Music Composition

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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Rejecting Complexity

Why cold minimalism is still an undefeated force in contemporary art

The never self-proclaimed artistic movement for excellence and one of the most influential styles since the1960s, Minimalism identifies works of abstract art usually lacking any decorative ostentation and striving for extreme simplicity of form.

Minimalism is chiefly American. It originated in New York in the late 1960s as a practice-in-progress among creators disavowing recent art — especially 1950s’ Abstract Expressionism — which they considered stale, pretentious, and too personal. Not-yet-defined minimalist artists turned to its head the idea that art creation should be an emotional and existential act, as exemplified by Action Painter Jason Pollock, by creating extremely simplified art that would not refer to anything other than itself.

Minimalism in architecture: Casa das Histórias Paula Rego, Cascais, Portugal, 2008 designed by Souto de Moura

Minimalism is linked with conceptual art, which also saw a rise in the mid-1960s. Conceptual art is similarly concerned with how the audience experiences a work of art rather than with the need to express the artist’s personal emotions through art-making.

In music, in particular, minimalism was the single most important idea of the last century, the one that made possible virtually all that we now listen to and hold dear […]. Minimalism wasn’t just a movement, it was a paradigm shift: it brought about a sea change in the way that sound is made, heard and thought of. (FACT Magazine, 2010)¹

However, simplicity in the art has for long been pursued prior to the minimalist period. In music, examples of moderation and minimalism can be found in works such as Debussy’s early “Préludes”, Erik Satie’ s “Gymnopédies”, Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier’’ and in plenty of other compositions written well before the “minimalist era”. As composer and conductor Jonathan Sheffer suggests, minimalism was in fact invented in the 18th century. Sheffer advocated that is important to include the works of composers such as Handel and Bach alongside those of Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, and John Adams when mentioning minimalist music.(Griffiths, 2018)²

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In the early 20th century, composers including Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg began to abandon traditional melodies and scales, posing the basis for all experimental musicians to come. “Minimalist musicians looked to the east as no one had done before, and also embraced the new noise of the 20th century. Classical music up to this point had shut its doors firmly on the sound-world of the streets in order to conserve the pure sound of acoustic instruments. Minimalists did the opposite, flinging open the concert doors and letting in a panoply of new sounds and remixed them alongside acoustic instruments to create a new sound order.” (Hazlewood, 2018)³

It is important to remember that minimalist composers were the firsts to compose using, simultaneously, multiple experimental techniques — such as delay and tape manipulation — as well as musical elements from non-Western culture. African, Indian, and Indonesian music were often notable points of inspiration.

What we now would define as minimalist music has undertaken a development that began somewhere in the 18th century, was fine-tuned in the 1920s, and reached a peak in the 1960s via the works of Riley, Reich, Glass, La Monte Young, Pärt, Adams, as well as others. Of all of them, I have a special relationship with the music of Philip Glass and Steve Reich. Their art has been a constant inspiration since finding my way into minimalism a couple of years ago. So much that I managed to watch 1hr and 26mins of “Koyaanisqatsi” twice, despite its inherent lack of content — aside from the shattering Philip Glass soundtrack. Reich’s Electric Counterpoint and Music for 18 Musicians are probably some of my favourite works. His use of dynamics and perpetually-shifting repetitions is still unmatched in contemporary composition.

Terry Riley’s “In C” is another foundational work of musical minimalism. Composed in 1964 it was meant to be performed with unspecified instruments by an indefinite number of players.

Musical score for Terry Riley’s “In C”

“It was total disruption of time as we knew it. It was like being in a time capsule and floating out in space somewhere waiting for the next event to happen. And I enjoyed that kind of waiting.” Terry Riley about “In C”

Modern minimalism in music is still breathing in the works of many aspiring composers as well as those who have already successfully repurposed minimalist ideas to produce new works: Brian Eno, William Basinski, Harold Budd, and Max Richter only to mention some.

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References:

  1. FACT Magazine (2018). A brief history of Minimalism — FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. [online] Available at: http://www.factmag.com/2010/02/01/a-brief-history-of-minimalism/.
  2. Griffiths, P. (2018). Minimalism as an 18th-Century Idea. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/24/arts/minimalism-as-an-18th-century-idea.html .
  3. Hazlewood, C. (2018). Adventures in motion and pitches: how minimalism shook up classical music. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/mar/02/minimalism-music-revolution-charles-hazelwood.

