Joanna Demers, “Listening Through The Noise”

by Dave Maier

Joanna Demers – Listening Through the Noise: The Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music (Oxford University Press, 2010)

DemersWhen I tried, in 1981, to interest my undergraduate music professors in progressive electronic music, they didn't get it: anything with notes was “harmonically simple” (“it hess to do with analeetical levelss”, explained one prof), and anything without notes left them completely at sea. Apparently “musicology” meant the theory, not of music generally, but of Western classical music in particular. For anything else you want “ethnomusicology”, which turned out to be basically a subset of anthropology, dominated by scrupulously objective descriptions of Javanese gamelan, Ghanaian drumming, and so on (worthy music all, but not what I was talking about).

I guess that's not too surprising. If you are trained from the age of five to think about music solely in terms of melody and harmony, or at least pitch and duration, then you should be equally flummoxed both by music which lacks these things entirely, and – perhaps even more – by that which subordinates them to other things, like sound texture and spatial location. So I have not been expecting much analytic help from musicological quarters. However, I am pleased to report that Joanna Demers's recent book displays an amazing degree of familiarity – for an academic musicologist at any rate – with the full range of contemporary electronic music and sound art.

Listening Through the Noise is not a work of criticism, but of aesthetic theory, and the discussion is a bit abstract at times, perhaps in order to avoid drowning the reader in technical detail. However, as appropriate to the subject as this abstraction is, Demers renders her subject approachable through the analysis of a wide-ranging array of examples, and her writing is clear and accessible. This is partly because she is laying the groundwork for future elaboration rather than making a definitive statement, but as a level-headed introduction to this difficult topic, this book is hard to beat.

Yet I think we're still talking about baby steps. Impressed as I was to see approving references in an academic book to the likes of Celer, Basic Channel, and Tetsu Inoue, a quick look at the discography and index reveals huge, gaping holes. Some are excused by the focus on aesthetic theory rather than history or criticism, but to see what progress has actually been made here, we need to take a closer look.

The unifying thread of Demers's discussion is the issue of whether sound is meaningful, either inherently or as used in the various kinds of sound art, which she divides into three broad “metagenres”: a) “electroacoustic music”, by which she basically means academic computer/classical music; b) “electronica”, with roots in pop/rock/dance music; and c) “sound art”, which is more associated with the gallery/museum tradition of visual art. As she elaborates later on, “[p]articipants in each metagenre generally perceive themselves in an oppositional relationship to a mainstream made up of the other two metagenres as well as different forms of nonelectronic music [e.g. pop and Western classical] [… they] also define themselves on the basis of institutions, media, and criticism.”

This sounds about right, but it may seem odd to think that the same theoretical issue is working itself out in such diverse areas of sonic art. Let's see how it comes up.

Part I: Sign

1) “Listening to Signs in Post-Schaefferian Electroacoustic Music”

A perennial controversy in aesthetic theory over the centuries concerns the “autonomy” of art. Is art (“merely”) an expression of culture or politics, or does it have its own identity entirely independent of these? Neither extreme seems attractive (which is why it's a perennial controversy). To think that the cultural and political background in which the artwork is produced has nothing to do with its identity is hopelessly naive for a dozen reasons. On the other hand, to reduce the artwork to a mere epiphenomenon, of interest only for its clues to power relations or whatever, makes hash of our experience of art. It's hardly better – even if entirely correct – to split the difference and say that the cultural context is partly, but not entirely, constitutive of the artwork. But can something be “partly autonomous”? What would that mean exactly? It's a mess.

Demers's subject is sonic art, and in this context it is natural to begin one's story at the moment when sound art decisively broke away from the specifically musical tradition. Her treatment of Pierre Schaeffer's conception of the “sound object” (objet sonore) is too subtle and detailed to get into here, but the most controversial aspect of Schaeffer's theory has been the idea of “reduced listening”. Akin to the Husserlian “phenomenological reduction” of reality to experience, this idea tells us to disregard any causal, mimetic or referential links to the world and concentrate instead on sound “in itself”. Even this idea, let alone Schaeffer's aesthetic as a whole, is remarkably hard to pin down, which is partly why it plays such a large role in the subsequent history of sound art.

