Sense, Nonsense, and Noise Music, de Noah Jerge

foto credit Andrei Santea

foto credit Andrei Santea

The terms “sense” and “nonsense” have broad application in a wide variety of human experiences, but one realm in which they have particular salience is that of sound.  Sounds are built up, ordered, and regulated.  From this, meaningful organizations, such as language and music, can be created.  We become accustomed to the sounds that we are surrounded with, and readily associate certain sounds with their sources.  Regularly hearing certain sounds and expecting to derive certain meanings from them results in our hardly noticing the actual attributes of the sounds themselves.  We hear the plane that passes overhead, not a low droning sound in the sky.  But just as sounds are organized in ways that make sense, they can just as easily become nonsense.  The full range of nonsensical sounds can be placed under a single heading: noise.  Noise is the radio static that becomes obtrusive as it prevents you from listening to the music you want to.  It is the loud revving of a neighbor’s car that distracts you from focusing on a book.  In both of these cases, the introduction of a new sound obscured or altered the meaning of the sound environment that you assumed you were in.  Noises interrupt the sounds that carry meaning for us.  But there is one area in which this clean distinction between ordered sound and noise, between sense and nonsense, becomes blurred.  This is in the obscure genre known as “noise music.”  The name simultaneously suggests the nonsense of noise and the culturally-rich organization of music.  But does noise music make nonsense (noise) out of sense (music), or does it give meaningful musicality to the sonic nonsense that populates the usually unpleasant peripheries of acoustic experience?  Or, might it do both?

            Historically speaking, noise music developed out of various avant garde art movements of the twentieth century.  One of the first to experiment with the idea of “noise music” was the Futurist composer, Luigi Russolo, who sought to develop an “art of noises” that would revolutionize music out of the constraining weight of tradition by creating mechanical creaks and drones with large machine-instruments.  Dadaists such as Hugo Ball recited nonsensical sound poems of made-up, meaningless words as a way to embrace chaos and spontaneity in an effort to challenge the ascendent rationality that they saw as precipitating the destruction of the first World War.  Later in the century, John Cage’s experimental compositions played with audience expectations by subverting their attention towards the ambient sounds of the performance space.  From these and other early foundations in the avant garde, noise music has developed into a distinct genre in recent decades, with artists who “play” noise deriving inspiration from a wide variety of sources.  Those with a more conceptual grounding for their work might look to sound art for inspiration, while others embrace the harsh and confrontational possibilities of noise to push musical extremes to their limits.  Today, noise music can be found all over the world, with particularly vibrant scenes in Japan, the United States, and Finland.

In its current usage, however, the category of “noise music” has broad application over several distinct, yet sonically and culturally related genres of music.  These genres span (and often move between) categorizations of experimental and extreme modes of musical expression.  Genres that can be generally placed under the broad umbrella of noise music include, but are not limited to: harsh noise, harsh noise wall, power electronics, noisecore, and even some field recordings.  In addition to this, noise itself can be included within other styles of music either as a byproduct of production (raw recording methods) or by deliberate inclusion (incorporating elements of noise music into more traditional compositions).  As might be expected with the wide applicability of the categorization, there is significant diversity among the artists and musicians who create noise music.  In Japan, Masami Akita, the man behind what is arguably the most famous noise project, Merzbow, produces albums that are often constituted by harsh waves of crisp static.  Hal Hutchinson from Britain, meanwhile, employs scraps of metal and recordings of factory and construction equipment in order to produce cacophonous assemblages of crashing scrapes, bangs, and screeches.  In several of his works, the American Keith Brewer pairs piercing synthesizer blares with scrap metal, creating menacing sound environments.  These artists represent only a small fraction of the great sonic diversity that can be found in the world of noise music, but together present an interesting cross-section of it.

But what, exactly, is noise, and how might noise itself be different from noise music?  Two people who have thought about this issue are the music theorist Paul Hegarty, and the noise musician and conceptual artist James Whitehead (also known as Jliat).  Hegarty understands noise as a historically contingent phenomenon that arises only as a negative opposition to socially established orderings of sound.  Whitehead, on the other hand, envisions noise as echoing a fundamental chaos and disorder at the basis of reality, and writes that it cannot be understood unless domesticated into a conceptual framework.  While they might have different perspectives on what the particular relationship between noise and organized sound is, both Hegarty and Whitehead position noise itself as the ultimate antithesis (nonsense) to the ways of organizing sound that we use and understand in everyday life (the sounds that make sense).

