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