Talk given at European Philosophy and the Human Condition, University College Cork, September 2002.

Natural Sound and Human Existing

On the one hand, we demand an expression of th[e] regularity [of the beat] as such so that this action can come to the individual’s apprehension ina way itself subjective, and on the other hand we desire an interest less empty than this uniformity. Both are afforded by a musical accompaniment. It is thus that music accompanies the march of troops; this attunes the mind to the regularity of the step, immerses the individual in the business of marching, and concentrates his mind on what he has to do. For the same sort of reason, the disorderly restlessness of a lot of people in a restaurant and the unsatisfying excitement it causes is burdensome; this walking to and fro, this clattering and chattering should be regulated, and since in the intervals of eating and drinking we have to do with empty time, this emptiness should be filled. This is an occasion, like so many others, when music comes to the rescue and in addition wards off other thoughts, distractions, and ideas. (Hegel, Aesthetics, 907)

Noise has a history. Noise occurs not in isolation, but in a differential relation to society, to sound, and to music. Against the backdrop of Enlightenment, and then Romantic notions of music and its place, modernist thought about music tries to branch out, to address the world of sound and human interaction with and/or construction, of that world. The first key moment occurs with futurism. Marinetti, the leader of the movement, had already introduced the notion of ‘sound poetry’, but it is Russolo’s The Art of Noises that provides the theorisation of futurist ideas on sound. According to Russolo, ‘ancient life was all silence. In the 19th century, with the invention of machines, Noise was born’ (23). Mel Gordon glosses this claim with the statement that ‘the cacophony of sounds in the 19th century street, factory, shop and mine – seemingly random and meaningless – could not be easily isolated and identified’ (Wireless Imagination, 197). So instead of silence being the pre-modern state, we have a soundworld based on recognition and incorporation. As John Cage ‘discovered’, there is no such thing as silence, even when all sound seems to be removed.
In fact, the next canonical moment in the thought of noise is silence, and Cage’s piece 4’33", inspired by a visit to an anechoic chamber. In this ostensibly soundless room, he still heard something. He was informed that what he was hearing was ‘the nerve’s [sic] operation, blood’s circulation’ (Silence, 13). From this to the ‘silent’ piece, where the audience’s attention is drawn to all the other sounds to be heard in a concert hall (many of which are from outside the room). The world, then is revealed as infinitely musical: musicality is about our attentiveness to the sounds of the world. This returns us to a Platonic conception of the universe: the forms of all things are there – we just create versions of them. In the case of music’s relation to noise, Russolo and composers such as Satie and Varèse, sought to bring this broadened musicality of the world into music. The futurists invented a range of machines that would make popping, hissing, crackling sounds – and these would be mobilised into compositions. As well as the presumption of finding sounds and music inherent to the universe, we also have the question of ‘material’: the world would be a source of music when harnessed in some way, a ‘material for’ in order to be material. Can music be immanent? Music cannot just be out there, as it implies human organisation. But just because that has been the view does not mean it has to stay the case. It would seem that music has to at least pass through agency, if only historically, for there to be, as there is in certain forms of contemporary Japanese noise music, a sense of such an immanence.
Whilst the non-immanence of music might seem to be given, how far can we say sound or noise is ‘for itself’, a something in the world? Even the place of sound has to be historicised, for while the world was not silent until the mid 19th century, other than in its ‘musical’ aspects such as water running, or birdsong, nature was at least quiet. Urbanisation is one factor in the coming of noise: firstly at the obvious level of there being more people, machines, vehicles and so on. But with population comes a concentration of wealth, in the proto-capitalist 16th to 18th centuries. This, combined with a growing concentration of lower classes brings the phenomenon of street music and performance. Early noise abatement legislation (i.e. from that period) targets street criers and street music. R.Murray Schafer writes that the perception, which heightens in the 19th century, is that ‘the street had now becomes the home of non-music, where it mixed with other kinds of soundswill and sewage’ (‘Music, Non-music and the Soundscape’, 36). Jacques Attali adds, in his book Noise, that this is the period where the threat of those without power was crystallizing in the spaces of the city, and their culture was increasingly deemed ‘noisy’. So what we think of as perhaps inherent to an idea of noise – its unwantedness, comes initially, and over a long period of time, with an undesirability that goes beyond the auditive unpleasantness of certain sounds.
This situation is of course exacerbated in the 19th century industrialising city – machines add a layer of volume and continuity to unwanted sound. With mechanisation, the perception of noise widens, as it is not the landowners who are going to be living in or next to the factory, but in any case, the sounds of industry are associated with the ‘noisier’ working class, and retain their status as unwanted because low, because not acceptably hierarchised into the forms of ‘high’ music.
For Schafer it is not just class and hierarchies that count – it is the division of space, and, importantly in the history of thinking about sound, the enclosure of space that has a huge bearing on what is thought of as noisy. He argues that there is a transition to ‘indoor living’, especially where the upper classes are concerned, notably with the development of plate glass for windows in the late 17th century. At this point, ‘high’ music is private – taking place in people’s houses. This is the basis for the modern concert halls, where people are to attend to the music generated from a given spot within that space, and nothing else. They are certainly not to be allowed to make noises themselves, except at conventionally agreed moments – e.g. to applaud at the end. But what’s on the outside? Now more than ever, there is a sense of sounds not generated by someone or something else, outside, being intrusive, unwanted. Music heightens the separation of the world into desired, organised sounds, and unwanted noise. For hegel, ‘music acqires an especially architectonic character because, freed from expressing emotion, it constructs on its own account, with a wealth of invention, a musically regular building of sound’ (Aesthetics, 894). What goes on at the speculative level has its corollary in the world of class, of private and public. Schafer writes that ‘with indoor living, two things developed antonymously: the high art of music and noise pollution – for noises were the sounds that were kept outside’ (35). The status of Western art music depends on this excluded other – and even doubles this exclusion when substituting its attempts at representing nature or specific sounds within it.
Noise and music were not always so separate. According to Attali, after Nietzsche, music was not autonomous, even in the west, until the early modern period. Even in Greek society, music and sound were part of a whole, part of a general sacrificial economy: although the sacrifice brought the threat of the divine, it was part of the process of the sacred, without which there is no sacred (at least in the terms laid out by Georges Bataille). For Attali, the development of music, and even that it develops (over history, over time) is part of a continual creation of an outside, where noise is disorder:
Primordially the production of music has as its function the creation, legitimation and maintenance of order. Its primary function is not to be sought in aesthetics, which is a modern invention, but in the effectiveness of its participation in social regulation. Music – pleasure in the spectacle of murder, organiser of the simulacrum masked beneath festival and transgression – creates order. (Noise, 30)
When music is central to ritual, to sanctioned transgression, it is effectively not music: it is the noise that will gradually, progressively be excised in the same way that, for Bataille, we remove cemeteries and abattoirs out of town. But that which music excludes can come back: Artaud uses the plague as a metaphor for theatre, for how a sacrificial, mobile, unwanted form of theatre would operate. According to Attali, noise is returning, in the form of the omnipresence of purposeful muzak and advertising: this is the price for excluding certain practices as noise. I will be claiming that there is another form of noise, a type of noise music that plays on the moving boundary between sound/noise/music as it plays on the moving boundary between nature/culture, human/inhuman, willed/unwilled etc…

