Over the past decade contemporary music has increasingly employed the sounds of the world as an alternative or adjunct to the extant repertoire of musical sounds. What this means for music is an expansion into a relatively new language domain; one with familiar associations, but distant from the notion of music. The underlying mode of this compositional process concerns the exploitation of meaning in the sounds of contemporary life, and its use is already wide spread throughout numerous contemporary styles and genres. The catalyst for this musical direction is technology. Without its diversity and dynamic growth such a direction in music would not be possible. The most challenging examples can be found where music technology is at its most experimental. The influence of technology is, however, by no means clear. Thus, compositions which use or re-interpret the sounds of the world are not necessarily in the process of defining a new aesthetic or style, rather they are continuing the cultural dynamic of later twentieth century music.
When I encountered the above quotation beneath the title of Adorno's essay portrait of Walter Benjamin, I was struck by the perspective given to that which, on initial reflection, appears nothing more than mundane and persistent. But here, in this wisp of text, lies an intriguing suggestion; to listen, assimilate, connect and sense a temporal continuity through-what is commonly understood as noise-the sounds of the day. Certainly, it is but a fragmentary and vague enticement to make an auditory summation of a moment then think of it as a Music; to halt and encapsulate, in an idea and emotion, the relentless flow of time, with its instances of noise as tributaries of accruing and dissolving references and implications. Yet, the essential invitation of the text is to imagine precisely that; to bestow on the collective concept, "noise", the character of a music and its apprehended influence over time, thus empowering the sounds of the day with the capacity to transcend their physical identity, reality and significance.
The quotation was also something of a surprise. The serendipity of happening upon a string of words that resonated with my current musical thoughts seemed more than fortuitous, and somehow auspicious. The importance and, indeed, the implications that this quotation appeared to herald for me were at once unmistakable, yet only vaguely comprehensible. Could it be a poetic legitimation and a presage of some musical direction that would take as its material foundation the sonic manifestations of the world? Or is it simply another literary illusion; one which entices thought on the musical worth of the sounds of life but ultimately leads to a conceptual nebula, devoid of substance?
Certainly the text, through its immediate effect on the imagination-a very romantic one at that-is only alluding to relations between the noise of reality, music and eternity. Yet it is a singularly effective metaphor, one which makes no direct claims to the musicality of noise but hints, through a solitary musical reference, at a similar power to engage the listener. If by "chords" some ordered succession of related sonic structures is implied, then the "sounds of the day" could be interpreted as a new sonic language, one resonant with our contemporary existence and necessitating special interpretation. This essay endeavors to seek out contexts in which such a view of real-world sound intersects with the concept of music and considers the nature of that grey area between music and noise.
Exactly why the "sounds of the day" should be so readily absorbed into contemporary music, is difficult to explain without considering some cultural perspectives. These perspectives can range far and wide but one might begin by citing the availability of recording technology and computer processing functionality. However, that would not account for an aesthetic stance, but simply the means to transact noise as material. Video culture might also be seen as having a profound influence on contemporary recorded music and to be sure, there are many questions that could be raised regarding the symbiosis or dependencies that have sprung up between music and image dating back to Skryabin and Kandinsky.
The transfiguration of noise into music and music into noise is now such a familiar process to us that we are not perturbed by the process. In its most powerful and abused forms in recorded music, certain popular music forms can affect an artificial moment, a unique type of presence. When that moment has been worked in with the music, incongruities between the music and the presence can be made to evoke a sense of spontaneity or create a unique instance with the character of reality. Presence represents that essential contemporary experience of "being there". That extrinsic property which surrounds the listener at the site of the original action. This is different again from the "aura" of the artist or the performance action itself. Instead an element of the sound symbolizes a collective consciousness surrounding the event itself.
The notion of presence is gaining critical acceptance with non-real-time composition; as a music not primarily dependent on reinterpretation. In other words, what we now think of as "Media works; those works created for a medium capable of repeated play back and duplication. So it is that recorded "sounds of the world" inspire a new kind of presence, the presence of the "were there, later" kind because we can't all be there at the real moment and besides, what is the real moment? We can however, through a commitment to the recording, act as secondary witnesses, invoking a corollary which magnifies the significance of an event that once occupied a tiny fragment of real-time. One need only think of the recorded legacy of Woodstock, that legendary music festival of 1969, to get an idea of how magnified and intense an event can become and that through the influence of the recordings, people can be inspired to reconstruct the event twenty-five years on.
In his essay, "The Photographic Activities of Postmodernism", Douglas Crimp reflects on the idea of a recorded presence; something comparable to the original event but a unique form of presence only experienced through the photographic medium itself. What I think Crimp is attempting to describe, is a situation primarily sought after by composers who use real-world sound.
I wrote at that time that the aesthetic mode that was exemplary during the seventies was performance, all those works that were constituted in a specific situation and for a specific duration; works for which it could be said literally that you had to be there; works, that is, which assumed the presence of a spectator in front of the work as the work took place, thereby privileging the spectator instead of the artist.
What I wanted to explain was how to get from this condition of presence-the being there necessitated by performance-to that kind of presence that is possible only through the absence that we know to be the condition of representation. (Crimp, 1991, pp.172-3)
Initially we could identify a recording of the "sounds of the day" within another recording as a unique trace element. This situation has not been official recognized or widely discussed as functional or desirable because it is not a consistently favorable property. In a "live" recording, something like audience ambience serves to authenticate the recording, adding an illusive sparkle to music which might otherwise be simply pedestrian. Noise, as a non-musical sonic component to the recording, is an aura that can generates a sense of deja vu for a musical subject. By adding the noise of the world-selectively, subtlety-the music is given a contemporary countenance. While it remains in the realm of the unspoken, noise retains its vitality, its contemporaneity. It does not become a history unless one takes into account the totality of the recording. Thus binding the sounds of the real world to music ensures, not exactly a "newness" of musical material but a contemporaneity. This is not the "new" in the sense that we once understood it to mean in music but the alternative when "new" has lost its significance and relevance.