In his book, Noise/Music: A History, Hegarty claims that “noise is not an objective fact.”1  By this, he means that there is no such thing as an “objectively noisy” sound.  Rather, the recognition of certain sounds as noise occurs, claims Hegarty, because of particular personal, historical, and cultural judgements about certain sounds.  A particular sound is judged to be a “noise” when it makes an imposition upon the listener that upsets the organization of sounds that they expected to be situated within.  For example, a loud movie playing on large speakers might be an anticipated and enjoyable aspect of the viewing experience for the person who is watching it.  Yet, the same movie can simultaneously be unbearably noisey for the next door neighbor, who wants nothing more than quiet so that they could sleep or study.  Therefore, if noise is understood to be the opposite of accepted orders of sounds, as Hegarty claims, then noise does not exist as an independent, self-contained unit of experience.  Rather, it exists “only in relation to what it is not.”2  There must first be an order, a context, and only in opposition to this can noise come to be.  There is only nonsense after there is sense.

Whitehead, however, sees the world differently.  Following Ray Brassier, Whitehead believes that human beings come to understand the world that they inhabit by establishing systems of meaning, and that there would be no sense to anything without the imposition of such a system. This is important because the world, he thinks, is totally chaotic and meaningless in itself.  He quotes Nietzsche: “The total character of the world, however, is in all eternity chaos… a lack of order, arrangement, form, beauty, wisdom, and whatever other names there are for our aesthetic anthropomorphisms.”3  The world is inherently nonsensical, and will only become sensible when we force it to be so.  According to Whitehead, when he first encountered contemporary noise music (in the form of the projects Merzbow and The Rita), he “didn’t ‘get’ noise.”4  While he could come to understandings of the disparate meanings and purposes of other sorts of extreme music and avant garde artistic experimentations (punk, industrial music, absurd theatre, and so on), he was unable to grasp just what noise is.  He felt this way until he had a realization: that in noise music “there was no skill, no music, no message.”5  Anyone could make it.  No content is being communicated in the sounds of noise itself — despite the protestations of some artists and fans alike.

Therefore, Whitehead argues that “noise at its extremes escapes the human condition altogether.”6  Human beings, he claims, orient themselves in their world in terms of an understanding of experience that is inherited from other people, family, cultural values, and so on.  Thus, sounds are made understandable when they are subsumed into a “language game,” or a “set of rules that the users of the language communicate to each other with.”7  Collectively, we establish that certain sounds represent and convey certain meanings.  The same is true, thinks Whitehead, of both noise and music.  The constituent parts of any piece of music are (in the end) various noises that have been organized in some way.  But this organization transforms noise because, when it occurs, particular noises are “recognized” as music.8  They are re-cognized: perceived again in a new way and under new rules so that they fulfill the socially-established criteria for being music.  While disorganized noise needs to be altered in order to become understandable as music (or language, or as recognizable sounds-of things, and so on), such noise also “destroys the coherence of the language game” by being unable to communicate any information when presented in this pure state — it “is not communication, [it] is not a language game but just phenomena.”9  Noise, in his view, actually mirrors the basic state of reality.  Hence, while Hegarty maintains that noise must be judged to be noise from the perspective of a context of meaning, Whitehead asserts that sounds can only become meaningful when recognized as such out of a mass of disordered noise.  For Whitehead, it is sense, not nonsense that is created.

Both Hegarty and Whitehead present intriguing views of the nature of noise and human reality.  Though they disagree in some areas, their point of agreement is far more significant.  They each situate noise as something that stands in opposition to established orderings of sounds.  Whether noise only arises out of intrusions into pre-established systems of sense or it is sense that arises from the primordial chaos of cosmic noisiness, noise itself always stands as the opposite of any system, context, or ordering of sounds.  This raises an important question.  Is noise and noise music something that one can really talk about if it stands in such stark opposition to meaningfulness?