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

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The Voice as Music

Much more than a musical instrument

Kanye West is a leading figure in contemporary pop music. He experiments with voice used an instrument. Source Image: Jason Persee.

Music and the human voice have always been in a good relationship. Since ancient Greece, words were taken and set to music. “[Without music,] even with words alone, something was missing. For the Greeks, the lyric in lyric poetry was literal: the verses were composed to be sung to the accompaniment of a lyre.”¹

The majority of contemporary popular music is characterised by the use of voice as the main, leading, instrument. Besides, the ability of the human voice to “articulate, communicate ideas, create beautiful melodies, and translate human emotion into sounds is unmatched”.² There are almost endless ways in which the voice can be articulated — in terms of duration, rhythm, and pitch — to produce always new results.

Examples of how voice can be controlled, played as an instrument, and let free, are many. Below I will present — a list in no particular order and by no means exhaustive— a few examples dear to me that exemplify the multitude of was voice is used in contemporary music.

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Trevor Wishart is a composer of orchestral and electroacoustic music whose fame is (partially) attributable to his innovative approach to composing with computers and the human voice. He is also a researcher on sonic arts, a developer, and a music educator.

“On the one hand the (human) voice is much more than a musical instrument. […] It reveals much about the speaker, from gender, age and health to attitude, mood and intention, and it also connects us with our Primate relatives. […] At the same time, apart from the computer itself, the voice is the richest sound-producing ‘instrument’ that we have, generating a vast variety of sounds from the stably pitched, to the entirely noisy, to complex rapidly-changing multiphonics or textures of grit and so on.” (Wishart, 2009)³

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Prolific Venezuela-born experimental producer, Alejandro Ghersi (aka Arca) has made a name for himself “producing for heavyweights including FKA Twigs, Björk, and Kanye West, and through formidable solo recordings”⁴. In his latest self-titled music venture, Arca unveils his singing and does it with uncompromising fluency and violence.

“Ghersi’s voice is not perfect, but rather than polish out any blemishes, he works the flaws. His voice cracks, he breathes sharply and his lips smack; at one point you can hear what sounds like someone taking a sip of water.” (Miles Bowe, 2017)⁵

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Examples obviously are not limited to Western culture. African music, and especially that of Pygmy groups, is mostly improvised over a “basic” tune. Pygmy music not only makes use of the voice as key instrument, but is characterised by a polyphonic “contrapuntal communal improvisation”⁶.

“The Mbenga [and Baka] Pygmy music is based on repetition of periods of equal length that each singer divides using different rhythmic figures specific to different songs. This creates endless variations not only of the same period repeated but of various performances of the same piece of music. As in some Balinese Gamelan music these patterns are based on a super-pattern which is never heard.” (Wikipedia)⁶

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“Defined by the pure vocals and confessional lyrics of singer/songwriter Justin Vernon”⁷, Bon Iver never fails to astonish the public with their multilayered use of vocals and intimate lyrics. Vernon’s voice has become one of the most recognisable instruments in indie music.⁸

In 2016’s “22, A Million”, his voice is taken apart, recomposed, stretched, repitched, autotuned — yet, it still manages to maintain its authenticity and musical power.

“ About a decade ago, when Justin Vernon was recording the songs that became the band’s début album, “For Emma, Forever Ago,” he realized that ranging just above his usual register made it easier to sing about memories that were otherwise too painful to recount. Vernon’s falsetto caused an obvious strain on his voice, making it sound weary and brittle. His recordings gave the impression of someone forcing himself to venture far outside his comfort zone; they communicated a sense of solitude and drift.” (Hua Hsu, 2016)⁸

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Italian theorist, composer, musician, and teacher Luciano Berio is among the leading charcters in avant-garde music. “His style is notable for combining lyric and expressive musical qualities with the most advanced techniques of electronic and aleatory music.”⁹ Berio’s works on the human voice demonstrates boundary-pushing achievements in the way we perceive voice as music.