We readily identify noise as functioning in art works of the recent technological past, for example, popular dance music styles like Hip Hop, Techno, House and Ambient. Probably since the second world war, ambient sounds have had an expressive quality, which reflects the actions of our daily lives and those of nature. We understand these actions as recurring forces which generally mould the schema of our perception of the world. Not only is it just "noise", then that emanates from the instantaneity of life but, perhaps more importantly, a sense of order and rate which help keep us tuned to the moment. We understand the traditional role of music as something which allows us to contemplate this rhythm.
We are only just beginning to appreciate that much of the power and moment of contemporary music is now derived from the sonic landscape of contemporary society. Our society, unlike previous societies, is filled with complex noises that need explication. The sound of the street is a now common expression and sonic playground for youth culture because the street lifestyle is powerful and dynamic. Aspects of contemporary music have recognised the need to imitate and reflect the street's energy and chaos.
For those of us who cannot always experience first-hand the sounds of the world, the musical material itself is, becoming conveniently-one might say almost pathologically-laid out for us in our local record store; a functional taxonomy of music.
This is evidence of the powerful and ubiquitous "aesthetic of the consumer", an altogether new dynamic structure from that of the "aesthetic of the producer" which has more or less been in place in western culture to this time. This consumer dynamic is radically altering the productive agenda of the arts. What the consumer wants or can be sold-the commercial package-is now of critical and primary concern to the producer. It has become an objective so specifically catered to, promulgated in such volume and at such a rate, that it far and away exceeds anything in the previous historical settings of bourgeois society. The effect within the arts community has been to polarize views of the place and role of art (it is either dead or has never been more alive). Whatever this reflects about society-now and in the immediate future-it has already ignited serious discussion and criticism. Significant criticism has been levelled at the evaluation of contemporary art, more specifically the down grading and re-historization of terms and events within certain areas:
But capitalism inherently possesses the power to derealize familiar objects, social roles, and institutions to such a degree that the so-called realistic representations can no longer evoke reality except as nostalgia or mockery, as an occasion for suffering rather than for satisfaction. Classicism seems to be ruled out in a world in which reality is so destabilized that it offers no occasion for experience but one for ratings and experimentation. (Lyotard, 1984, p.74)Lyotard continues:
But this realism of the "anything goes" is in fact that of money; in the absence of aesthetic criteria, it remains possible and useful to assess the value of works of art according to the profits they yield. Such realism accommodates all tendencies, just as capital accommodates all "needs," providing that the tendencies and needs have purchasing power. (Lyotard, 1984, p.76)
While in appearance such considerations present a negative and constrained2 image of contemporary culture and art, it has to be acknowledged that the context in which they appear is unique. There is no longer a single direction from which the current state of art-art identified on a large scale-can proceed, given what is understood about the current state of art. Aesthetic issues have become extremely personal and self-contained. Of course, that depends on what the terms "art" and "aesthetics" encompass. However, in the course of history it may transpire that this dilemma (a state perceived by many with anxiety) is exactly that which engenders a significant epoch; for the constellation of cultural activities are simultaneously creating and dissolving conditions conducive to change. For example, a change away from the current obsession with re-interpreting the recent past-raking over the historical ground of the modernist project where "Science fiction and nostalgia have become the same thing" 3.
Thus it seems that there is an enormous pressure on music to function or affect; to work for and on society as it works on an individual's consciousness. Everyone is affected by a music of some particular style and form: locked under the influence of music, in private listening realities or listening through Walkmans while journeying around the neighborhood, the world tends to appear an altered place. Music supports and fosters any type of reality perception an individual wishes to entertain, and her imagery of the real world appears to be adjusted accordingly. For those many people whose lives resound with "music while they work", has not "music" become a personal simulacrum of activity and life? This kind of musical experience seems to go beyond what Habermas calls the "satisfaction of residual needs", that is, those needs submerged by the life praxis of bourgeois society (Burger 47-48), and into some realm of personal survival or engagement on a conceptual level in which the mediation of reality by an injection of music makes daily existence a more tenable prospect. Thus, the mix of recorded music and the noise of life, in situ, may be now not so much a radical act but simultaneously, an essential and banal one.
Increasingly, we hear music mingling on the street with every native diurnal vociferance, as if in harmony with one another. There is a call and response, in effect, between much pervasive popular musics and the urban landscape, resulting in a transformation of "place". Those often bleak environments-urban and urban/industrial ghettoes-into which music is projected, can take on the character of a stage prop, fantasy land or some other place of more private symbolic significance rather than a social mistake. Alas, it is no longer the same street atmosphere that inclined Stravinsky to compose his Etude for Pianola, Opus 7, in which he musically reminisces on his first hand experiences of Madrid's musical street life during a visit in 1916.4 But nevertheless, there is a sense of historical perspective in attempting to compose out the "music" in everyday sounds.
Today, it is not only the trans-reality pedestrian with Walkman who experiences a sensorial mix of sound and place; music itself is often literally transported around, pounding the roadway like some giant ethereal steamroller, apparently hammering and riveting this or that loose and imperceptible social unit back into place. Curiously, what is rarely appreciated from the external perspective, is how it really sounds to the person playing the music. So much of the fidelity is lost or distorted as the sound passes through the body of the vehicle and the vehicle itself passes down the road. The music is decomposed and becomes the new voice of the machine. One might conclude, that the music functions on two aesthetic levels; one that is for the enjoyment of the person playing the recording and the other as a kind of statement to the external listener. It might also be fair to say that in one instance it is being used by the person playing the music as a stimulant, a courage or fantasy builder and in the other, as a weapon of intimidation, its inward and outward effects locked in some sort of mutual support context for the perpetrator. Whatever the case, such use of music is now prompting wide social disapproval, perhaps, not only because of its sheer loudness but also its menacing quality. It is thus ironic, that music on the one hand is prized for its amelioratory affects and, on the other, condemned for its capacity to stun and intimidate in a manner reminiscent of antipersonnel weapons.
