That’s not music – that’s just noise!

by Dave Maier

Masonna2Noise music – if that's even what you want to call it – is pretty hard to defend in polite company. Most of the guys who make it are demonstrably weird if not downright insane, and of course it sounds like the cat got its tail caught in a blender. Who wants to listen to that? All it's good for, seemingly, is to piss people off, and/or to show how edgy and cool you are. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that in defending noise music, critics point to just these things. But are they right to do so?

Here's one way this defense might go. One critic, Nick Smith, appeals to Theodor Adorno’s views here, which looks funny at first, as Adorno is famously all about the high art, as pointedly opposed to anti-artistic hipster trendiness. But let's let Smith explain this paradox to us, and then see what we think.

Adorno[Deep breath.] According to Adorno, language, art, and philosophy are all manifestations of underlying sociocultural phenomena. Everything Adorno deplores – the economic inequality and social oppression which he sees as the inevitable result of capitalist economies based on the principle of abstract exchange-value – can thus be diagnosed in the analogous ills afflicting the corresponding spheres of culture, including philosophy itself. The engine of capitalist culture is instrumental rationality, which abstracts from individual things and persons for the purposes of economic and social efficiency. To preserve the principle of exchange-value, thought denies individual uniqueness, and at the same time, defines knowledge according to the concepts which thus deny it, allowing knowledge to be put to work for socioeconomic purposes. This self-deluded “identity thinking,” put into the service of instrumental rationality by the very structure of our thought, prevents philosophy from self-reflectively diagnosing its own illness. In pursuing rationality and “objectivity” for its own sake, it simply repeats its mistake in the process of attempting to correct it, if it even gets as far as the attempt.

That sounds bad; but it gets worse.

Things fare no better in the realm of art. Just as in the case of reason, the tyranny of exchange-value has permeated the very structure of aesthetic experience. Kant had argued that art’s defining virtue was its “purposiveness without specific purpose,” and Adorno sees art's resulting independence from conceptual understanding as a possible way to resist the cultural hegemony of identity thinking. In its stubborn individuality, art may stand as a concrete example of life beyond contemporary commodity culture, and as a symbol of reason beyond instrumentality and conceptuality. Unfortunately, as Adorno recognizes, this role for art is futile from the beginning. First, there is an irresolvable tension in using art as a tool to combat instrumental rationality. Similarly, even to the extent that it succeeds, art is in constant danger of succumbing to its own success, which commodifies it and subjects it to the same concept of exchange-value that it was its cultural task to overcome. (For a bitterly cynical examination of this process, see Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool and Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland, ed., Commodify Your Dissent.)

Finally, it is only the enlightened avant-garde edge of art which has realized this cultural mandate in its artistic form; and in doing so, it becomes invisible to society, which prefers the mindless conformity of “commodity fetishism” as purveyed by the culture industry. This is for several reasons; first, due to the degeneration of language and thought in its enslavement to instrumental rationality by consumerist ideology, the oppressed masses are incapable of realizing that what they regard as meaningful is in fact simply repeating back to them the same ideology which keeps them oppressed. (This sounds remarkably patronizing to my ear – as does Thomas Frank for that matter, at least in parts – but let's press on.) Secondly, the conventions of art as well have become degraded due to the ocean of worthless art-product which simply recycles them over and over. Third, even when individuality is seen as a virtue in art, the culture industry manages to divert it into trivial forms, pointless variations on the same empty themes. All that art, even the best art, can do is to mourn the loss of meaning to those who are capable of mourning with it (that's us), and to dramatize the current desperate situation in the vain hope of shocking the rest of us out of our complacency and complicity with the system.

In discussing contemporary Japanese noise, Smith (in an unpublished MS, so you'll have to take my word for it) updates this pessimistic picture and gives it a new twist. Adorno had famously championed the cause of Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone compositions, and just as famously deplored jazz, pop and dance music in all its forms. Since then, popular music of all kinds has taken over the cultural stage, and Schoenberg’s heirs, carefully guarding their formal purity, have simply been swept aside (= no-one listens to that stuff anyway). If there is to be effective resistance to the pop-cultural juggernaut, it must be sought in a different place. Smith locates the contemporary battlefront at the interface of music and noise. For Smith, noise (“from the Latin nausea, suggest[ing] an unpleasant disturbance, confusion, or interference baldly lacking any musical quality”) is the universal solvent of musical structure: undifferentiated and thus uncategorizable, it serves as the ideally unassimilable bastion of irrationality against encroaching conceptualism, just as its barely tolerable “aural agitation” provides the ultimate anti-commodity.