According to Kevin Matthew Jones, author of the essay “Talking About Noise: The Limits of Language,” we actually might not be able to put the experience of listening to noise music into words.  Jones makes these comments while reflecting about a time that he went to a curated music festival that featured, in addition to more mainstream rock bands, noise music acts such as Britain’s The New Blockaders.  For him, attempting to describe their performance “was like a brick wall, relying upon descriptive language and perhaps some remarks about an artist’s intention.”10  Each time he tried, he realized that he could accomplish little in the way of communicating his subjective experience of listening to noise music, as he felt that it “defies the kind of objectification that is implicit when discussing art.”11  All he found himself capable of saying (and even remembering after the fact) were some technical details about the performance (the ways they scraped pieces of metal, and so on) or snippets of post-performance debates about the validity of noise music as an art form, but nothing at all about his emotions or how the sounds made him feel.  Because of this, he ultimately concludes that the readers of his essay should just go and listen to some noise music for themselves.

Why might this be?  In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger points out that “what we ‘first’ hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle.”12 Additionally, Heidegger thinks that it requires “a very artificial and complicated frame of mind” in order to even hear a “pure noise.”13  While we can take a step back and begin to pay attention to the particular attributes of the sound that we are hearing, our minds more readily take the noises of everyday life as the sounds-of something.  For instance, when we hear chirping coming from outside a window, we do not first analyze the sound, compare it with past experience, and then place it in the way that we think is most appropriate.  Rather, we immediately hear it as the sound of a bird singing.  But this way of experiencing sounds requires that we are located in our everyday environment where our mental associations of sounds and their sources are applicable and often correct.  In these places, sounds make sense to us.

Things are different, however, in the case of noise music, where the sounds that we encounter, though they might be sonically similar to anything from the movements of factory machinery to radio static, are removed from this everyday associative context.  Re-presented as art and music, these noises are suddenly divorced from the expectations that they are usually laden with.  The sounds, the noises, have become nonsensical.  Listeners, consequently, are left to either pay attention with an “artificial and complicated frame of mind,” or, at very least, to simply let this unusual experience be, without recourse to their everyday sense of what sounds mean.  This might be why Jones found his experience with noise music so difficult to describe. 

Something else that is noteworthy about Jones’ discussion, however, was that it was in reference to a live performance of noise music, where he could actually see how the musicians created the sounds of their compositions.  He could watch as The New Blockaders picked up a microphone and scraped it over pieces of scrap to produce shrieks.  At least there is the spectacle of sound production to ground oneself upon and find some meaning in.  But not all noise music is performed live, and much is produced, bought, and sold as recordings on cassette tapes, compact discs, and even vinyl records.  It would seem that in many cases, these recordings would deprive the listener of the ability to look to live performers as a basis for some sort of normal expectations for sound, truly leaving them with nothing but the sounds themselves.

It might appear, then, that noise music only serves to degrade once-meaningful sounds into nonsense, but, in most cases, this is not true.  Even though much noise music could be described as being nothing but nonsense sounds from the perspective of our everyday sound environment, the way that noises are presented by the artists who compile them imbue the sounds with new senses and meanings.  While there are some noise musicians who make a conceptual effort to confront listeners with meaningless or nonsensical sounds (Whitehead points to the French project Vomir as an example of this), most artists make a concerted effort to associate the sounds they make with (often highly evocative or provocative) thematic content. 

One particularly interesting example of this can be found in the 2010 cassette release Insidious and Alone by Keith Brewer’s longtime noise project Mania.14  If the noises present on this album are taken in isolation from the thematic content that accompanies them (the album art, the name of the album, and even the name of his project), then they can be described in the same minimal way that Jones could talk about his experience of seeing The New Blockaders perform live.  By solely listening, one can say that Brewer’s album is largely based around various synthesizer tones, scraping pieces of metal, and a heavily distorted human voice.  But whereas Jones could at least see the performance in front of him, a listener to Brewer’s composition cannot tell from listening exactly how the sounds are produced.  Is the metal strewn about violently to make the clangs and scrapes that are heard on the tape, or are all of the sounds carefully and calmly orchestrated?