So, from the selective (but indistinguishable) Muzaks of department stores, restaurants, malls, train and bus stations, hotel lobbies and beyond to the roving Walkmans and boom cars, music is being contemplated through something other than fundamental historical aesthetic values and the traditional social context. The huge range of recorded music (western/non-western, contemporary/historical, etc.) available-music so diverse as to be almost impossible for the average listener to contextually appreciate in any detail-can be acquired and listened to under almost any contemporary circumstance. This music is without doubt, being appreciated (or not) in listening contexts unimaginable in even recent music history. Yet the profound historical implications and social consequences of this fact are often being either totally obscured by, or re-evaluated against, the pressing demands of contemporary society.
However, what is of interest here is not the social ramifications of recorded music projected arbitrarily into society but the evolution of an aesthetic of musical appreciation predicated by distorted and complex experiences of listening to contemporary, historical and ethnic musics during, and as part of, our daily transactions. The perpetual juxtaposition of music with the "sounds of the day", no matter how obnoxious, cultivates, to various degrees, a capacity to tolerate disparate sonic experiences that in turn become reinterpreted as a music. Within the individual, these sonic experiences assemble as an auditory phantasma which contribute to an affirmation of contemporary existence. If this sonic experience is duplicated or imitated and presented in a musical context, then the nature of music has been significantly altered. The fact that this is precisely what is happening is, I feel, pertinent to an appreciation and understanding of a "contemporary musical experience".
Thus music may be considered, in part, an intellectual resynthesis of the clamor of the world around us, a constant expression of a perceived control over, and understanding of, our environment and ourselves. Music is not simply a purification of noise, it is a willful interpretation; an ordering and codifying of certain sounds in the belief that this new order will vindicate, perpetuate and advance the human state-be it in a mundane or spiritual, corporeal or intellectual form. How this is achieved and in what sense, of course, remains difficult to establish given how we understand music to convey meaning:
Jacques Attali has correctly observed that while music can be defined as noise given form according to a code, nevertheless it cannot be equated with a language. Music, though it has a precise operationality, never has stable reference to a semantic code of the linguistic type. It is a sort of language without meaning. (Beverley, 1989, p.43)Further to this idea of "language without meaning", music might also be seen as an articulation of concepts without specificity-an allusion to things-an imperative to actively participate in constructing concepts and ideas according to certain sonic input. If it is the case, as Attali states, that "Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise." (Attali, 1985, p.3), music must be, in part, our abstraction and conceptualization of the "doing" which in turn is a manifestation of power. Thus it is a mental fabrication of the product of our myriad daily actions into an essence of "doing". To "create music" is a reflexive interpretation of this raw concept; it is to do something which essentially models the perceived, imagined or dreamed activities of our existence in the very same substance (sound) which constantly invades our consciousness. Music thus stylizes and reinforces our actions and mental processes in our respective societies and cultures. The success of this stylization and abstract mimesis being determined by emotional responses in the individual, emotional commitment defines the strength of our engagement.
Returning to the Attali quote, it occurred to me that there seems a parallel between the Aztec civilization's justification for human sacrifices to their Sun god and need for music in our society today. The Aztecs were convinced that if they stopped human sacrifices the sun would not rise and their world would end. The proliferation of music today, through shops, malls, streets and private homes, suggests that we are dependent upon music to confirm the dynamic of our society. If the public dissemination of music were to stop, we might begin to feel that our society and culture has lost momentum or actually be at an end. If, as Atalli states "It [music] has always been in its essence a herald of times to come." (Atalli, 1985, p.4), it is because music can preview the nature of the new in a way that is acceptable to the human condition and social moment. In music, we might already be experiencing what it is like to live within the "new"5 because music so often and convincingly expresses the present. It is also, in its other forms (and more potently it may seem), a means of confirming the present and venerating the past.6
In Ernst Bloch's terms, even music video, trashy, glitzy and prematurely hackneyed as it often is, still can contain a nouvum, an instance of the radically new which has never yet been. We need an open aesthetics, future-orientated, to deal with an art which is still in process, not yet sedimented or stereotyped. Music video is still an area of possibilities: its identity is still unsettled. Bloch argued that the human condition, like adolescence, was defined by its possible futures, its unidentified desire and unarticulated want. (Wollen, 1986, p.170)Such unsatiated and often incompatible conditions generate "noise" as we search for the momentary artistic/cultural utopian sound. Noise may be seen also as the result of experiments in musical thinking-something like an orchestra tuning up. Noise is the collision, that simultaneous availability of all that there is or has been. If we understand noise, we can appreciate the future of music. Music can both sublimate and reify the perceived continuum of human existence. The question is how noise becomes or indeed, has become, part of this.
Our common definition of "noise" is most probably "any sound of an unwanted and incidental nature." Noise is that "sound" which intrudes at unpredictable moments; that has a character which instills alarm, anxiety, stress and fear in our minds. It may be loud or soft, brief or persistent. It may leave only a momentary impression, or one that lingers long after the noise itself has subsided. Noise can counter and challenge simple perceptions, dislocate attention and create an uneasiness within the listener which blocks engagement with the musical or central sound object and, of course, silence. Is noise ever trivial? Frequently, but its effect is to demand attention and generate assessment. Noise is random information which may or may not have significance; that can only be decided at the cost of surrendering one's private discourse. In our daily lives, for any given moment, "noise" means different things. For precisely this reason, the more dynamic the scenario, the more prominent noise is in that dynamic. We need only think of the trading floor in a Stock Exchange or rush hour in a large city. Imagine those silent-something would be wrong with the laws of the Universe! Yet, amid the essentiality of the context, we often feel anxiety and irritation towards accumulated noise we are not emotionally, intellectually or physically concerned with. Whether we consciously interpret noise or try not to, it nevertheless provides essential clues and synchronisms with the various objects in the world. Through noise we orientate ourselves in the continuum of our existence. Noise, therefore, can be a trite and unimportant sensation or a complex social referent.
As a by-product of human activity, noise probably reveals much about the times we live in and ourselves. Are these times any noisier than some previous time in human history? It would appear so-or so we think-but, psychologically speaking, it may simply be relative, in the sense that we are conditioned to (and necessarily accept) the degree of activity our world generates and hence the level and diffusion of noise. If the noise of our world were to noticeably but inexplicably subside, we might be lead to think that our society was in a state of decline.