MasonnaIn the hands of such skilled practioners as Boredoms, whose “auditory circus … continously flirt[s] with musical standards,” or MASONNA, whose more straightforwardly extreme din causes “cognition [to hit] a wall,” noise can provide the disorientation necessary for a forceful and effective critique of consumerist culture. It “does all it can not to be art, transgressing every available aesthetic norm.” It thus not only dramatizes the agony, in all senses, of the state of authentic culture, but also, given that “alienation from form heightens awareness of material,” does this, appropriately enough, by rubbing our noses in its brute concreteness, achieving, in Adorno’s terms, “the status of the ‘semblant particular.’” This may sound extreme. But let me assure you, so does MASONNA. Check out the promo sticker on inner mind mystique (1996), which reads: “UNEASY LISTENING: SANITY SPLINTERING SOUNDS!!! RABIDLY INSANE VOCALS!!! UTTERLY BARBARIC JAPANESE NOISE!!! PLAY LOUD!” As it happens, that advice is hilariously redundant: the recording is mastered so high as to make any reasonable volume level impossible.

On Smith’s interpretation, the lesson of Japanese noise is thus: desperate times call for desperate measures. And yet even these measures are insufficient, for reasons we have already seen. It is partly because every hint of individuality in art is immediately snatched up by the culture industry for purposes of commodification that it takes a truly repellent cacophony to resist it. But when even this resistance is commodified, art will have no place to turn. This is what Smith sees happening to noise: the very qualities of noise which artists like Boredoms utilize to make it unassimilable are now being touted as those which make it desirable as a commodity. Smith’s disheartening prediction: “The atrophication of music will not end with noise, for even as the ear grows accustomed to its ways, it [loses] its harrowing effect. Even what now seems to be the conclusion of music, anti-music, will itself be reproduced and formalized until the material dies entirely within its shell. All music, and all art, eventually becomes, if it is not already at its inception, a parody of itself…. [W]hen art’s failures become its most effective advertisement, then the critical import of art may be at an end.”

Like Adorno – on Smith's interpretation, anyway – Smith seems to assume that only in total subversion of traditional aesthetic standards can the virtuous resistance to commercial culture take its (here regrettably final) stand, and that every other kind of music (except perhaps those few dogged academic serialists?) is fatally complicit with ruling-class ideology and thus aesthetically worthless (and vice versa). Further, he takes it as axiomatic that noise is essentially unappreciable aesthetically, even as he finds a cultural use for that very aspect of it. Third, he makes the empirical assumption that Japanese noise as a genre is characterized by this attitude toward noise and its aesthetic potential, and can thus be explained completely using his particular examples. None of these assumptions is true.

Merzbow3Like atonal music, noise is neither consonant nor dissonant, but simply non-tonal. Noise is “dissonant” only to the extent that it cannot be appreciated in a tonal context. Outside it, just as atonal music can be enlightening and compelling, noise can be soothing; for example, people buy white noise generators to help them sleep. Smith refers to the use of noise by Boredoms as “dissonant” because he takes the context in which it is to be heard to be an exclusively tonal one. Popular music is indeed relentlessly, even essentially, tonal – there's never any Webern on the hit parade – and even such anti-authoritarian (and, in the case of punk, anti-artistic) subgenres as thrash, speedmetal, and hardcore employ standard tonal forms, albeit performed in an extremely loud, noisy, and violent manner. It is because even this music, the result of several musical generations equating even louder and noisier music with countercultural rebellion, has become relatively acceptable by mainstream standards that “dissonance” can be achieved only by threatening to shatter tonal forms completely by dissolving them in noise. As Smith mentions, it is just as much the split-second transitions between various musical forms and noise in Boredoms’ music as the use of noise itself that leads to dislocation for the listener.

Unlike atonal music, though, noise, for Smith, is essentially non-musical. On this view, even if noise can be appreciated enough to be commodified, as a sleep aid for example, it cannot convey artistic meaning, as it constitutes meaning's absolute negation. It can thus neither serve as an artistic realm of its own nor help extend that of tonal music beyond the reach of pop-culture (enough, that is, to allow real art to be made). Smith’s picture is much more pessimistic than Adorno’s, essentially conceding defeat by the forces of consumerism. However, his conception of the aesthetic significance of noise is neither sufficient as it stands nor shared by all noise artists.