Demers's point is not that we are all Schaefferians now; just the opposite, in fact, as much of what she discusses is a partial or complete rejection of the ideal of “absolute music”, and should thus be viewed in this context. This first chapter introduces the combatants and discusses a few ways to get beyond “absolute music” in the context of academic “electroacoustic music” (like the title says). We'll skip over this stuff (e.g. Trevor Wishart and Simon Emmerson, if you're interested) in the interest of time, except to note her observation that “even the most radical works in terms of form and sound content still identify themselves as music through the rituals in which they are experienced, creating a schizophrenic condition in which electroacoustic music is simultaneously music and something other than music, such as sound art.” [42] We see similar ideas below, but by itself I'm afraid this can't make most academic monstrosities even remotely listenable (not that that's her goal, of course).

2) “Material as Sign in Electronica”

We will have to skip over some chapters here, so let me be brief. Like the electroacoustic musicians of chapter 1, “electronica” artists are open to a wide variety of uses of nonmusical sound, as pioneered by Schaeffer, but also retain the idea that sound can be meaningful. According to Demers, they see sound as material subject to intelligible transformation, allowing meaning to be conveyed sonically by metaphors (say of destruction, augmentation, or recontextualization). I wasn't convinced by everything here, and she does tend to go for the suspiciously obvious examples (Matmos, William Basinski), but overall I think this is the right line to take.

Part II: Object

3) “Minimal Objects in Microsound”

As Demers uses it here, “microsound” means “recent electronic music that treats sound as collections of infinitesimally small particles.” This description suggests the technique of granular synthesis, which does not apply to all of her examples, but she later references as well the “ambient and glitch” works appearning on such labels as Mille Plateaux, Trente Oiseaux, and 12k/LINE (in other words, a wide range of stuff, not just minimal techno). Sometimes (e.g. Richard Chartier) the music itself is “minimal” in the sense of “very spare”; but in Demers's use the term applies to the sound particles themselves, as objects.

Donald_judd-blue“Object” is the other key term here, as Demers's concern here is to make a connection between microsound and the “minimal” sculpture of Donald Judd et al, given the analogous theoretical brouhaha over same in the 1960s (q.v. Michael Fried's “Art and Objecthood” (1967)). In some of her examples, e.g. Chartier and Miki Yui, she draws attention to “the material qualities of sound and silence[:] Chartier's silence is not the same as the pregnant silences in Cage's music, full of ambient, neglected sound, but is rather completely blank, empty space.” For some microsounders, “sounds function less as placeholders for meaning than as blank objects that can be added to or removed from the texture of a work” [78].

Demers concedes the inexactness of her analogy to sculpture, which is after all fixed in time in a way that music is not, but in each case the artist has purposely “discourage[d] decoding or interpretation” in order to combat previously dominant theoretical paradigms (say, of mimesis or intention). In addition, she has a couple of gripes with the application of the idea to microsound. First, while microsounders make a big deal out of not “deciphering, explaining, or decoding art”, this move is hardly new, as we have seen above (as in Schaefferian “reduced listening” and non-referentiality). In a word, it sounds to many critics like “absolute music” all over again.

In particular, Demers's second criticism focuses on the means these artists use to this famiiar end. Even when a track has been stripped of virtually everything interpretable as a musical gesture, just when “reduced listening seems more attainable,” we naturally turn again, as Demers herself does in discussing it, to metaphor: “pops,” “flutters,” “hums,” and so on. “Extremely quiet and esoteric sounds can evade meaning, but they cannot trump it altogether once listeners begin the process of explaining what they hear.” I think the equation of “minimalism” in this sense with the goal of Schaefferian “reduced listening” is a bit quick, and I don't want to reduce any work to its (apparent) theoretical motivations, but as a listener I have to admit that if that's what I'm supposed to get out of it, a little of this stuff goes a long way. Why limit your sonic means to a few digital clicks simply to discourage “deciphering”? There must be more to it than that.

