a noisy present and future.

"Ancient life was all silence. In the 19th century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men. For many centuries life went by in silence, or at most in muted tones. The strongest noises which interrupted this silence were not intense or prolonged or varied. If we overlook such exceptional movements as earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, avalanches and waterfalls, nature is silent...

Every manifestation of our life is accompanied by noise. The noise, therefore, is familiar to our ear, and has the power to conjure up life itself. Sound, alien to our life, always musical and a thing unto itself, an occasional but unnecessary element, has become to our ears what an overfamiliar face is to our eyes. Noise, however, reaching us in a confused and irregular way from the irregular confusion of our life, never entirely reveals itself to us, and keeps innumerable surprises in reserve. We are therefore certain that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure."

Luigi Russolo and friend playing hand cranked noise instruments called Intonarumori which produced rattling and scraping noises. These were all destroyed during World War 2.

This narrative we find mirrored in the mid to late 1970s in the UK and Europe when "Industrial" music was born. The first thing to note about it is that it was purposely artistic. Groups such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire in England were people of musical and artistic ideas. Where they differed was in the sounds they used to express these ideas and this gives them a direct link to the motivations of earlier composers like Russolo and Varese. For the Industrialists, including later ones into the early 1980s in continental Europe, especially Germany, it was the sound of a dark, industrial wasteland that was the sonic inspiration as they sought to probe and make use of sonic extremity. Noise and noises were the sonic materials that they worked with and, in a very serious and composerly way, they knitted together noisy compositions from an acute awareness of sound. It is sometimes common to regard this music as somehow a lesser kind of music because it uses instruments in non-traditional ways (for example, Cosey Fanni Tutti's playing of the guitar) but this is, of course, nothing more than the sniffy disparagement of more conservative minds.

But now we sit here at the end of 2016 and none of this seems very new. We have computers that can hold sample libraries full of terabytes of sounds if we want to. Literally any sound we can record or invent can be used musically. We have 50 years of commercial synthesis to call upon with all the amazing instruments and their timbral possibilities that go with it. Before that we passed through a brief age of music made with magnetic tape and radio equipment. Yet how adventurous are we now? The old divides are still apparent. We take on new habits and these habits become the new norms we must seek to subvert. Is there a sense that we have now done all that can be done sonically? Are the dreams of Russolo and Varese and others like Cage and Schaeffer complete? This is really a twofold question for I am asking if we have now found all the sounds there are to be found but also if we are using the totality of sound when we compose music.

A few things suggest not. One form of music which creates a harsh divide is the appropriately enough named Harsh Noise music. This even has regional forms such as Japanoise, which is harsh noise originating from Japan. This is, in as straight a form as could be maintained, the use of outright electronic noise regarded as music. It can be seen to be on the cutting edge in that so many are ready to denigrate it as either not artistic or as not music. I look forward to those who take either pathway here presenting their fully worked out definitions of both art and music for our appraisal. In a collection of electronic music lectures and documentaries I have collected together on You Tube there is one called People Who Do Noise. Its an 80 minute documentary but I wonder how many who watch it (and you should!) get to minute 80 because some of those minutes contain the harshest of noises. The comments underneath this video (which you should read) are a kind of street fight over what music is, if this is a valid form of it or if it is just, as one commenter thinks, "over pretentious, meaningless bullshit".

Of course, the accusation of pretentiousness has been heard before. In my last blog but one it was used of John Cage's very own noise experiment, 4'33". One thing that seems to link those who work with noise is their utter seriousness of interest in the noise that they make or make room for people to hear. It is often thought that those working with noise must be somehow the opposite, not at all serious or joking, because, so I assume, it seems that some cannot escape the conventionality of the view that real music is melody and harmony conventionally understood. This, of course, is not so and certainly not since the onset of electronics in music. As Varese said earlier, we can now have any scale we like. Or even none at all. From the very first electronic musical instruments, such as the Theremin (the instrument which, lest we forget, got Robert Moog interested in synthesis), electronic noise music and its exploration has been veering away from traditional ideas of music, as Varese pointed out it would have to. New possibilities mean new opportunities. It was thanks to these new possibilities that new phenomena emerged. We now associate space with weird sounds exactly because electronically generated sounds and scores seemed to better fit these mysterious places so alien to our experiences. 

And so it can be seen that noises powered by electronics come to express things that more traditional instruments and forms of music could not. They are an extension of our sonic expressivity. I personally believe that this is all to the good for human beings that always have within them the desire to break new ground, to explore. We are creatures cursed to experience a physical world and that physical world includes sound. So, to my mind, it is utterly human to want to know what can be done and to find out in the doing of it and, what's more, to use new possibilities in sound to better express the experiences of life that we have. To that end, music with electronics had to involve the bringing of noise within the fold of musical creativity and it has immeasurably enriched us all as a result. Of course, conservatism will still hold the mainstream and try to limit, curtail and push back on the noisy neighbors that seek to broaden and strengthen our artistic appreciations and impulses but the boundaries of acceptability must always be pushed if we are to advance. Who one hundred years ago would have imagined the musical possibilities of sound and noise we have today? We live in the world Luigi Russolo's Art of Noises dreamed of. 

I leave the last word to John Cage who, in 1937, prophetically uttered the following words in his lecture "The Future of Music: Credo":


Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at 50 mph. Static between the (radio) stations. Rain. We want to capture and control these sounds, to use them, not as sounds effects, but as musical instruments. Every film studio has a library of sound effects recorded on film. With a film phonograph it is now possible to control the amplitude and frequency of any one of these sounds and to give to it rhythms within or beyond the reach of anyone's imagination. Given four film phonographs, we can compose and perform a quartet for explosive motor, wind, heartbeat and landslide. 


If this word, music, is sacred and reserved for eighteenth and nineteenth century instruments, we can substitute a more meaningful term: organization of sound.  


The question is, how much do we live up to the hopes and dreams of our musical forbears? How much of a music of exploration and possibility do we make?

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  1. Very well done and thoughtful. Herr Absurd. My first experience with noise was seeing Pere Ubu at the Whisky in L.A. in the 70's. Allen Ravenstine's tone and textures with his VCS 3 done in a rock context changed my life turning me (for better or worse) into an abject synthoplile. Keep sharing these on the synth F-Book!