Merzbow1Of Japanese noise artists, Masami Akita has probably the highest profile in the West. As Merzbow, he has released well over 100 recordings in the last twenty-five years, and has released a monumental fifty-CD retrospective. As the name (a reference to the Merzbau of Surrealist Kurt Schwitters) implies, Merzbow sees his early work as part of the Dada tradition of recycling unwanted material (here, noise and feedback) into artworks. But this conceptual aspect of his work is less important, he says, than the equally Surrealist emphasis on the “erotic” potential of sound. He has learned to control feedback, which “automatically makes a storm of noise, and it’s very erotic … I find pleasure in noise and I have tried to develop different variations on the pleasures of noise.” According to interviewer Edwin Pouncey (in the British music magazine The Wire), “Akita describes the relationship between his art and reality as being similar to observing clouds through the window of an aeroplane. ‘Everything seems static, but in reality the plane is moving extremely fast. I like that kind of reality, apparently static but actually very fast-moving – like inside an atom.’”

LopezselvaCompare this quotation from the next issue of the same publication, in an article about Spanish sound artist Francisco López: “Rainfall or radio static, the sounds that attract López are of a peculiar sort: sounds that initially appear as a solid mass but slowly reveal themselves to be made up of myriad micro-particles. ‘To me, these kinds of sounds have a special fascination because they are extremely rich…. If you listen to a waterfall, for example, there’s so much there. And if you exercise profound listening to such a thing, it’s amazing what can happen to your perception with all those nuances, all those details in the sound.’” Crucially, the desired effect is to be attained by developing the proper mode of listening. López continues: “I think this is actually completely different from the traditional conception of listening to music, in which you want to listen to melody or rhythm or whatever. What I want to do is something that is more blurred, something that does not have a definite structure. But it has some inner richness that you can appreciate, if you listen carefully. If you do this, you’ll discover many things there. This is a question of going really deep into the listening experience.’” Similarly, here is Pouncey on Merzbow:

For the majority of listeners who are slaves to rhythm and melody … the immediate reaction … will probably be discomfort when confronted with the overpowering, apparently unstructured sandstorm blast of his brutal, crushing noise…. When the listener has attuned his or her hearing perspective, what comes out of the Merzbow ‘scream inside the machine’ sound is a thing of beauty that borders on bliss…. [A]fter prolonged listening … a strange kind of calm [descends] as another sound dimension aperture slowly opens up.

López calls his conception of sound “Schaefferian,” after musique concrète pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, and claims that Schaeffer’s conception of “sound matter” as conceptually distinct from its cause (and thereby freed from referential ties to the world) is “among the most … revolutionary developments in the history of music.”

We might elaborate the suggestion that noise qua noise can be meaningful if listened to properly in either of two ways. The first is that Schaefferian sound art and tonal art (tonal or atonal music) are distinct artforms. This would seem to do no great damage to Adorno’s aesthetic theory; if it is purely general, then it should apply to all art forms, new or old. Indeed, given Adorno’s enthusiasm for a previous “revolutionary development” in music, equally free from stale tonal conventions, this might seem an attractive option. However, it puts inappropriate a priori constraints on the interaction of noise and tone in a single work. Even if noise is not anti-music but merely non-music, the two can only coexist as oil and water, and that just doesn't make sense given the last 50 years of electronic and ambient music.

Perhaps, as López suggests, we should instead distinguish not between types of sound objects (each with their own appropriate way of listening), but between the ways of listening themselves. On each version of the distinction, aesthetic dislocation comes from trying to bring an individual sound object under two or more seemingly incompatible sets of aesthetic conventions at the same time. On the latter view, however, the possibility is left open that a set of sounds can be comprehensible, if not easily so, as either sort of listening experience. After we become accustomed to the necessity of listening in more than one way at once, this experience itself becomes a single, expanded way of listening. Such expansion results in greatly expanded possibilities for the pointed disruption of interpretations-in-progress. Our concepts need not be overwhelmed by an object for dislocation to occur, but simply eluded, if this can be made to happen in an appropriately subtle way – and thus by sounds potentially quite unlike those made by that unfortunate cat with his tail in the blender.

That is, of course, if “dislocation” is what art is or should be aiming for in the first place. We might very well reject Adorno’s guiding assumption that conceptual thought is inherently pernicious, essentially complicit in the doomed Enlightenment project of capturing the world and its irreducibly individual inhabitants in a single web of concepts and laws. Or (risking “commodity fetishism,” oh noes!) we might simply want some awesome new sounds for our stereo. I have to stop now, but re: the latter possibility, you may want to click here and here and definitely here.