Contemporary Art

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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Generative art: a practice in constant change

“Floating Lines in the DeepSpace”. A generative artwork by Miguel Neto & Rodrigo Carvalho.

To “generate” — as described by the Merriam-Webster dictionary — is to define or originate (something, such as a mathematical or linguistic set or structure) by the application of one or more rules or operations.

For generations, artists and scientists have helped reshaping this term into an abstraction:

Generative art takes place in a structured system – such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural inventions¹ – created by the artist and aimed at producing multiple, and potentially endless, results from the manipulation of an initial form.

[When we talk about generative art], the term (generative) is simply a reference to how the art is made, and it makes no claims as to why the art is made this way or what its content is.¹

Development

Despite its modern approach, generative art is “as old as art itself”¹. Since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and throughout history, artists have designed complex and simple systems — as in the works of Elsworth Kelly or John Cage — for the creation of new generative artworks.

Set aside Computer Science and AI, several art practices have contributed to the development of generative art. These include Electronic Music, Computer Graphics, Animation, VJ Culture, Industrial Design, and Architecture.

The youth culture and audiovisual artists, in particular, are bringing generative art to the eye of the media as no one has ever done before.

To bring generative art to a club night is to expose and showcase the potential of such practice to a massive crowd. Max Cooper, Alva Noto, Ryoichi Sakamoto, Squarepusher, and many other A/V artists are currently basing most of their work and live shows on machine generated art.

Systems

Complexity science is a relatively young discipline aimed at understanding how the systems that rule the generative world work.

Complex systems are called so because they (typically) have a large number of small components that interact with similar nearby parts.²

Local components will interact in “nonlinear” ways, meaning that the interactions act in a non-sequential or straightforward manner. These local interactions are dynamic and in constant change, leading to the system organising itself. Scientists define these self-organising systems as complex systems.

Examples of complex systems are the human brain, Earth’s climate, living cells, the stock market, etc.

Order

It is important to remember that complex systems may act in a chaotic manner, but never do so randomly. There is a somewhat clear distinction between chaos and randomness, especially within the field of generative art.

Philip Galanter provides us with a great example of the difference between chaos and randomness:

“…even though it is difficult to predict the specific weather 6 months from now, we can be relatively sure it won’t be 200 degrees outside, nor will we be getting 30 feet of rain on a single day, and so on. The weather exists within some minimum and maximum limits, and those expectations are a sort of container for all possible weather states.”

Generative code

There is an aspect to code which goes beyond its pure written form. Its execution constitutes what we experience.

[However], to appreciate generative code fully we need to ‘sense’ the code to build an understanding of the code’s actions. To separate the code and the resultant actions would simply limit our experience, as well as the ultimate study of these forms.²


References:

  1. Galanter, P. What is Generative Art? — Complexity Theory as a Context for Art Theory, Philipgalanter.com. Available at: http://www.philipgalanter.com/downloads/ga2003_paper.pdf.
  2. Cox, G., McLean, A. and Ward, A. The Aesthetics of Generative Code, Generative.net. Available at: http://generative.net/papers/aesthetics/.

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

w. http://francescoimola.com/

tw. https://twitter.com/francescoimola

Digital Addiction and Hyperconnectivity

Furtherfield’s “Are We All Addicts Now?” explores networked life

Finsbury Park-based gallery space and arts organisation Furtherfield is currently home to exhibition and research space Are We All Addicts Now? until 12 November 2017.

‘Stressing the physicality of digital life’¹, Are We All Addicts Now? uncovers the glooming appeal of online spaces and criticises the digital world for subconsciously influencing our lives through neuro-marketing and highly-addictive visual and auditory stimuli. Artworks on display are the result of extensive research on this subject by artist Katriona Beales and co-curator & contributor Fiona MacDonald. Their work is a direct reflection of their experience with technology and a research for the physicality of actions and networks within the both the digital and “natural” world.

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As visitors walk into the gallery a video installation ‘displays a drum of hypnotically spinning images whose rotation is triggered by people’s movement’¹. While perhaps the least controversial, Entering The Machine Zone is be an highly addictive artwork. Its flat screen flashing hyper-saturated colours, the sound mimicking old instant messaging notifications, and its interactive component, all combine in an aesthetically and conceptually strong work.

Katriona Beales, Entering The Machine Zone (2017). Photo by Pau Ros.

A beaded curtain gives visitors access to a darkened room where a velvet sunken bed becomes meditation space for all senses. Here, through the curves of a glass sculpture an embedded screen displays moths in constant movement. By wearing headphones people can listen to what Beales describes as her most intimate work so far. She illustrates the audio part of Networked Bed to art magazine Studio International:

“There’s a whispered audio based on a recording I made at 3am one night as I scrolled through my Twitter timeline, reading a few words of each tweet. It’s like a concrete poem. It’s a snapshot of who I follow and their thoughts, anxieties and politics. Because it’s unlikely anyone follows exactly the same configuration of people as me, it’s also strangely intimate — a kind of algorithmic self-portrait.”

In the meanwhile, the other dark side of the gallery is lit by a table-fitted screen displaying a video made up of a series of digital-age-related short loops. Shifting the attention to the ceiling, visitors can appreciate scattering visualisations of eye-tracking data “harvested live” by a computer set alongside. From here people can access a selection of html artworks and pdf files. Eyes movement are tracked from this station and then processed to display the resulting points of focus on the computer screen to the projection on the ceiling.

Working Together (2017) is a mini animation showing the numbers of people who have liked, retweeted and commented a Donald Trump tweet over a timespan of 15 minutes. It is designed to make visitors reflect on the now accredited role of social media in gaining and retaining relevance.

On platforms such as Twitter, the higher the number of ‘nodes of connectedness”² that originate from a tweet, the stronger the “network power” of an entity. No matter how much support or disagreement a tweet can receive, every interaction with this contributes to building up the popularity of the person who tweeted it.

Katriona Beales, Working Together (2017)

An alternative approach to envisioning forms of “networked life” is taken by Fiona MacDonald with her sound work Mycorrhizal Meditation (available here). Curator, writer and artist as Feral Practice, she investigates the “beyond-human network” of fungi and plant tissue that lie under the soil.

The mycorrhizal network “acts both as a woodland’s food store and communication centre”³ foreshadowing now seemingly modern communication networks. The work was created combining the artist’s voice with contact and ambient microphone recordings of wooden soundscapes. It is meant to be listened to in Finsbury Park, but can accessed from anywhere.

People become addicted to substances or activities, but it’s impossible to become addicted to a medium. You can be no more addicted to the internet than you can to language or radio waves. (@vaughanbell, MindHacks, 2007)


References:

1. Furtherfield. (2017). Are We All Addicts Now? — Furtherfield. [online] Available at: http://www.furtherfield.org/events/are-we-all-addicts-now/.

2. Broome, H. (2017). Katriona Beales: ‘It’s not the internet that is malevolent, but the way behavioural psychology is employed to coerce compulsive use’. [online] Studio International. Available at: http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/katriona-beales-interview-are-we-all-addicts-now .

3 Furtherfield. (2017). Mycorrhizal Meditation — Furtherfield. [online] Available at: http://www.furtherfield.org/mm/.


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

website| twitter | instagram | linkedin