Written for Soundworks 04.

From Noise to Sound to Music and Back

The use of sound in art is relatively recent, certainly in the form of ‘sound art’ where the object consists primarily of sound (usually in the form of recordings), although sound has featured regularly as part of ‘multimedia’ work. What sound art does, though, has long been done in the field of avant-garde music, or, more accurately, by those in the avant-garde who have sought to rethink the category of music. In this article, I would like to raise a few questions, make a few claims and assertions, about what is going on when art (and/or music) uses sounds and/or noises.
If art is about meaning, then it is about communication of something, whilst noise is that which has to be excluded for communication to work. This might well apply to all human culture – language being a transformation of noise into organised forms - but we need to remember that the noise that was there in humans before language has not gone away, rather it is repressed, hidden, denied. The futurist Luigi Russolo argued that noise was life, and artists of the modern age (he was writing in 1913) should use noise and noises in their work. When John Cage went into his soundproof chamber and heard two noises, he was told they were the sounds of his blood and of his nervous system – silence does not occur in the presence of life (an idea he would put into practice in his silent pieces, most famously in 4’33"). Nature is never silent – when urban dwellers are surprised by the ‘silence’ of habitats where there are less humans, it is the absence of urban sounds they are hearing, not the absence of all sound. Silence is impossible at a universal level – the Big Bang has a sound, and this is still travelling through the space the beginning of the universe is still making – it will be the last, as well as the first, sound.
So noise is inescapable, but what do we mean by noise? How is noise different to sound? Firstly, noise is not the same as ‘noises’ which are basically only sounds. I imagine the examples above to be noise, as they are residual sound-products, in some way excessive because surplus. Noise differs from sound in that noise is in some ways unwanted sound; noise can of course be consciously and intentionally generated through feedback, for example, but this remains an improper use of the instrument, and is often used to make the music more unpredictable. Noise can also be that which disturbs us physically, whether in the form of an unpleasant sound, an accidental one that surprises us, or one that affects us physically, through volume or pitch. Noise is socially disturbing, whether at a local level, or through State judgements about what constitutes noise. Noise is above all a judgement about sound.
Sound, though, is a more neutral thing – something that despite our ever-open ears, we can choose to perceive, think about, process. Arguably, the contemporary world’s use of music in public spaces constitutes the worst kind of noise as it overrides sounds and the attention we might otherwise give them. For art, though, sound has often been perceived as noise, as in some way gratuitous. So the modernist experimentation with sound had nowhere to go – music would not tolerate it, and art saw it as belonging to music. Composers in the late 19th century sought to change this, and throughout the 20th century, attempts were made to re-organise the structures of music from within. The work of composers such as Satie, Varèse and Cage was not accepted for a long time, due to their rejection of key constraints of the Western ‘classical’ tradition, and their use of actual noises and silences. Meanwhile, dada and futurism sought to use sounds as a key component of their events – and to replace language with vocal noises (as in Schwitters’ Ursonate, or the poems of Marinetti). Galleries of course, wanted something tangible - objects, pictures, and certainly in the early part of the 20th century, music was still about performance rather than recording.
Noise is inseparable from social institutions – when sound or noise art comes inside the institution of art (i.e. accepted into the world of art, and placed in the specific institution of the gallery or exhibition), for it to be appropriated, noisiness must be lost. Arguably, if we take noise less literally, then we can imagine all avant-gardism as noise, noise which becomes sound as it is gradually understood to be in some way appropriate, proper.
But the transformation of noise, sound and music is also tied in to technology. Douglas Kahn has argued that it is the advent of recording and amplification that draws noise into the realm of music. More recent digital technologies encourage noise, or the mobilisation of what used to be noise, now become music, or, more simply, the ‘capturing’ of noise. Recent technological developments, coinciding with the personalisation of technology (access and ownership of walkmans, digital recording media, software) are essential to the growth of noise music and sound art. The art institution, for its part, acknowledges sound to be an acceptable medium, and beyond the initial outlay for equipment, often a very cost-effective one that is easy to process – particularly if all that is needed is a cd player. Nothing is closer to the centre of economic-technological-political control than the clean and easy digital media, such as the cd, now firmly believed, in the social imaginary, to be audio perfection. Sound has only achieved its autonomy in art in recent times, and has to compete with sounds (or noises) that are still outside the realm of what is proper to music. Which brings us to the question of what music is.
Institutionally, music is a system where certain events (chords, notes, silences, tunes…) are programmed. Certain conventions (like what counts as a note) define what conforms or what is permissible to that culture’s idea of music. As an experience, music is a sequence of events that occurs through time, with a beginning and an end. This changed with the advent of playback devices, and then again with software that can alter the precise form or amount of time traversed, but music still requires time to exist. Philosophically, music is about order, and in what we refer to as ‘classical music’, we have the most sustained control of the unruly sound world. The 19th century German philosopher Hegel saw music as the ultimately disciplined art, and therefore part of humanity’s march to attaining its goal of perfection. It was, therefore, part of beauty rather than the more threatening sublime, and beauty, traditionally in Western aesthetics, has been about order, about norms and organisation. In terms of noise and human sound, there is also the more or less opposed view, as proposed by Rousseau, in the 18th century: he argued that early human speech was inherently musical, and that language is our gradual undermining of that natural beauty (although some of what he says contradicts this), with writing the final degradation. This lets us imagine a world where the least musical thing is scored (or recorded) music, and the most musical the noisiest, least socially organised sound. This is somewhere near Cage, and certainly the approach suggested by much sound art – where the sounds are there to be captured, appreciated in their musicality; instead of organising the limited bits of sound available through instruments and set tones, the organisation can take place when the listener encounters the sounds. Sound art has perhaps even overdone this Rousseauian belief, and if it is to be radical, offering genuinely new ideas about sound and its exploitation, sound artists need to be aware of the history of formal experimentation that has existed in avant-garde music, whether it be John Cage, industrial music, free jazz, experimental rock. Only then can it even become a modernist, let alone a postmodernist, art. We must not imagine that to use sound is inherently interesting, let alone experimental or new, any more than paint.
So, on the one hand, we have music as order, with noise a resistance to this; on the other, we have sound art, with its productively naïve approach to sound, which resists the muzak of the capitalist everyday. It also restores sound as an aestheticised sense, different but possibly equal to sight. Sound art, though, often has to pay for its acceptance by accepting a position of servitude, through its politeness to other works on show: the works have not to intrude on others, so have to be quiet or accessible only through headphones (to the point where, in the Whitney Museum’s ‘Bitstreams’ show of 2001, the ‘sound art’ component was a row of headphones, one per ‘piece’). This is not always the case, and it is possible to have a noisier installation (as the Japanese musician Merzbow did in the Musée d'art moderne in Paris, where a room was filled with multiple layers of noise). Now that sound has been allowed to be ‘sound art’, though, it can move back out from the gallery – one area where it has (as long ago as dada and Cage) a serious advantage over visual art (due to transmission, portability of media, relative ease of location of ‘pieces’).