Music, in contrast to the sounds of the world, directly interprets contemporary life; different music for different people but it all speaks about the present. Music confirms and explicates the idea of existence for people with varied outlooks on the world. If it unifies the clamor of our actions, creating a continuum that is, on a personal basis, meaningful then perhaps the sounds of life achieve the same end on a collective psychological level. Is it not at least arguable that, the degree to which people make sense of or view the times they live in, could be linked to their level and diversity of musical appreciation? The difficulty, of course, is in assessing such a hypothesis. But, as we pursue the questions of music in the latter part of this century, it becomes clear that noise takes an increasingly important role in the musical object (both art and popular forms). For disagreeable, invasive, irritating and vague that as it may be, noise engages attention, demands assessment and alludes to a sense of awareness. If we live in a world where, hearing is one sensory means of acquiring knowledge, and this in turn equates to a desired state to be in, (i.e. "in the know" so to speak) then noise is something that has a value for as long as it takes us to realise its implications. Its value plummets to worthlessness upon our extraction of its meaning and our comprehension of these implications. At that point we can act or anticipate or remain unaffected. Noise also takes on a more substantial meaning when those loud and ferocious sounds, endemic to most popular musics, become associated with power. The energy in very loud sound, gives substance to the concept of "strategic power"; power in a vital and personal form.
It is therefore clear, that noise and music are conversant but that they are perceived (or have to be understood) as functioning differently, acting as opposing concepts within society. Given this observation, might there be a coexistent state for music and noise, or would that in fact create simply another form of music? Is it music when the context is exclaimed as music and noise when it is deemed noise? For instance, it is interesting to note two comments from John Cage in Silence. The first comment is from Cage's fictional Satie dialogue, "Satie" pontificates:
Nevertheless, we must bring about a music which is like furniture-a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralize the street noises which so indiscretely enter into the play of conversation. To make such a music would be to respond to a need. (Cage, 1961, p.76)Is "Satie" simply referring to muzak as we know it or is this a music that is to be specifically composed to function on two levels? First, as pleasurable music in the conventional sense and second as a means to subvert the sounds of life to the mood of the context? What really is the "need"? The problem in defining the value of noise is largely one of context: its relation to the moment, its meaning, and from there to music. Is it a subset of or synonym for sound? Does it work with or against an elucidation of the context in a positive musical or aesthetic sense? When discussed in relation to music as a collaborative entity, is noise to be perceived as immanent or intentional, as in, say, percussion instrument sounds, or as a natural artifact, as in the processing of environmental recordings? Noise may well become sound (that is, neutralized) music, when it is understood as performing an essentially musical function, not simply as an irritating or agreeable sonic event framed in a musical context.
One day when the windows were open, Christian Wolff played one of his pieces at the piano. Sounds of traffic, boat horns, were heard not only during the silences in the music, but, being louder, were more easily heard than the piano sounds themselves. Afterward, someone asked Christian Wolff to play the piece again with the windows closed. Christian Wolff said he'd be glad to, but that it wasn't really necessary, since the sounds of the environment were in no sense an interruption of those of the music. (Cage, 1963, p.133)What is of interest in the above quotations are not the more evident differences in the two views of noise but that noise is considered something that has to be engaged. The engagement actually takes place within a constructed musical context. The listener has to accept that a noise context can be admissible within a prevailing musical/sonic one. How does one accept the confluence of the two sonic experiences? Is it that the music and noise harmonize? Probably not. Not, at least, in a traditional sense. Some part of the acceptance must lie in the recognition of structure, articulated by timbre, pitch, dynamics and spatial relations. This coalesces as a unique, complex and partially unpredictable listening experience.
A commonly held view of the relation of noise to music is here again articulated by Cage in his essay "History of Experimental Music in the United States", in reference to a discussion on Christian Wolff's article "New and Electronic Music" and Edgar Varese, he states the following;
Much of the historical discussion of noise in music reflects a desire to conquer and sublimate the essence and existence of noise to the will of the artwork. But it is also clear that noise is frequently used (or referred to in theory) as the means to emancipate and stimulate a sense of a future for music. Although initially associated with the Avant-Garde and later Rock music, it now seems less controversial and more functional in its manifestations. These pragmatic uses of noise range from the banal to the iconoclastic, consider the following quotations from Attali and Calinescu:Sound come into its own.What does that mean? For one thing: it means that noises are useful to new music as so-called musical tones, for the simple reason that they are sounds... But it is clear that ways must be discovered that allow noises and tones to be just noises and tones, not exponents subservient to Varese's imagination. (Cage, 1961, p.68)
When Cage opens the door to the concert hall to let the noise of the street in, he is regenerating all of music: he is taking it to its culmination. He is blaspheming, criticizing the code and the network. When he sits motionless at the piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, letting the audience grow impatient and make noises, he is giving back the right speak to people who do not want to have it. (Attali, 1985, p.136)Another perspective:
But, as the case of John Cage clearly shows, the disruptive techniques-aleatory or otherwise-characteristic of aesthetic anarchism do not go without a high degree of sophistication and awareness of theoretical issues. The attempt at "discovering means to let sounds be themselves rather than vehicles for man-made theories or expressions of human sentiments"-as Cage puts it in his book Silence-may be meaningful only to the connoisseur or to the snob, not to the man in the street who is likely to be a sincere consumer of kitsch and not care about pure sounds, stripped of their human significance. (Calinescu, 1987, p.145)Historically, noise is that domain in which music can never be present without being weakened and robbed of its essential power. Whether it is manifest as a fault in the score or in performance as an inappropriate sound, its effect is deemed immediate and pernicious. But, of course, noise itself can be or is a component in the sound of instruments and thus in the music itself. Noise is what gives certain instrumental sounds their timbral identity and individuality. But beyond the acoustic importance of noise, the concept and its more radical manifestations are seen as playing an important role in the freeing of music in this century. While those extra-curricular noises are universally condemned for their role as a negators of codes and networks within the realm of historical musical thought and practice, rarely is noise considered beyond either a provocative phenomena or a musical novelty. This position has arisen solely from the confrontation of traditional musical thinking and the nature of noise. Apparently only emasculated noise is permitted in the musical domain.
