Musical noise? or noisy music?

by Dave Maier

In a previous post I considered and rejected the idea that music and noise (= non-musical sound art) are entirely incompatible – that noise is the very negation of musical meaning. This left open the question of how these things might co-exist – or, turning the question around, how composers might make use of both resources in the same composition. Today I revisit that issue. If you've heard the podcasts I've posted here, you know what sort of compositions I'm talking about, even if I haven't been able to explain how or why they work. If you want to skip the theoretical blather and check out another fab mix (a bit noisier than usual this time), scroll down now.

Hamilton bookIn his book Aesthetics & Music, philosopher Andy Hamilton seems to position himself to answer this question, but then skirts it, on the way to what he takes to be more important questions which we will not discuss here. However, that he does even this much is interesting, given most philosophers' attitudes toward music, so let's take a look. The context is the traditional philosophical question of what music is. It's clearly an art of sound in some sense, but what makes a sound musical and/or artistic? According to Hamilton, the traditional assumption (“universalism”) that music is the only art of sound has gone together with another assumption “that music exploits as material a particular range of sounds, namely tones” (45). As music has “embraced more noise elements,” he says, these two assumptions have come apart. This allows a variety of positions on the matter. We might, for example, keep the former stipulation, but expand the range of “music” to accommodate the new forms it may now take (i.e. after a century of experimentation).

Hamilton, however, goes the other route: “[P]aradoxically, the tonal basis of music has been clarified by the rejection of instrumental puritanism. Thus I reassert that music is the art of tones, while rejecting universalism and recognizing an emergent non-musical sound art which takes non-tonal sounds as its material.” In support of this, he insists that the fact that any sounds can be incorporated into music doesn't mean that any sounds can constitute music. Music, he says, is on a continuum with non-musical sound art; which something is depends on which type of sound is “predominant”. However, “this distinction is not in any way evaluative and is not intended to mark any great metaphysical divide.”

Well, I'm glad to hear that, I suppose, but now I wonder what exactly we're supposed to take away from it. In the context, it seems like he's simply making whatever concessions he needs to make to recent musical/sound-artistic history in order to continue with his story about music as the art of tone. But that gray area between tone and noise is where I live, or at least hang out a lot, so that's what I want to hear about. It's not just a theoretical exception to be swept under the rug. How does this stuff work?

I wouldn't have mentioned Hamilton at all if that's all he said. After all, at least he thinks there is another form of sound art besides music (that is, that one can make sound art without composing with tones). In particular, he considers sound artist Francisco López's “acousmatic” conception of sound art, according to which we hear sound aesthetically only when we disregard its origin and consider it “absolutely”. As we saw last time, López pleads with his sonic-documentarian opponents (e.g. “acoustic ecologists” like composer R. Murray Schafer) to be allowed “the freedom of a painter” when creating sound art, and use sound only for its intrinsic sound and not for its external meanings.

Scruton bookIronically, that “acousmatic” conception of sound art is exactly what people appeal to when they want to dismiss the very idea of non-musical sound art. Philosopher Roger Scruton, for example, equates considering sound “absolutely,” independently of its physical origin, with considering it as tone, and thus as music traditionally construed. Scruton's views on music, as laid out in his 1999 book The Aesthetics of Music and other works, are intimately related to his idealistic metaphysics (and Tory hand-wringing on the Decline of Western Culture), and deserve a few posts of their own. For now let's just see him as López's partner in sonic-metaphysical purism, in the context of Hamilton's rejection of the “acousmatic” characterization of sound art (as well as a rather simplistic “acoustic” theory) in favor of an “aesthetic” one whose details are again beyond our scope.

Essential to hearing sound “aesthetically,” for Hamilton, again, is attending to which of its “elements” “predominate”; and this, again, is where he leaves us – just when things were getting interesting. So let's push it a little further. How should we think of this compositional “continuum” between music and non-musical sound art, or noise? How can we tell where a particular work falls? Here we might consider how much sense it would make to arrange the work in question for, say, string orchestra. For López's La Selva, or anything else at the noise/field recording end of the spectrum, this makes no sense at all; but at the other end, if our aesthetic interest in a range of sounds lies in the tones they represent, then we can “re-present” those tones differently, sometimes with interesting results.

