Confronting noise in music

What is noise depends on what we are listening for

I ever so often find myself questioning the etymology of genre names in music and their development leading to what we know them as today.

Some genres, however, do not only represent a musical style, but also carry on their shoulders a considerable anthology in history and philosophy. Noise is one of those. Once we start researching beyond the formalisation of noise intended as an auditory phenomenon, we discover a realm where noise “resists” erasure and “persists” in time — because it cannot be reconfigured or recontained¹ — challenging the limits of its very own definition

The etymology of the word noise traces back to the Latin nausea, ‘seasickness’ — word that could have developed a sense in Vulgar Latin of “unpleasant situation, quarrel”, meaning a “loud or unpleasant sound”.²

The Oxford English Dictionary gives us two main definitions of noise:

a. In scientific and technical use: random or irregular fluctuations or disturbances which are not part of a signal (whether the result is audible or not), or which interfere with or obscure a signal; oscillations with a randomly fluctuating amplitude over a usually continuous range of frequencies. Also in extended use: distortions or additions which interfere with the transfer of information.…

b. In non-technical contexts: irrelevant or superfluous information or activity, esp. that which distracts from what is important.”

Both “scientific” and “mundane” ideas of noise presuppose a flow of information passed between to vectors which noise can interrupt or disturb. Fundamentally, then, noise not only defines anything that is unwanted, but also everything that is admissible. As Paul Hegarty writes, “[noise] does not exist independently, as it exists only in relation to what is not”³. For Hegarty, to be deciphered, noise needs a listener — someone able to tell the difference between what is necessary and what not.

But how far does objectivity go? What one person can perceive as disturbance another might perceive as intended message. For example, whilst during a phone call we are (almost) all able to tell the eventual disruption from the message of the person speaking, it isn’t as easy to individuate noise presenting itself in other forms and media.

The sound of noise

While in white-bread culture, the acceptance of restlessness and disruptions has always been inadmissible, noise has often thriven in the minds of creatives. Noise in the arts is, in fact, everywhere: music, photography, visual-art, film-making, writing, theatre, fine art. They all share a passion for merging the “noisy” with the “pure”.

“Noise is a judgment, a social one, based on unacceptability, the breaking of norms and a fear of violence”⁴ (Hegarty, 2018)

Yet, noise is too often associated with a sentiment of revolt or sometimes with an idea of destructive power. The artist, in one way or another, becomes the politically revolutionary creator, even when their use of noise is conceptually non-destructive and “peaceful”.

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How would you describe a piece of “noisy” music (not noise music) ?

Thunderous guitars and bone-shaking drums? Or high-pitched sine tones and shattering glitches?

The further we try to label noise, the more problematic it becomes. By doing so we would only end up with a bunch of disparate examples of what noise in music could sound like. On the other hand, it would be too easy to mention the gritty noise rock of Sunn O))) or the harshness of Merzbow’s “Japanoise” to exemplify this concept. Noise in such music is blatantly presenting itself though heavily processed and distorted sounds lacking any identifiable expression. Examples like these represent what we would imagine noise music to sound like — achieving their purpose of committing to the label of “noise music”, but giving us little to reflect on.

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What if we consider noise to be a synonym of randomness?

Plenty of more examples would then add to our already lengthy list. However, it is important to remember that noise and randomness do not always represent the same concept. Thoughtlessly merging the two definitions can result in inaccurate assumptions. As defined by Wikipedia, randomness is the lack of pattern or predictability in events.⁵ It refers to the impossibility of predicting some events than an unwanted, while sometimes unpredictable, disruption in a two-way flow of information (as in noise).

In the most electrical-engineering of definitions, Noise is an audio signal consisting “of an accumulation of sine waves of all the possible frequencies in the hearing range and with all possible amplitudes and phase relations.”⁶

No sound is ever entirely void of noise. The act of filtering noise from a signal is itself known to produce unwanted artefacts, e.g noise. Virtually all sounds can be situated on a continuum based on their inherent “noisy” component. On the one end of the spectrum, we would find extremely simple sine tones, on the other totally unpredictable sounds such as white noise.

A cardinal example of what noise on the latter extreme of the spectrum sounds like is Luigi Russolo’s Futurist work on his “Intonarumori” — a set of experimental instruments build between 1910 and 1930 to recreate different types of noise.

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Whether the Italian Futurists were actually good at what the did or not, their pseudo-academic research in sound and their courage to perform such findings in public despite the general lack of appreciation, have shaken the public ground and let several doors open to many experimental musicians to come.

Luciano Chessa’s “Music for 16 Futurist Noise Intoners” (2009) brings to life the work of Russolo featuring “16 crates with cranks and levers” performing original scores and compositions for the Intonarumori.

In this world of often extremely organised sounds, even silence can become noise. In fact, to an extent, silence in many media is perceived as unpleasant — something to be filled. For example, room noise is usually used by audio editors to fill in the silent gaps in-between the edits of a voiceover. Here, noise is used to replace silence as if they were interchangeable. In the same way, a fine layer of noise (grain) is sometimes added to pictures shot on a digital camera to help blend the sharpness and textural aesthetic of non-analogue pictures by many photographers.

Taking this same concept to the extremes, could we define John Cage’s 4′33″ as a work of noise music? Its lack of information is replaced by the “noisy” and inherently randomised mutter of the audience. As Mitch Renaud suggests “Cage opens the site of music to indeterminate sounds [as he] shifts the production of music from the site of utterance to that of audition”⁷

Noise injected into the composition is what fascinates me the most. Not the aesthetic of noise in sound, but the concept of noise and randomisation of the sounds’ behaviours and of elements in the arrangement. The work of Robert Henke is probably one of the best examples to describe the use of noise as I like to mean it as an integral part of his audiovisual practice.

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References:

  1. Hainge, G. (2013). Noise matters. Bloomsbury.
  2. Etymonline.com. (2018). noise | [online] Available at: https://www.etymonline.com/word/noise.
  3. Hegarty, P. (2013). Noise/music. New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
  4. Hegarty, P. (2018). Noise and music: an eternal conflict of sound. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/nov/10/squarepusher-paul-hegarty-noise.
  5. En.wikipedia.org. (2018). Randomness. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Randomness.
  6. Rhordijk.home.xs4all.nl. (2018). Noise, randomness and chaos. [online] Available at: https://rhordijk.home.xs4all.nl/G2Pages/Noise.htm .
  7. Renaud, M. (2015). Tracing Noise: Writing In-Between Sound. Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies in the Department of French, the School of Music, and Cultural, Social, and Political Thought. University of Victoria.

Francesco Imola is a London-based musician, multimedia artist, and current Sound Design student at the University of Greenwich.

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