Talk given to Visual Arts Society, UCC, March 2005, containing a big chunk in the middle from ‘From Noise to Sound to Music and Back’

The Art of Noise

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. Although I am mostly going to be salvaging this more radical musical history, it is in the context of sound art and its problems. What are they? Sound art might like to think of itself as being between music and art, playing with space, our perceptions etc. in a way similar to much installation art. It occurs in galleries, or spaces sanctioned, cordoned off as art spaces. Typically, what the gallery visitor encounters are sets of speakers or headphones, and often very direct transcriptions of some original sound – either that or overly obvious manipulation through slowing down, apparently to defamiliarise…
Sound art is recent, but seems intent on referring to art from the 1910s/1920s or John Cage, who seems to have become a sort of timeless guru for people too lazy to have concepts in their concept art. Sound art veers between this literal recording of the world and lame conceptualism, where the idea of say the sound of tearing paper challenges our perception of meaning, understanding etc…, or how a distorted voice might trouble identity etc. Sound art is often a new discovery for artists working in other media – and there can be no problem there, except that sound art, for some reason, has become the form or genre which requires no training in, understanding or knowledge of what has been done before, often better, in ‘music’. I am not just saying sound art is bad because it is not knowledgeable enough, but, immediately, much of it excludes itself from any modernist, let alone postmodern self-awareness, self-criticism. eg of me painting something in blue, filming a building for hours and imagining it was different from Warhol because I called it multimedia, or, ironically or otherwise, inventing the chord of G.
Sound art is also still a lazy critical notion, although its fuzziness is potentially positive: it can encompass musical performances once they occur in a gallery, it can include anything that seems to do something other than a straightforward tune, and of course, it very often relies on the means of its production, which are at some stage, invariably digital. So, the problems are its been done before, its lazy, its weak, its not up to modernist or postmodern imaginings about art. Egs Nauman’s Raw Materials in the Turbine Hall; egs from Sonic Process. What interests me is noise, and how noise can make sound art worth installing, often as multimedia, as my closing eg will show.

Noise does not predate human sound, but comes to be imagined as the sound which comes first – either as other to meaningful communication, or as its precursor. Noise is also that sound which exceeds human understanding, at least temporarily. 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. Noise is a residual sound-product, in some way excessive because surplus. Noise differs from sound in that noise is in some ways unwanted or undirected sound. 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), and for it to be appropriated, noisiness must be lost. But that should not mean acceptance on the part of artists, who, unfortunately, seem more than happy to be there where appropriation has already occurred.

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, ipods etc., 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. [digital mastering also returns us to a new platonic idea of a musical piece –the true form of which awaits its ultimate reincarnation after endless remastering and reissuing] 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. 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. Sound art, then, will not organise the limited bits of sound available through instruments and set tones, but will ‘let’ the organisation take place when the listener encounters the sounds. Such sound artists, weak readers, in fact, non-readers, but believers, in some sort of Rousseauian love of natural musicality, imagine theirs is always the first encounter with the sound used – I am not talking about artists’ intentions, but that sound art will offer us the ‘first encounter’. We have to refuse this.

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, or Bill Viola’s 'Hallway Nodes (1972-2004)). 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.
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, 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, or the noisiness of 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.]

Now it’s time for bad v good sound art. Bad sound art does do something interesting, but accidentally – it offers itself as transcription, as record of something that was there. Alternatively it could offer itself as something that never was – in each case, the sound on offer folds in on itself – all you get is the sound – ‘isn’t it interesting/’ Often, no. Or, ‘what is it’. or ‘that doesn’t sound like it should. What was it again?’ It returns art to content, with a smattering of delight at some imagined strangeness that will be mastered when we work out the source.
John Levack Drever, ‘Pastoral Pause’ (07); Richard Beard, ‘I Am Not Sitting in a Room’ (09); Valerian Mally ‘Apple (Windfall/ Fallobst)’ (11); Alvin Lucier, ‘Quiet Coffee’ (15); Andy keep, ‘My Laptop Colony – Colony in my laptop’ (23); Thomas Joyce, ‘Unspoken Conversations’ (30) (Bush track is 28)
If it’s not the source, it’s the technology that draws us in – the digital astonishing us, just like the stupid masses Baudelaire so roundly berated in his 1859 salon.
So – good sound art – this piece, ‘Modell 5.6’, is multimedia, but addresses what it means to be multimedia, a multiformalism maybe. It is also noise in its multi-ness… which is the source here – image-sound; is there a base track? Etc. Really what makes this something more interesting is its use of what has gone before, its restless appropriation of a lot of old tricks getting us over content and technique. It is not polite, clever, ‘conceptual’, interesting in ways you hadn‘t thought of before, and it isn’t music that could have gone somewhere else had it been better.