One final note before we move on. Demers makes an exception to this criticism in the case of minimal techno, where “[p]aradoxically, once a track identifies itself as music [here, with its techno rhythm, even if manifested only in clicks], our curiosity about its contents [that is, its meaning or reference] is sated,” thus allowing for a form of “reduced listening” after all. This sort of dual possibility, in which listening is necessarily “reduced,” but not simply to non-referential sound (as in Ryoji Ikeda or Alva Noto), suggests to Demers that “[m]icrosound might thus represent [!] less an effort to avoid signification altogether than an idealistic attempt to preserve music's ability to signify.” [89]

4) “Maximal Objects in Drone, Dub Techno, and Noise”

While microsound “aspires to a reductive absence of meaning,” other types of music, Demers tells us, “have not given up on the belief that music can signify but have rather abandoned faith that signification occurs through intelligible units of a musical language. … [the techniques they use] disrupt the sense that music functions as a language by calling attention to physical aspects [those stressed by extreme volume and duration] that music usually asks us to ignore.”

For example, drone artist Eliane Radigue's recordings, while “minimal” in a familiarly broad sense, due to its static harmonies and limited sound palette, are “maximal” in their extreme length – often over an hour. Noise music is perhaps more obviously “maximal” in its ear-splitting volume. We might be surprised to see dub techno in this category, but as Demers explains, what these genres have in common, on her analysis, is “a quality of excess, something appreciable only after long stretches of time […] These pieces confine their materials to drones, noises, and repetive rhythmic patterns and often studiously avoid any other types of sounds that might distract from these elements.” [92]

GasIn particular, these works are intentionally static, “scrupulously avoid[ing] any sense of trajectory or anticipation”, even (as in dub techno, which Demers is here describing) when there are rhythmic elements present. The murky production of Gas's Nah und Fern (a massive reissue of his first 4 records, which are fairly similar in this respect), helps “create[] the impression that these sounds have solidified into inert objects promising no future growth or evolution”. The significance of this for Devers can be found in a distinction (as in Adorno) between “aesthetic time” and “empirical time”. The stasis she finds in this music focuses our attention on the disjunction between what we're hearing (a work of music occurring in finite time) and what we hear in another sense (non-teleological eternity).

Here too (typically for me, I grant) I worry about the danger of overdetermination of artistic substance by theory, as well as Demers's use, as before, of perhaps-too-friendly examples. Not all drone is as long-winded or reductive as Radigue, nor all noise simply featureless and loud. (For another take on noise, see my post here.) My sense is that there is more to these genres than this, and we need to let our ears lead us farther before we turn things over to the theoreticians.

Part III: Situation

Demers's final chapter (“Genre, Experimentalism, and the Musical Frame”) is about the tripartite distinction of sonic art into the “metagenres” mentioned above. I don't have a whole lot to say about this, but I do agree that the concept of “genre” is crucial to our experience of art, something which seemingly commits me to agreeing with Demers that “meaning” (in a broad sense at least) is an ineliminable factor here, as the constraints of genre – whatever they may be in particular cases – just are the makers of meaning in this sense. Anyway, let's finish up with a look at chapter 5.

5) “Site in Ambient, Soundscape, and Field Recordings”

Here the key concept is that of “site”: space and its metaphorical extensions. While not signifying (i.e. referring), sound is not simply an object, but instead creates a sonic space; such works “regard sound as situated [so, “site”], as inextricably bound to a particular spot or trajectory, whether real or imagined, physical or metaphysical.”

TetsuWhile field recordings are the most obvious example of sound's connection with site, ambient music is equally concerned with site's aesthetic potential. Again Demers begins with an obvious example: KLF's Chill Out, which is jam-packed with exotic samples, but she is impressed by its subtle mix, which makes it “seem[] to position itself in the background of any space in which it is played, even when it is heard through headphones”. She again stresses the construction of a “listening space” over the reference of the samples in her second example. Thanks to Tetsu Inoue's subtle processing of the various sounds, World Receiver is “a collision of two different types of acoustics—a reverberant open one and a more restrained private one that suggests interiority, or the music and sounds heard only in the mind”.

We have to leave it here (Demers goes on to cite soundscape recordings as going beyond ambient in “thematizing listening” in search of a “higher degree of truth content”), but let me furrow my brow one final time. Demers's book, again, is not a work of criticism; but while a theoretical focus may work fine for the “electroacoustic” exercises of her opening chapter, it seems insufficient when dealing with a real live musical masterpiece like World Receiver. Can pointing out its balance of “inner” and “outer” spaces – or any purely theoretical consideration – really capture its greatness? And isn't greatness what we're really concerned with, when it's there to be had?