Within aesthetics, the tradition has it that the beautiful is so, in different ways, because of its link/reference/belonging to nature. For Kant, music can be pure or ‘free beauty’ (Critique, 66), but nature will always offer a better version. Music always runs the risk of being as if it were natural, either through imitation, which is cheating (145), of being ‘solely [as] a pleasant noise’ (148), or too intrusive. On religious singing, Kant has the following to say: ‘those who recommend the singing of spiritual songs at family prayers do not consider that they inflict a great hardship upon the public by such noisy and (therefore in general pharisaical) devotions’ (174-5). This neatly brings together the dual problematic of a society removing its sacred and the unwantedness of noise. Excessive celebration is out because it offends ‘the public’, the protestant, privatising, proto-secular public. Whilst nature is good to society’s bad, or lowering of nature, perhaps we should ask where exactly the boundary of nature and culture is. Nowadays we might talk of a sound environment or even a sound ecology, but even when Kant writes what he is in favour of is the unlimitedness of birdsong, for example (80) – the fact of its not being controlled. Maybe we should see the loud singing by someone else as an internalised nature/culture divide. Even if this new ‘nature’ is largely deemed offensive, it is closer for the listener to nature.
This brings us back to the 20th century: for Russolo, the industrial world was humanity’s environment – as we would always be interacting with our surroundings, we should regard those as our environment, and treat any sounds emanating from it in the same way. Attali, too, insists that ‘life is full of noise and […] death alone is silent: work noise, noise of man, noise of beast’ (Noise, 3). Cage: ‘wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise’ (Silence, 3).
When we combine Enlightenment views of nature versus culture and 20th century thought on noise, we encounter something we’re very familiar with by now: the notion that Nature is a product of culture: the product that acquires a real status, often higher than culture, setting up a process of mutual legitimation, as now Nature justifies cultural practices, or even all of Nature. Noise threatens this divide, as Adorno illustrates, unwittingly in Aesthetic Theory. Here he complains about aeroplane noise ruining walks in the forest (311): but what is being ruined is precisely that acculturated form of nature that forgets, endlessly, its acculturatedness. Whilst ostensibly it is a human noise disrupting the tranquillity of the forest, what is actually being disturbed is the walk, a cultural phenomenon, with its human demand for calmness, with its foreknowledge of just how much nature you’re going to get.