Whatever noise is in the contemporary listening experience, it now has far more demanding and engaging connotations than the word "sound". This is perhaps because the notion of sound has been unreservedly absorbed into most musical contexts. In recent decades the term "sound" is seen as embracing private and meaningful auditory experiences and no longer initiates critical response when discussed as music. Noise, on the other hand, provides a locus for the collision of sensory ambiguity and critical evaluation. By definition, it will never substitute for a music.
There are two broad areas where such material has become manifest. The first is concerned with transformations and additions to conventional instrumental music. This area is itself divided into two with the development of new performance techniques on the one hand and the augmentation of the instrumental collection with new or less conventionally entrenched (since some have complex developmental histories) "percussion" instruments on the other.
The "new" sounds from traditional instruments typically lie outside the normal operational mode and by their nature, are often difficult to control, limited in pitch and timbral diversity, and conceptually esoteric, that is, the sounds do not necessarily possess the same degree of prescience characteristic of that conventional instrument, e.g. the perceptual expectations associated with certain pitches within a given tonal domain. For the most part these sounds represent a contrary or complex adjunct aesthetic to that immanent in the traditional operation. However, mastery of these techniques has become necessary for "new" music instrumentalists since a considerable repertoire now exists which requires such techniques for authentic and correct interpretation. It could be argued that such techniques as microtonal intervals, multiphonics, key clicks or playing on, in or with different parts of the instrument actually overlap the next category due to the character of the performance act and sounds i.e. less pitch oriented and more inclined to gesture and effect. However, the point is that they occur on the traditional instrument and serve to promote the performer as a "new music virtuoso" due to competence with these difficult techniques. Although some of the extended techniques are just that, extensions to common practice, they represent an historically distinct attitude to the instrument.
The most dramatic and conspicuously "noisy" are the so called "percussion instruments". These have increased in numbers and prominence in late 20th Century music-particularly in orchestras and chamber ensembles-and mark a significant class of noise makers. In fact, it would appear that this class is resisting standardization as ever more varieties appear in the concert hall. Thus, the importance of these instruments for contemporary music lies as much in their visual statement of the "modern" as in their actual timbral diversity. This dual aesthetic effect probably dates from before World War I (the "Futurists", et al) but remains as impressive today as it did in the early part of this century. It is interesting to note that this was also a trend pursued not just in "art music" but in "popular and entertainment musics" as well. Consider Jazz at the beginning of this century, in which Latin and Carribean rhythms, executed under the skill of the native practitioners, became fashionable in the music of city dance bands. It has left a distinct impression on Jazz and every decade or so, a revival of the purer forms occurs.
Percussion instruments have introduced a further visceral component to new music with sounds that range from barely audible chimes to stomach churning booms and crashes. As a consequence, percussion instruments have helped shift emphasis from pitch as embodied in harmony and counterpoint, to timbre, rhythm and tempo in modern music. Whether the increase in percussion music has contributed to a tolerance for noise in or as music is difficult to evaluate. With some latitude in definition, the emergence of percussion music and noise in music do appear to historically coincide. Most people have heard percussion works that sound like one hour of urban life compressed into a moment.
The evolution of percussion music is something of a confirmation that noise needs taming and when it is tame it is music. By "taming", I meaning the experience of developing an understanding. This understanding leads to an ability to know how to control noise and present it at precisely those times when the sound has maximal musical effect. One consequence of this evolutionary condition being that the instruments become refined to the point where they are merely tokens of a former sound. One has to imagine what they sounded like even if one has never heard the original. Percussion instruments in particular, that were once used extensively as prominent or solo instruments, are reduced to a color-flash and are not permitted to speak in their own right.
The second, and probably most far reaching approach to the exegesis of noise is through technology, in particular, the recording and playback technologies and t he complex processing of recorded sounds in a digital signal environment. Conseq uently, the implications and central issues of the "noise" in music are clustere d around recording technologies. From the inception of recording technology, its users most demanding preoccupation has been to minimize inherent system noise, the object being to project only the spectra of the recording itself. The capacity of technology to provide, now, such "low noise" presentation of sound is a curious and important factor in the contemporary reappraisal of noise and its re-introduction into music. Improved signal to noise ratios have contributed to a significant increase in a listener's engagement and stamina towards the experience of recorded music. Although the cultural ramifications of this impact are open to interpretation-for there are obviously points that need clarification-the predilection towards technology seems also initially based on pragmatic reasons. The potential of the signal processing is towards the processing of a broad range of signals, for example, those gathered under conditions considerably inferior to that of the recording studio or concert hall. This suggests that music now engages technology at critical aesthetic and perceptual angles which lie outside the content of the music. Yet, if anything, the implications of at least three decades of recording technology are by no means fully appreciated because although the general field of music technology is seen as very fertile ground for investigation and experimentation, it is a dynamic and changing environment. Inherent in such rapid change, is a veiled sense that something new will emerge to reveal that which has not been seen nor thought of before but which immediately becomes essential and inevitable. The potential revelation of a new technology tends to keep critical thought, certainly in the less tangible areas, off balance but at the same time receptive to improvement. What general criticism exists, of course, cannot negate those results thus far achieved. There is no question that achievement in the field of digital technology, in particular, has had significant creative implications and repercussions, and by all accounts will continue to have them in the immediate future. Consider one of the more subtle implications :
Digital developments appear to offer shattering evidence for the pertinence of Walter Benjamin's analysis, in the spheres of both production and consumption. In music production, the increasing use of digital recording and reproductive equipment gives enormous credence to Benjamin's celebration of the end of the `aura'. In the age of mass production, Benjamin stated that the audience is no longer concerned with an original textual moment. In the age of digital reproduction the notion of the `aura' is further demystified by the fact that everyone may purchase an original. (Goodwin, 1988, p.35)Goodwin has actually got it slightly wrong. If he really understood the implications of digital technology, he would have realized that there is now no such thing as an "original". The concept of "originality" can no longer be applied to the principle object but only to uniquely applied details (packaging) that has no effect on the object itself. For example, if a computer file is copied, the copied information has to be identical otherwise the copy is not a copy but what or where it is copied may help distinguish the temporal sequence of replication. What differentiates the output of the process, that is, the copy from that which is copied, can be as simple as a date of creation time stamp. Of course, a date stamp can be altered so that the copied file has a later creation date than the copy. For most practical purposes, the vagaries of the creation date are of no real importance unless the files differ.