So far this is pretty obvious. The “orchestrator” of La Selva clearly wouldn't know where to begin, and plenty of mainstream classical works exist in multiple arrangements. Still, I can't resist sharing a remarkable passage I just ran into while reading science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson's recent 2312, which well describes the sort of specifically musical (that is, tonal-compositional) interest an alternate arrangement of a familiar work can have:

Wahram looked up the program for the performance they were to attend, and was excited to see it was a triple bill of rarely played transcriptions: first a wind ensemble playing a transcription of the Appassionata piano sonata; then Beethoven's opus 134, which was his own transcription for two pianos of his Grosse Fuge for string quartet, opus 133. Lastly a string quartet was to play a transcription of their own for the Hammerklavier sonata.

Brilliant programming, Wahram felt […]

The wind ensemble […] rollicked its way through the finale of the Appassionata in a way that made it one of the greatest wind pieces Wahram had ever heard, fast to the point of effervescence. The transcription to winds made it a new thing in the same way that Ravel had made Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition a new thing.

When they were done, two pianists got up, and sitting at grand pianos snuggled into each other like sleeping cats, they played Beethoven's own opus 134, his transcription of his Grosse Fuge. They had to pound away like percussionists, simply hammering the keys. More clearly than ever Wahram heard the intricate weave of the big fugue, also the crazy energy of the thing, the maniacal vision of a crushing clockwork. The sharp attack of struck piano keys gave the piece a clarity and violence that strings with the best will and technique in the world could not achieve. Wonderful.

Then some other transcriber had gone in the opposite direction, arranging the Hammerklavier sonata for string quartet. Here, even though four instruments were now playing a piece written for one, it was still a challenge to convey the Hammerklavier's intensity. Broken out among two violins, viola, and cello, it all unpacked beautifully: the magnificent anger of the first movement; the aching beauty of the slow movement, one of Beethoven's finest; and then the finale, another big fugue. It all sounded very like the late quartets to Wahram's ear—thus a new late quartet, by God! It was tremendous to hear.

EnoBack at the other end of the spectrum, once we have some tonal elements (as La Selva has none), we at least have the conceptual possibility of re-arranging them for performance. Yet most of the time this will clearly be aesthetically pointless. An interesting example for debate is Brian Eno's pioneering work of ambient music, Music for Airports, which existed for a long time in recorded form only. Yet it – its (fairly minimal) tonal material, anyway – has been rearranged and rerecorded as if it were a normal work of music. Whether the result sounds to you like a new performance of the same thing, or on the other hand a different work entirely, will depend on how you think of compositions of this sort. Yet even Wahram speaks in the purely tonal case of the new arrangement's “ma[king] a new thing”.

In any case, the new Music for Airports is dependent entirely on the arranger's idiosyncratic construal of what “ambient music” is, and we shouldn't expect new versions of, say, Thomas Köner's Permafrost any more than rearrangements of La Selva. The toughest cases to understand (that is, as intermediate in the way Hamilton suggests) are those in which tonal aspects or “elements” are more clearly present and/or potentially detachable, and here is where the “acousmatic” purism of Scruton and López leaves us with nothing we can use.

Scruton argues that when we move from attending to merely referential sound to active listening to its aesthetic properties, we abstract away from the reality of physical sound to the ideal realm of musical tone. This leaves no conceptual room for a non-musical art of sound: necessarily, the sole art of sound is music, the art of tone. Scruton takes the idea of a continuum between music and non-music, if there is one, to be one between musical art properly pursued as the art of tone and a devolution of same into anarchy or ear candy. (In this sense he would seemingly agree with Nick Smith that noise is the antithesis of musical order, making them the compositional analogues of oil and water rather than potentially complementary elements.)

Consider the (actual) recording of orchestral performances of Vangelis's electronic music. The idea, presumably, is to free Vangelis's music (i.e. its tones) from its unfortunate synthetic clothing and play it on “real instruments,” thus elevating it to the level of classical music. The result is predictably horrible, ripping those tonal patterns out of the only context in which they make any aesthetic sense (as if Vangelis were trying to write bad orchestral music, but was unfortunately forced to settle for synthetic instruments instead). Naturally Scruton agrees with my negative verdict (“Such music prompts that peculiar 'yuk' feeling, the sense of being contaminated, which sends spasms of recoil through the body”) – but his concurring opinion refers not to orchestral abominations but to Vangelis's work generally, which he is unable to hear in any other way.

