Noise

Ambience & Noise

A reflective essay and composition log including research and examples leading to the creation of my latest creative project

This article is part-reflective, part-descriptive. Here, I will, at different points in time, expand this post by writing updates about my current Creative Project for Organising Sounds as part of my Sound Design degree.

The project implements the thematic of genre-merging in music composition by combining the concepts and aesthetic styles of Ambience and Noise. It does so by not taking such definitions for granted. The back-story of my finished composition includes research in literature, sound, visual art, performance art, moving image, and a generous amount of hours of listening. I wanted not only to create a work I could be pleased with but, simultaneously, to learn more about the art that inspires me — its etymology, history, concepts and notable figures.

I have already talked about the theme of ambience in the arts and in relation to my sound practice on Medium here

[embed]https://medium.com/@francescoimola/the-unintruding-beauty-of-ambient-music-925f5db47351[/embed]

and about the “issue” of noise in music as something to be proud of here

[embed]https://medium.com/@francescoimola/the-unintruding-beauty-of-ambient-music-925f5db47351[/embed]

While the pieces above develop on the contents surrounding the many definitions of Ambience and Noise, here I will describe how I’ve applied such concepts to my composition.

Why Ambience? Why Noise?

I have for long been gushing about how much I connect to Ambient music because of its intrinsic ability to slow down time and make space for thoughts — yet, I realised that before starting to put my ideas together, I needed a broader perspective on Ambient Music. Not only that given by random Brian Eno quotes found on the web, but that which connects the history of Ambient Music to the ideas of Heidegger interrogating the relationship between ontology and phenomenology in our daily lives*.

*Heidegger presents a view that what exists (a question of ontology) cannot be separated from how we engage with it (a question of phenomenology).¹

I soon found that the term ambience represented broader domains of practice. There has [in fact] been a recent resurgence of interest in ambience in music and sound art [correlating] with a broad spike in interest around other ambient media.²

What better way to compliment the forever-looping slowly-changing aesthetic of ambience with the disharmony and disturbance found in noise. Ambient and Noise music are very distinct genres on the surface, but very similar at the core. If Ambient music maestro Brian Eno defined the genre of his invention “as ignorable as it is interesting”, could we say the same of noise?

While not as easily ignorable, noise position itself much in the background as in the foreground. It may be “louder” that some of the rest, but still shares the permeating properties of ambience. Similarly, loud sounds can become ignorable over time (see example below from Alva Noto’s Bit)

[embed]https://youtu.be/fOXxiM1Ujp0[/embed]

However, I’m not claiming to be the first attempting at such practice. A similar approach has been taken in drone music for decades. While not conceptually combining the aesthetics of Noise and Ambience, drone music sounds much like what I’ve had in mind for this work.

[embed]https://youtu.be/qNt1b9u7cZ4[/embed]

Many artists before —names such as Luke Abbott, Ben Frost, Fennesz, Black Mass, Alessandro Cortini and others — have produced beautiful music that merges elements of ambient and noise together. They are also some of the same artists who have inspired me to take this direction.

In order for my style-merging to be successful, I needed to find elements belonging to both aesthetics — or only to one of them — and combine those in a way that was pleasing to the ear. But it was at this point in my research that I had to face a major challenge.

Should my composition actually be pleasing to the ear, or should I strive for “noisiness” in every aspect?

The work I have created is not trying to sound like ambient music for noise fans; nor vice-versa. It implements concepts of noise, intended as unwanted interference rather than painful distortion. Disturbances can be embodied as randomly controlled pitch changes, a general disregard for quantization, generative sequences influenced by Jitter*, uncontrolled phase cancellation, and so forth.

*Jitter is the deviation from true periodicity of a presumably periodic signal.³

Creative Process

The fundaments of my compositions are based on a parallel stack of 3 synthesisers of the same type (Max for Cats’ FM Synth: Bengal) controlled by individual generative sequences. Each synthesiser plays a different semi-random sequence of notes over several octaves and at different speeds — disharmony par excellence.

Every chain is first EQed multiple times to enhance certain sonic flavours and then processed through a “gliding reverb” effect capable of adding rising and descending pitches to the reflections of a reverb.

Beginning of April 2018: A first iteration of this process is the piece named “Noise Sketch” available below. Although it may not sound similar to the later mentioned finished work, it makes use of a very similar setup — yet this time pushed to the extremes. Here, the harsh and gritty soundscapes of the digital synths are paired with a couple of field recordings. While I don’t believe this first part of the work to be an extremely successful attempt per se, I could say to have learned what to take and what to leave from it.

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/noise-sketch-march-2018[/embed]

End of April 2019: With a now conceptually redefined approach, I went on repurposing the work to what it started to sound like the music I had in mind. This is where my piece was one month into the project:

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/untitled-sketch[/embed]

May 2019: The sample above is sonically very close to the completed piece. Much of the work done at this point was meant to add density and one more layer of “noise” to the composition. I decided to play with phase in a less controlled way than when using autopan-like effects.

I bounced down three iterations of the same live-running generative system. By doing so I collected 3 version of the already-three-layered stack of synthesisers. Pitch-shifted each of those bounced tracks by a few cents and nudged in time each by a few milliseconds.