The appropriation and processing, or simply the inclusion of "life noise" into musical composition has in recent years become more discernible while maintaining a low technical and aesthetic profile. The fact that little discussion has emerged in contemporary musical forums indicates that there are potential problems in either formulating grounds for discussion or in elevating, what might be perceived too readily as novelty, too highly in contemporary compositional practice. Perhaps composers are aware that, a too vigorous discussion and, hence, promotion of the use of noise in the compositional domain is likely to lead to its abuse and rapid demise. On the other hand, is there any basis for a discussion of noise at all, as compositional material now or in the future? What is it that is done with noise that gives the subsequent result any musical significance? If anything, such questions indicate a lack of clarity surrounding noise and in this respect, discussion might still be premature because it is not defined in terms generally understood as important to currently musical practice.
Leaving these questions aside for the moment, noise has, nevertheless, emerged in recent times as an abstract concept which challenges musical development. It is increasingly seen as somehow important in the presence of contemporary musical interpretation. Perhaps, the most troubling aspect is the recognition that the use of noise in composition may be important but that there is no immediately discernible theory for its application. At this early stage, however, theories are perhaps, nascent, as metaphors of compositional thought. Consider the "painting" metaphor8 in which the employment of numerical techniques (analysis and resynthesis, filtering and mixing) to process sound can be likened to paint brushes and brush techniques for their contribution to the nature of the material. Indeed, contemplation of the results of such digital techniques tend to raise associations with some fondly (or not) remembered work in the visual art world. In addition to this metaphor, I recently found a quote which I thought worth keeping in mind when applying computational muscle to recorded sound. The Japanese artist Shiko Munakata wrote:
`I advise the layman to spread India ink on an uncarved board, lay paper on top of it, and print it. He will get a black print, but the result is not the blackness of ink, it is the blackness of prints.So translating the above sentiment into a musical context: once the signal processing composer has "carved" into the recording of life, the result should be contemplated against the original. Certainly the above questions should be kept in mind but also the composer should also attempt to assess what has been removed, what has been gained and what has been revealed.
Now the object is to give this print greater life and greater power by carving its surface. Whatever I carve I compare with an uncarved print and ask myself, "Which has more beauty, more strength, more depth, more magnitude, more movement, more tranquility?"
If there is anything here that is inferior to an uncarved block, then I have not created my print. I have lost to the block.' (Danto, 1981, p.52)
One significant aspect of the compositional sublimation of noise is that the material itself can invoke a sense of space, social context and perspective in a far more complex and subtle manner than by simply superimposing artificial reverberation or, more elaborate, room simulation effects. It is potentially a far richer source of spatial illusion (in the right contexts), not only because of any inherent reverberation but also through the nature of the sounds themselves. I think it matters little whether the addition of certain types of noise to create subtextual meaning is an illusion or trick. It depends on how the listener wishes to interpret supplemental material and engage the implications. Thus, not only the topology of noise but the instances of noises themselves can add a psychological dimension that goes substantially deeper than the clinical effect of synthetic techniques. The crucial aspect to the spatial quality of noise is that it has an immediacy and discernibility that cannot fail to be appreciated by the listener either consciously or subconsciously. It deepens the sensuality of the musical material. The underlying idea then is not to simply enhance the sound but the perceptual context. The use of noise (an ambient wash) or "artificial" simulators (echo, reverb and room simulation devices) as a means of conveying a sense of space is essentially a compositional decision based on the nature of the principle sounds employed. The selection and interpolation of additional sound material into a work is a complex undertaking, and not simply a matter of mixing sound indiscriminately. Creating the impression of a complex space is done through the composing in of-or the working around with-the recordings of our various sonic worlds.
The perception of noise and its relation with music has been and no doubt remains deeply troublesome to the professionals producing sound. It has largely become synonymous with a subversive function which erodes the power of music and destroys its immanent material. But this condition only persists when one is not in control. It is clear that what would have been unacceptable in previous musical works is now desirable because it can be controlled. The disturbing element comes under the aesthetic control of the professional, the virtuoso and the master. Attali's discussion of noise in the section "The New Noise" (Attali, 1985, p.136) takes the emergence of noise as a compositional phenomenon in this century as, initially, a counteraction to prevailing musical ideals. But it becomes increasingly obvious that noise is a major component in the music of this century precisely because its use makes a paradox of (one might say, puts into a disturbing contrast) the traditional concept of the "musical idea".
What also seems strange, is the association of noise with the political economy of music. If noise is a residue or detritus of our society then its elevation to the stratosphere of a music or musical adjunct must be interpreted as essentially a destructive ploy. This, one would expect, is to be avoided because it appears not to support a positive ideal rather a disenfranchising and negative realism. But then again noise is the embodiment of social dynamism. Yet in its recorded form, it is a simulacrum of social dynamism because it has been disconnected from the moment of its creation. In practice, to record society and approach its inherent expression through the application of contemporary technology and make what can be regarded as a social (if not historical) instance, into a statement that maybe music, requires creative considerations. The resulting music should, at least, usher up some sense of a philosophical perspective on a moment in our existence which can be interpreted as personal, universal and essentially empirical. The music should engage historical necessity in a different role and, for the most part, (one entirely up to the composer) orientate the listener within a completely different space to that which might result from traditional instrumental music.
Noise is, unfortunately, such an accessible sonic material that it is susceptible not only to poor compositional understanding but to various forms of abuse. As a phenomenon or simply a material in contemporary compositional use, it is possible to appreciate its passage to decadence long before it has matured in the musical world. This is a reflection on the musical times as much as the material itself. Anyone aware of the contemporary situation senses the voracious rate of consumption and demand for new techniques and ideas, particularly in the area of technology. Couple with this the recognition that the material itself has a surface dynamic that is easy to skim off and exploit, and the desire to investigate intuitively deeper musical structures or even psychological dimensions wanes against a mounting feeling that the effort necessary for such tasks is likely to be spent in a rather futile and belated pursuit. The moment may have just passed.