References:

  1. Mendelsohn, D. (2015). Hearing Sappho. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/hearing-sappho.
  2. McMahon, J. (2018). The Human Voice as an Instrument for Language. [online] Listenandlearnaustralia.com.au. Available at: https://www.listenandlearnaustralia.com.au/blog/the-human-voice-as-an-instrument-for-language/.
  3. Milani, M. (2018). An interview with Trevor Wishart — pt.1. [online] Usoproject.blogspot.co.uk. Available at: http://usoproject.blogspot.co.uk/2009/01/interview-with-trevor-wishart-pt1.html.
  4. Mejia, P. (2017). After Collaborating With Björk and Releasing a Pair of Critically Acclaimed Solo Albums, Arca Finds His Voice. [online] Vulture.com. Available at: http://www.vulture.com/2017/04/bjrk-collaborator-arca-finds-his-voice-on-his-latest-album.html.
  5. Bowe, M. (2018). Arca finds his voice with an immaculate collection of grisly love songs. [online] FACT Magazine. Available at: http://www.factmag.com/2017/04/07/arca-self-titled-review/.
  6. En.wikipedia.org. Pygmy music. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmy_music.
  7. Margaret Reges, Rovi. Bon Iver. [online, Spotify bio] Available at: https://open.spotify.com/artist/4LEiUm1SRbFMgfqnQTwUbQ.
  8. Hsu, H. (2016). Bon Iver’s New Voice. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/03/bon-ivers-new-voice [Accessed 16 Feb. 2018].
  9. Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Luciano Berio | Italian composer. [online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Luciano-Berio.

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

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Composing with Gesture and Texture

Gestures and Textures are elements in a sound composition each performing a different musical function.

A gesture is an abstract motion. In the music domain, a sound that is going somewhere — say moving from point A to point B — can be defined as a gestural sound. It implies a movement expressed via a change both in the frequency and time domain — through spectral and morphological change of energy. Denis Smalley illustrates how gestures enhance the impression of time passing.¹

Gestural music is concerned with narrative and mostly deals with the spectromorphological consequences of a physical activity.

Spectromorphology is the perceived sonic footprint of a sound spectrum as it manifests in time. A descriptive spectromorphological analysis of sound is sometimes used in the analysis of electroacoustic music, especially acousmatic music. The term was coined by Denis Smalley in 1986 and is considered the most adequate English term to designate the field of sound research associated with the French writer, composer, and academic, Pierre Schaeffer. (Wikipedia)²

We use gestures to communicate. If we listen to a language that we don’t understand, we can sometimes still work out how the speaker is feeling (and perhaps even some of their message) by listening out for the gestures in their voice.³

A texture can provide a basic framework within which gestures act. If we think of a sound composition as an organised mass of elements, its texture would represent the patterning of such mass upon which gestures are “drawn”³. The word texture relates to parameters of sound such as density, layering, and timbre. Textures can be described in terms of their relative homogeneity, frequency range, and amount of notable randomness. They can be produced by layering recordings from similar or different sources, or from synthesising textural sounds. Both techniques can be also used in the same composition to achieve interesting results.

The experimental use of both texture and gesture in composition is the primary focus in electroacoustic music. Often, electroacoustic musicians make use of gestures to achieve the feeling of real-life motion through a dynamic change in the properties of sound. They do this by exploring the acoustic properties of materials, spaces, as well as various sound sources and loudspeaker systems.

As a musician my interest often lies in Textural music. I am fascinated by how textures can concentrate on internal activity at the expenses of changes over time. Rather than focusing on the narrative happening in the foreground, I make use of textures to enhance the spatial properties of sound permeating the surroundings— layering slight variations of the same element to achieve choir-like properties and adding depth by playing with effects modulated over time.


References:

  1. Smalley, Denis. “Spectromorphology: Explaining Sound-Shapes”. Organised Sound 2, no. 2 (1997): 107–126. doi:10.1017/s1355771897009059.
  2. “Spectromorphology”. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectromorphology.
  3. “Composing Textures And Gestures”. Blog. Ears2. Accessed Feb 2018. http://ears2.dmu.ac.uk.

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

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