Immediately, you begin to notice the effect that phase has on each element. It makes the composition move in an (almost) unpredictable way — gestures that suggest a struggle: the music fighting to climb to a point it will never reach. I’e always loved the idea of never-resolving musical sentences and here had the chance to begin and end on one.

You can hear the completed work below:

[embed]https://soundcloud.com/user-766630368/permeating-with-disharmony[/embed]

Screenshot of the Ableton Live session where all the work was produced. CPU usage running at 90% in some section of the arrangement!

References:

  1. Jaaniste, L. 2003–2007. Approaching the Ambient: creative practice and the ambient mode of being. PhD Project Doctoral Research. Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology.
  2. “The Politics Of Ambience”. Sonicartresearch.Co.Uk. Accessed 10 May 2018. http://www.sonicartresearch.co.uk/the-politics-of-ambience/.
  3. “Jitter”. En.Wikipedia.Org, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jitter.

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

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Lo-fi & Glitch

The enticing aesthetic of errors

According to tradition, music and noise are consirered opposite. For decades, composers and musicians have striven for the perfection of form and “purity” of elements. Malfunctions in such environment were to be avoided and corrected where possible.

However, with the rise of underground rock and hip-hop, as well as the availability of cheaper workstations in the early 90s, more and more artists started to produce music. While never saturating the market, less pristine-quality recordings and experimental works began to make their way into the mainstream. Such music was defined in retrospective as belonging to the lo-fi, noise, and glitch aesthetics. Genres that saw the light of the day at different points in the 1990s but are all connected through conceptual vectors.

Kyuss’ “Blues For The Red Sun” (1992) is as fascinating as it’s poorly recorded. An ingenue but genuine example of lo-fi, before “lo-fi”.

Lo-fi, in particular, refers to the lack of technique and technology regarding the recording and mixing of music. It is the natural antithesis to high-fidelity. Ground noise, buzzing, and other imperfections in the recording are magnified and veneered. Because of their capacity to add layers of “grain and dust” to otherwise clear recordings, the produced effect is a sense of nostalgia and a moodiness that is characteristic of many contemporary lo-fi releases.

Similarly, glitch describes the failures and in a flow of communication. Sonically-characteristic errors (glitches) are organised in the arrangement as if they were instruments, becoming central elements in the composition. Glitch music is about pushing the tools available to you as a musician to make something never heard before.

Failures at the centre of attention

My appreciation for music falling under the umbrella of lo-fi & glitch has often been challenged by musicians attempting to appropriate themselves of a sound only to meet the needs of an audience. At the same time, there have been scenes that have thriven, and some still do, for their unprecedented music production skills.

It is difficult, however, to label electronic music and restrict its sound to a specific press-ready niche. The obviously biased list of artists and music presented below is by no means exhaustive inventory of every lo-fi or glitch release ever, but only a short sample only meant to exemplify what a piece of lo-fi or glitch music could sound like. Neither am I, with such a subjective take, trying to designate the artists as belonging only to that particular genre and musical scene.

Well-sounding malfunctions

A visionary album that got me into the genre of glitch — that with hip-hop references later renamed as glitch-hop — is edIT’s Crying Over Pros”. One of Planet Mu’s most overlooked releases struck a chord with me because I’ve never heard any hip-hop producer use their tools in such a way before. edIT used techniques that were only sometimes found in experimental electronic music before, but nowhere near hip-hop. It was a record ahead of its times.

[embed]https://youtu.be/eBPdOEhbZ4c[/embed]

Amber by Autechre is another recent discovery dear to me despite its now 24 years since its release date. Blurring genre-labelling, but often defined by the press as belonging to IDM and Glitch, Amber presented an “entirely electronic and entirely instrumental” soundscape that could still compete with most modern productions.

[embed]https://youtu.be/Zzl2mzg5Lps[/embed]

Deliberate degradation

Teen Suicide (band, now known as American Pleasure Club) is maybe the most representative of the noise-pop and lo-fi aesthetic. Their ingenuity and quirkiness, paired with a deliberate lack of recording-quality — especially with their early releases — is effective as it’s catchy.

[embed]https://youtu.be/V2KSoCXDQPo[/embed]

In contrast, Lo-fi House, be it borrowing from the indie-rock/lo-fi aesthetic or creating a sound of its own to stay distinguishable in the dance arena, has experienced a disproportionate growth during the past 5 years. Thegenre quickly evolved “from an online community of fresh-faced producers into a palpable underground phenomenon”¹.

With its wide sound palette and extensive DJ experience, Ross From Friends is the “leading figure” in the lo-fi movement and an always favourite of mine.

[embed]https://youtu.be/WnedjxcMgIE[/embed]


References:

  1. Mixmag. (2018). Ross From Friends is the emotionally-charged house producer making an Impact. [online] Available at: http://mixmag.net/feature/impact-ross-from-friends.

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

website| twitter | instagram | linkedin

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”.

[embed]https://vimeo.com/171695855[/embed]

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.

[embed]https://youtu.be/HkIpddogl_Y[/embed]

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.

[embed]https://youtu.be/IC3KMbSkYNI[/embed]

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.

[embed]https://vimeo.com/224755623[/embed]


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.

website| twitter | instagram | linkedin