But compositions exploring the sounds of the day have appeared from composers scattered in the contemporary music domain and stretching back over the lifetime of recording technology. Despite the lack of a strong sense of aesthetic or technical homogeneity that might be co-opted into the notion of a style, a conscious negotiation of the new material is clearly evident in many of these works. Exactly why this has come about requires some discussion of the contemporary scene and, indeed, beyond; a task of considerable enormity and outside the scope of this paper. But consideration of some examples at this point might serve to illuminate the position of noise in recent composition. These examples reflect a diversity of aesthetic intention, yet underlying this, I feel, there is a singular appreciation of the function of real-world noise.
The first two compositions I intend to discuss, reflect dramatic interpretations of what Arthur Danto calls "The transfiguration of the commonplace". Danto's book of that name, is concerned with how mundane objects change their significance when included in a work of art or more radically when they become the artwork. Although his focus is on the visual arts, it is not difficult to appreciate the creative implications of digitally recorded sound in this respect. I will not be drawing explicit parallels with any visual art work but will concentrate on what I understand about each as recent musical compositions.
The mall noise provides a familiar narrative. The listener becomes absorbed, thr ough personal experience and memories, and begins searching or expecting more fr om the listening experience. It is not simply about being there, but wrestling with different intentions and expectations. This piece may have cinematic parallels with, in particular, the visualization of "place" and the actuation of "memory" to create temporal continuity but since this happens on a personal level it is difficult to ascertain the degree to which a listener might construct an imaginary shopping mall and maintain it at a conscious level, populating it with their own sensations and memories. Thus, to remove or fade out the sound of the mall sounds would be to remove the locus in quo of the musical experience and consequently negate an essential part of the compositional intention. In Quakerbridge the listener never leaves the sonic mall, but rather has their memory of the place manipulated through the presence of the composer acting as a kind of "guide". What appears to take place is that through the introduction of "composed in noise" (music) the listener can transcend the environment at precisely those moments the composer feels are important. The listener's degrees of transcendence or re-focusing of thought about the place, are assumed to be those rare experiences associated with the artwork encounter-a musical experience. These are improbable experiences for the normal course of life. So in one respect, it is about re-experiencing the place in purely sonic terms which affect a shift in mental imagery, by intermingling the immediacy of the "action" of suburban life with a state of contemplation-an uncommon contemplation on the subject itself. A reverie on which one does not ordinarily spend much time, simply because it is there and dominated by the images and expressions of function. But it may also be a contemplation on the composer's musical interpretation of collective experiences, assuming he has been there more than once. The listener is experiencing the composer's experiences and emotional responses through the composed in music.
This vicarious experience engenders conflict. To merely hear this work as a melding of composed material and natural sound would be to neutralize the sociological experience of the shopping mall. It is probably impossible for anyone to listen to this and remain oblivious to their experiences of shopping and the music in them.
What has always appeared to be a significant problem for compositions of tape and instruments, is the establishment of credibility for the combination in performance. Such questions as "In what sense is there a musical relation between the sound sources?" seem to surface at every performance, especially when the recorded sounds appear to have little in common with the instrumental material. If the success of the work depends on a unified experience then the persistent awareness of two activities would constitute a failure, either on the part of the composer or performance realization. So the pursuit of an aesthetic through the confluence of such musical material challenges the composer, the performers and the technology.
In Never Sing Before Breakfast the approach appears contradictory to accepted practice for this form of composition, however, it is effective precisely because of this scenario. The tape material is not only not essentially musical with respect to the instrumental part but is itself presented as an "imperfect" recording. Playback is also cued by a performer rather than a technician in the wings which certainly eliminates one source of confusion whilst focusing every aspect of the performance on the performers. The recording quality, or lack thereof, enhances the subject of the recording and conveys, to anyone with some recording experience, the spontaneity of the moment and occasion to which the material refers. It is assumed that for the presentation of this work the listener would be given some insight into the origin and background of the material, but the playback quality also indicates that we should not be so concerned with minutiae but with the experience of a sense of "place" and the spontaneity of human discourse.
The tape and instrumental create an unusual musical state. The effect is a counterpoint of "place" which exists between that of the "domestic" and the "instrumental performance" worlds. But a continuous two part texture does not exist from the start. The listener is primed for the recorded sounds by an engaging introductory section into which a recording of a piano playing part of the quintet, slowly becomes recognizable. The piano part enters unobtrusively but is immediately recognizable. When the more dramatic tape sounds enter, they seem to either puncture the moment or float on the underlying musical texture that has momentarily assumed a subordinate position. It is a challenging sonic coexistence. The recorded material is in such contrast to the wind quintet, it often seems to break into the work with an effect similar to someone suddenly removing the roof from above the performance space. The tape part is by no means easy listening. The listener strains to make sense of the obvious conversation and is, in the effort, transported to another place. The fragments are short and relatively few in presentation but engage the imagination quickly. It becomes obvious that too much recorded material would destroy whatever effect is created in the juxtaposition of cultural moments.
As with Quakerbridge, there is a sensation of a musical transgression of the laws of place. There is the disturbing experience of hearing two mutually incompatible places at once. Something similar to watching TV while people near you are carrying on a conversation in which you are less interested but unavoidably engaged. Or watching with the sound turned down. In this respect, the work has a powerful contemporaneous quality that mixes sensual familiarity with contextual dislocation.
Where a recording is stipulated as "live" some concession is given, on the part of the listener, to the relation between the music and its performance context. The listener thus understands and is prepared to accept that the recording may contain aberrant sounds which will either contribute to or detract from an appreciation of the music. However, the fact that the recording explicitly contains such extended musical or non-musical material invariably lends it a tantalizing quality which has been predictably, much sought after. Apart from the obvious sense of "concert hall dimensions" that may resonate from the recording, what comes across occasionally in the sound is a sense of an energy that is partly the "silent" audience but, more importantly, also the mediation of the place and performance moment by the performers. Yet the sense in which "presence" is perceived, is as a supplementary or incidental adjunct which only enhances the music but does not alter any fundamental aspects of the music itself.