If music is order, then is a noise music possible? Noise is often uninteresting – what it needs is what Kant called ‘purposiveness’ – the illusion of purpose, of intention. Noise becomes interesting to humans as soon as we sense a reason, or some guiding principle for it (just as with visual phenomena). To generalise just a little, experimental art and music spent the middle years of the last century moulding noises into something musical – this was the object of the ‘musique concrète’ made and theorised by Pierre Schaeffer, François Bayle, Pierre Henry and others. This fed into the electronic revolution, where synthesizers were developed to generate new sounds. All of that was perhaps the more ‘academic’ side - highly trained composers searching for new sound experiences, but it would cross into rock, notably through those who studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Noise as a positive disruption comes from punk and the experimental rock of the 1970s, crystallising in ‘industrial music’, which took non-musical objects, samples, electronics (often cheap) as its material, producing harsh ‘music’ (some of which is much less so to today’s listener) with no premium on skill. In Japan, meanwhile, a genuine noise music was emerging – several types in fact. These would take inspiration from free jazz, progressive rock, punk, industrial music, occasionally Japanese traditional musics, and take Western forms in new directions, making new hybrids with no concern with Western preciousness about categories. By the 1980s, many Japanese noise artists were making pieces just from noise – layering electronics, voices and instruments all rendered unfamiliar, all pushed beyond capacity. To hear these musics is to have an intensely physical experience, and to have the possibility of a rational, tranquil processing of the work removed. The sound is of course often very loud, and some have mistaken this for simple aggression - but the key element in all the diverse forms of Japanese noise is the attempt to get outside the norms of music, while creating something that is like music (whilst also being ‘like noise’…). Japan has remained an incredibly fertile location for experimental and noise musics, but noise music has globalised (as has sound art, which crosses over regularly with experimental music) and runs the risk of being normalised. At which point, can it still be noise?
Sound art and noise music have a history, often a shared one, one that has been about experimentation, transgression, provocation. This history is one of forms as well as that of the musicians or artists themselves. I have only hinted at the barest outline of that history, which I think can be seen as the gradual acceptance that less-organised sounds can be of aesthetic interest, and that this has had an institutional response – eventually – of acceptance. In my view, this acceptance must always be tested, pushed. Experimental music did not stop with the artists of the mid-20th century, and it is essential for sound art to have some sense of this, even (or especially) to react against it. At this point, we will be ever nearer to noise, noise that will become heard as sound, then as music – even if, paradoxically, our acceptance (as listeners) of noise lessens noise. This might be a paradox, it might be a problem, but it is a good problem, I think, and awareness of this can drive some sort of residual, marginal, improper avant-gardism that can escape the traps of modernism, while not falling back on to content (or weak concept) as the sole point of interest. In so doing, sound art can be more than background ambience.


Further Reading
Jacques Attali, Noise (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985)
Paul Hegarty, ‘Full With Noise: Theory and Japanese Noise Music’ www.ctheory.net/text_file.asp?pick=314 or in Arthur and Marilouise Kroker (eds.), Life in the Wires: The CTHEORY Reader (Victoria: New World Perspectives, 2004), 86-98
Japanese Independent Music (Paris: Sonore, 2000)
Douglas Kahn, Noise Water Meat (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999)
Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead (eds.), Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio and the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992)
Sonic Process (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 2002)