Certain sounds within nature are deemed musical – in Rousseau, even early human communication falls into this, but they are separated off just as surely as any other noise by virtue of not being humanly structured. The music of Aube represents one way around this set of problems, in that it poses the question of what might count as music, in terms of naturalness, faithfulness to nature and human intervention. Each album consists exclusively of one sound source (from the sounds of nerves in the brain to water, to the pages of the bible being torn, to metal….), which is then heavily processed and turned into sound ‘pieces’. The sounds have something musical about them (sometimes rhythm, sometimes a form of tonal progression), but tend not to settle into that, and in any case, do not consist of the narrow range of tones Western music identifies as notes.
It is a common argument that noises can be soothing, due to our experience in the womb, and also our early pre-linguistic time. The experience of sound immerses us in our environment (it is often claimed). John Shepherd writes that ‘while a sound may have a discrete material source […] it is experienced as a phenomenon that encompasses and touches the listener in a cocoon-like fashion’ (‘Music as Cultural Text’, 147); for Richard Leppert, ‘sound, by its enveloping character, brings us closer to everything alive’ (The Place of Music, 305). Aube’s sounds often recall this immerisve, soothing quality, but ironically distort the source so that it is not as nature would have it. Often his processing of non-natural sounds might lead to something that sounds ‘more natural’. In Quadrotation we see four different sources set up against one another. They are: steel, blood, fluorescent and glow-lamp, water. This suggestion of a new ‘four elements’ that would cross many traditional categories offers a way of approaching the divides outlined above. It also poses itself as a rhizomatic formation, a body without organs, without body: anyone’s body because no-one’s.
The body without organs strains under the weight of sound: Deleuze and Guattari stitch up a masochist body, but leave its ears open. This, though, has the effect of leaving it able to hear commands, to know the world outside it, to have a world outside it. But what if we fill the ear with noise – better still, vibrate the entire body: this ear begins to fail as organ, exceeded, and becomes an organ without a body without organs, rejoining a state of noise. Unlike the D + G model, we might not want to rejoin such a model. Perhaps Aube sanitises this becoming-noise, recuperating noise in some sort of will to hear. Alternatively, the pattern, the crossing from one noise to another, whilst insisting on each noise’s (lost) identity – i.e. one sound source per recording. So is Aube telling us something, revealing something about the soundworld? About the human world?
The organ without the body without organs tells us not of masochism but of being the victim in a Sadean world – there is no contract. This body is the one identified by Giorgio Agamben as ‘homo sacer’ – the human that can be killed, but not sacrificed. Roman power excludes ‘bare life’ – merely living, in order to bring it back in as that which is utterly subject to law:
The sacredness of life, which is invoked today as an absolutely fundamental right in opposition to sovereign power, in fact originally expresses precisely both life’s subjection to a power over death and life’s irreparable exposure in the relation of abandonment. (Homo Sacer, 83).
Noise does not just indicate something about this – it is the precondition of hierarchies of meaning (in systems of language), of power, truth and the slowly becoming inviolable Subject that noise be excluded. Once excluded, it is held outside, its possibility of return the organising threat of society. The exclusion of noise is part of the expulsion of the sacred: ‘the West’s modernity is the removal of all that is other: death, sacrifice, transgression, exchange other than mercantile. We are progressively [sic] returned to a condition of bare living.
Aube and other noise music does not show or get beyond this. Instead it is in it – that is the radicality of a noise music – it is of the line. Technology lies behind contemporary noise, and also the increasing bareness of possible life (life support machines, genetic advances and so on). Noise is a given in industrialised cities – wherever you might be in the world. A conscious use of noise – or openness to sound or noise (the Japanese for music is ‘ongaku’ – the enjoyment of sounds according to Schafer) offers an alternative – but only a partial, fleeting answer, as its noisiness is incorporated and read as if it were not noise. Its use of the immersion seen as natural (being part of a ‘sonoric landscape’ (Leppert)) relies on noise, on unsettling the accommodation with the sounds beyond the wall of the Subject.