If the noise music is heard in isolation, you really cannot say for sure.  It might seem, then, that this noise is truly nonsense.  However, Brewer did not present the sounds in isolation.  Rather, he deliberately released his album with accompanying artwork, and he gave it a name.  Together, these sources of meaning lend a concrete sense to the noises that they appear alongside.  If someone was to hear this album for the first time and without context, they would likely ask “What am I listening to?”  Naturally, one of the very first things that they might do in order to begin answering their question would be to look at the album cover.  They would be confronted with a collage depicting a gun-toting and bearded man superimposed over the interior of a cabin.  Surrounding him is a collage of fragmentary anatomical images and pictures of grimy scrap metal.  Looking further, this listener would find the hastily handwritten name of the project: Mania.  In the interior of the J-card, they would be confronted with similar imagery and a further handwritten note bearing the name of the album: Insidious and Alone.  The sounds now seem to transport one into the mind of the hermit depicted on the cover.  The scraping metal becomes the noise he makes as he traverses through the trash and mess of his backcountry hovel.  The names of the project and album inform the listener that this is not just some eccentric backwoodsman, but a maniac whose isolation is only making him more dangerous.  Suddenly, what first seemed like nonsense begins to take on meaning and sense.

            While there is a significant portion of noise music that tends to dwell in similarly dark subject matter to Brewer’s Mania, much of it does not.  However, the disturbing thematic content of Insidious and Alone does serve as a good example for talking about noise music more generally.  It should be expected, and is perhaps even fitting, that those who are interested in composing noise music might simultaneously have interests in other areas that mirror the sonic extremity of the noises that they produce.  Noise music is a strange thing, and so are many of the people that make it.

Additionally, though, this album and others like it show that we might have to expand our notions of what “sense” and “nonsense” mean in general.  While noise music might be just sonic nonsense from the perspective of the everyday view of the world, it can and does make sense when it is experienced and presented in the right way.  It shows that our notions of what does and does not make sense are based upon an accumulation of past experiences, expectations, and associations that build up a world of meaning.  But even small changes to our experience (such as subverting the usual meanings and associations of sounds) can transport us between worlds of meaning.  Noise music takes sounds out of their everyday context.  It makes sounds into nonsense.  But it can, at the same time, re-present them to us so that we are pushed out of our everyday world of meaning into diverse perspectives.  In a literal way, noise music “makes sense” because it grants artists and listeners the opportunity to build up and enter a new world of meaning through the arrangement of sound.

Endnotes

  1. Paul Hegarty, Noise/Music: A History (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), 3.
  2. Hegarty, Noise/Music, 5.
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), §109.
  4. James Whitehead, “An idiots guide to noise” [sic], http://www.jliat.com/txts/Anidiotsguidetonoise.pdf, 1.
  5. Whitehead, “An idiots guide to noise,” 2.
  6. Whitehead, “An idiots guide to noise,” 6.
  7. Whitehead, “An idiots guide to noise,” 8.
  8. Whitehead, “An idiots guide to noise,” 6.
  9. Whitehead, “An idiots guide to noise,” 9, 10.
  10. Kevin Matthew Jones, “Talking About Noise: The Limits of Language.” In Fight Your Own War: Power Electronics and Noise Culture, ed. Jennifer Wallis (London: Headpress, 2016), 238.
  11. Jones, “Talking About Noise,” 238.
  12. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008), 163. (German pagination)
  13. Heidegger, Being and Time, 164.
  14. Information about this release including pictures of the artwork, release information, and a link to listen to it online can be found here: https://www.discogs.com/Mania-Insidious-And-Alone/release/2181851

References

Hegarty, Paul. Noise/Music: A History. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2007.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New

York: Harper Perennial Modern Thought, 2008.

Jones, Kevin Matthew. “Talking About Noise: The Limits of Language.” In Fight Your Own

War: Power Electronics and Noise Culture, edited by Jennifer Wallis, 235-39. London: Headpress, 2016.

Whitehead, James. “An idiots guide to noise.”

http://www.jliat.com/txts/Anidiotsguidetonoise.pdf.