I do admit that Vangelis in particular is an impossibly tough listen for most people without proper ear training of the sort Scruton will never have (and that the Chariots of Fire theme is uncharacteristically awful). But that's why Vangelis is a good example for us: if you can't tell why he's good (when he is) while Yanni is wretched in just that way (“yuk”), then that shows something about how you listen to electronic music.

Oops, we're out of time. Let's hear some sound!

1. Yannick Dauby – a stairwell in taipei, 24.08.2004

Yannick Dauby's work is mostly on the field recording side, like this piece from the seventh phonography.org anthology, but he also has a wonderful collaboration with ambient artist Alio Die which is one of my favorite things.

2. Matt Shoemaker – … [track 3] (from Spots in the Sun)

I'm a big fan of this guy, whose work ranges from overlaid field recordings in the F. López vein to full-on noise assaults. This is probably my favorite of his discs, on the excellent Helen Scarsdale Agency label. Check out an interview with him here.

3. Neina – diffraction (from formed verse)

NeinaNeina is mainly Sakana Hosomi (w/Masaki Narita on this track). These two also record as Maju, whose excellent discs on the Extreme label are more ambient, featuring wonderfully understated melody and lovely delicate glitchyness. Neina is also glitchy, as one might expect from a release on the Mille Plateaux label (home of Oval), but also harsher and noisier. The digital distortion on this track is particularly bracing, and I had a hard time with this disc at first, but the subtle compositions finally won me over.

5. Celer/Mathieu Ruhlmann – First Night in Complete Darkness (from mesoscaphe)

That's a guess as to the section we're hearing here, as there are several titles listed for this one track, which is from a beautifully packaged disc on the Spekk label. According to the liner notes, the Mesoscaphe (later named the Ben Franklin) was a submarine built in 1969 for scientific exploration of the Gulf Stream. Contact mic recordings of the craft, which is now located in the Vancouver Maritime Museum, were used in the recording, which makes me think this is not strictly acousmatic procedure in López's sense. Celer are one of the major drone artists working in the past decade (check out their glorious track in this set), so it's interesting to hear them here in a more sound-arty context.

5. Crawl Unit – Artificiality (from Everyone Gets What They Deserve)

Crawl Unit is Joe Colley, a prolific sound artist from California. This is an early disc from 1999. I've tried several times to fit this record into my ambient sets, but it's just too unsettling for the most part. I like his work very much, even if it gets a bit conceptual at times (more so recently).

6. The Hafler Trio – A Thirsty Fish/The Dirty Fire (from A Thirsty Fish)

This outfit is mostly Andrew Mackenzie, but has also included Chris Watson of Cabaret Voltaire (and a leading field recorder in his own right). Not sure if he's on this one though. Along with Nurse With Wound, Coil, and Throbbing Gristle (love that name), The Hafler Trio were the cream of the industrial/experimental crop in the 1980s and 1990s.

7. Peter Cusack – baikal ice flow split 1 (from Baikal Ice (Spring 2003))

Here's another straight field recording, this time of the spring break-up of ice in and around Lake Baikal in Siberia. Mr. Cusack tells us in the liner notes that “although the melting process takes weeks there are a few days when the ice finally disappears and the lake becomes open water again. It is a very spectacular and moving transformation. I have not seen nature operating on such a grand scale before. It was a magnificent and humbling experience.” Melting ice makes an amazing sound, kind of like Xenakis's Concret P-H if you know that one, only without all the splicing.

8. Eric La Casa – Les Pierres du Seuil part 6

Aside from López himself, La Casa strikes me as the sound artist most attuned to the aesthetic López defends in his writings (when I had a chance to ask him once, López himself told me he admired this particular record quite a bit). He's not as single-minded about it as López though: not only does this disc list his sources (basically field recordings from all over the place) on the cover, it also includes instrumental collaboration on this track (Jean-Luc Guionnet is credited with organ improvisation – probably that bit at the end). This is on the fantastic edition … label (pronounced “edition ellipsis”) from Georgia, USA.

That's it for this time, but there's a lot more great noise out there, so stay tuned!

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