In the controlled studio mannerisms characteristic of the majority of recorded music, the presence of sound other than the designated music has been conventionally regarded as detrimental to the success of the recording and deplorable under the circumstances of a (believed) favorable recording condition, such sound is usually pursued vigorously and expunged. Unless the recording seeks to emphasise the studio context, with such things as pre or post session dialogue or high jinks, recordings that incorporate the "noise" of the performer in action, i.e. something that indicates the presence of a performer, are still regarded as a commercial novelty or session fault rather than essential to an understanding of the work. In most cases that is probably a correct evaluation of the situation.
The Greek Nickel pieces provide a private, enveloping work in which the listener becomes acquainted with the performer and the musical place during the frequent moments of reflective ambience as much as through the music itself. Few recorded solo piano compositions come to mind with such space between the performance action, each deliberated attack marking a sparsely surveyed point in a vast musical topos. One instinctively listens or perhaps more engagingly, thinks between the music. The performance thus exists in some very different musical setting to those described above. There is also a strong sense of the performer, transfixed as a listener on every occasion, where the dying chords assume the proportional weight of the impending silence. The arrival at periods of real silence are as dramatic as the attack of the notes themselves. In these spacious moments there are only listeners. At some point in the interlude between each section, a respite occurs where roles are reaffirmed, as the pianist once again engages the instrument as performer.
Around the arched silences the pianist is evident not only through the performance itself but in occupying the role of the performer. The sound of this "occupancy" is occasionally manifest in paper shuffling, creaking piano stool and piano pedals but dramatically felt in the holding of notes or the sensed deliberation and poise preceding the execution of those chords at the extremes of either the dynamic or keyboard range. The effect is an unusually expatiated music which encourages listening beyond the immediacy of the piano's pitches and idiom, and seemly operates as, and allude to, a logic of reference points-simultaneously compelling and unpredictable-to that place and time where the performance experience resides in its purest form. As those intense notes from the extremes of the keyboard evaporate, we are left with the essence of the musical act; the distilled notion of performance in the tapered remnants and final absence of "the music".
That Quakerbridge, Never Sing Before Breakfast and the Greek Ni ckel pieces reflect differences in the accommodation of extra-curricular material within diverse musical gestures, is most likely of lesser interest when set against the totality of each work. In fact, how the "noise" factor contributes to each work requires an unfamiliar line of musical analysis, one not well established within the field of composition itself. Consider the compositional process that meticulously extracts material from a recording of noise (albeit, interesting to begin with), then formally places these sounds back against the source noise in the form of traditional musical material. Consider the conspicuousness of the recording process itself set against a common practice musical setting where there are inevitably contrasts between the surfaces of the colliding sound worlds. Curiously, it is not necessarily the music or the prominent recorded material that are in contrast but the "noise" component (two in this case) of what sound engineers call the signal to noise ratio. Noise here is regarded as the "residual signal that is extraneous to the desired signal" (Dodge and Jerse, 1985, p.29). This is usually understood to exist within such a system as a tape recorder or amplifier but it is important to recognize that it could also exist in the "system" of the space in which the recording takes place. In recording contexts other than sterile studios, such noise conditions can transfer the listener's attention from the recording to the listener's immediate space. Irrespective of the listener's reactions, it becomes a more complex setting for musical appreciation prior to the introduction of recording; one in which the total experience is altered and, perhaps, extended beyond either auditory concern. This has probably always occurred, to some extent, as part of the recorded music experience but been overlooked or conveniently ignored because it was not the point of that experience. It is generally accepted that one listens to the music, not the context one is hearing it in.
Unfortunately, in our frenetic world, the capacity to filter out noise is so refined and essential that there are rarely opportunities to appreciate the extraordinary coincidences occurring in the temporal/dynamic/ timbral structure of sound around us. Yet, throughout life, there are moments when we contribute to, or expect there to be, evidence of sequences and parallels. In the home, the office, the sporting event and the concert hall, confirmation is sought of the nature of collective action. It is just that, as composers, we have yet to understand how to put this into a creative form.
What does the concept of noise amount to in the current musical context? What is there to listen to or think about in the fidelity captured in recordings? Noise means something different at this end of the century than it meant at the other or, perhaps more speculatively, may have meant. With the decline of media noise we tolerate, or perhaps we require, a substitute. The historical association of noise with the means to confront tradition and, later, as the means to free music has given way to subtle investigations that often appear to evade the implications of these past associations. That noise cannot be explicitly music is predicated on historical and archetypal musical models. The social institutions that maintain the logic of this have dominated musical production but not the technology for reproduction. This has never been on the musical agenda and for a number of reasons could not be absorbed into the musical institutions. The institutions have provided the reproduction and processing technologies with access to the vault of musical ontology because of their supposed neutrality with respect to music, and because of the nature of technology's status in the context of music's continued existence. Reproduction technology has been impossible to subjugate with purely musical criticism because of its powerful criteria and ectopic position. It simultaneously issues and manifests promises while leaving a developmental path strewn with limitations and failings. It has caused-indeed, it continues to cause-music to forego its own momentum for the promise of a kind of immortality of moment-the quintessential recording.
Noise has always occupied a place between music and silence. It can represent a hermeneutic mode which, in a simple instance, communicates with the listener in a special language. It can be about being somewhere and understanding or attempting to come to terms with that place. Thus noise, as a source of musical material and compositional formalism10, is not simply a transition or inveigling into the cultural status quo of the concert hall by the street. It is a "working out" of the historical and social musical material with the present, a project in rethinking the function of music against a complex musical world, dominated by the search for the perfect medium for recording and reproduction.
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Lansky, Paul. "Quakerbridge" on Homebrew Bridge Records BCD 9035 New York 1992
Mackey, Steve. "Never Sing Before Breakfast" on Newport Classic CD. Recorded by the Quintet of the Americas.
Randall, J. K. Greek Nickle #1 & #2 on Open Space 4 Open Space, New York. Pianists: Jeff Presslaff and J. K. Randall.