June 28, 2011

Why Do You Think They Call It Noise?

For the sake of context, I will point you to various musical projects I have been involved in, past and present.  My band of 20 years has documentation here, my current band is represented here, and of course you can score some downloads at Bandcamp if you wish.  An overview of what I do is at my Soundcloud page, which just happens to have a very sweet version of "Amazing Grace".

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We called it noise when we started in the 80's; industrial noise, to be precise.  But even then, what was called industrial noise was becoming restricted, reduced, and reterritorialized*.  All these guys that were beating on metal together, I suppose it makes sense that, sooner or later, they grasped rhythm as the way to communicate.  Or normalize, I would say.  After a while it sounded like a hippie drum circle with tubes and sheet metal instead of hippie drums.

Punk rock came about when what was called "rock -n- roll" at the time became bloated and irrelevant.  The Ramones (most visibly) stripped it down to three chords and a cloud of dust.  But by the mid 80's, when we first showed up, punk rock had evolved (devolved?) into hardcore, there were rules to be followed, there was a club to join, there was a cannon to master.  Punk rock was becoming daddy, and even if daddy had tattoos, leathers, and a funny haircut, he still wasn't essentially different from polyester cocaine dancer daddy, or long hair groovy judgmental-in-a-different-way daddy, or Mad Men daddy.  Bands who wanted to be more creative, to move outside the strictures of punk rock, by and large moved back toward mainstream rock (creating "alternative" or "college rock"), which by that time began to look like a bastion of freedom compared to punk rock.  And then there were the freaks.

So, noise was our punk rock.  It was our way of breaking things down, similar to the way the Ramones broke things down . . . except instead of three chords and a cloud of dust, we just had the cloud of dust - no chords.  First called industrial noise, the "industrial" faded away when the inherent rhythmic stupidity started heading ever closer to disco, and when it became more about lifestyle (which always seemed to me like clubbing with an attitude) than about breaking down music.  "Noise" stripped of other connotations was much more elemental, much more primal.  Historically, noise could collect non-industrial types like Einsturzende Neubauten, the Butthole Surfers, and even experiments by more rockish avant-garde bands like Pere Ubu ("The Book is On the Table").  It could reach back to the no wave of Mars, DNA, Red Transistor, and Lydia Lunch; back to the sixties free improvisation groups like AMM, to the free jazz of Coltrane, Coleman, Ayler, et. al., and to the non-idiomatic free players like Derek Bailey and Evan Parker who bridged that gap.  It could reach back to Stockhausen, Xennakis, and Cage; it could reach back even to strictly regimented late 19th/early 20th Century composers who produced complex music that broke the rules of the time.

The elemental, primal aspect of noise also means it is irreducible.  Like "music", "noise" is a subset of sound.  These two subsets are generally thought to oppose each other, with music being a pleasing arrangement of sound, and noise being an anarchic and (to varying degrees) annoying occurrence of sound.  They are not, however, totally exclusive of each other: the differences between music and noise have a strong cultural bias, and what is normally considered noise is often included in the arrangements of sound that make up music.  But while music will stretch and change (which is, by the way, the beauty of music), noise remains outside, remains irreducible.  

This whole rant came about because, recently, I've posted my band several different places online, and I've been asked to classify the band each time.  I consider my band, Black Kaspar, a noise band.  Now, you will see "noise" as a qualifier quite often when it comes to current music; I often had the choice of "noise pop", "noise rock", the old standby "industrial noise", and so on.  I, for one, reject noise as a qualifier, because it's nothing more than an attempt to reterretorialize noise, to bring it back into the fold as a musical spice rather than the main course of sound.

Now, it's not the mainstream that is trying to reclaim noise, not by a longshot.  It's the outsiders that crave acceptance, that crave recognition on some level no matter how small, that crave to cleave back to the hierarchy.  It seems that an artist always wants to claim to be special, and there is nothing special about noise; one makes noise accidentally as soon as your feet hit the floor when you get out of bed in the morning.  The artist always seems to need to claim a space for himself that is his own, so for him, "noise" is just too pedestrian, too normal, too . . . unmusical.

And that is why I choose "noise" for my tag.  I certainly hold my music up against most of what gets made these days, but I don't claim any special expertise, I don't lay claim to any sort of cannon that needs mastery.  I make NOISE, simply and irreducibly, and you can like it or not, but you can't tell me I'm doing it wrong, because there is no right way.  I'll leave it to others to write clever songs; I'll continue to sculpt my sound.  And when you ask me what makes my noise special, interesting, or worth listening too, I'll not bore you with conjured complexities: I'll just point at what I've done and say "there it is - you tell me".  For me, the beauty of pure noise is that it is the anti-cult: join if you wish.
*  Through no fault of the first industrial noise band, Throbbing Gristle, who showed up just a year or two after the Ramones.  It was probably the Throbbing Gristle folk who coined the term "industrial noise".


comfortstarr said...

Damn Bill! Good stuff. A couple of thoughts:

1) What's the difference between noise and sound? I don't really think noise is a subset of sound. Noise is sound, sound is noise. A noise has sound, sound makes a noise. Music, mos def is a subset of noise/sound. Once you do anything to arrange or structure your noise consciously, you're making music no?

2) You write: "But while music will stretch and change (which is, by the way, the beauty of music), noise remains outside, remains irreducible." I think that noise that has been consciously altered/produced/presented (and hence music) must then be able to stretch and change. If you make a second recording in the "noise" genre, don't you by default feel the same way?

3) Why is noise irreducible? If it was created on purpose, it can be reduced; the purpose can go away and we'll see what happens--leave the guitar sitting against the amp, but even that... There's very little pure noise right? So any piece of noise can be reduced to its individual elements. When a train screeches to a stop, it's not one noise, it's many.

Bill Zink said...

Yeah, Clark, I think you are pretty much at the core of the matter on these issues.

1) I call noise a subset of sound because I think of noise as a specific type of sound. Though they are sometimes used interchangeably (You and the wife are lying in bed late at night and you hear a thump in the next room, saying "What was that noise?" is the same as saying "What was that sound?"), there seems to be a difference that is useful in some contexts (You and the wife are riding in the car and the young one is making a racket in the back seat, you would turn to him and say "Why are you making so much noise?", though probably not "Why are you making so much sound?"). I'll admit that the idea of noise as I use it is a bit of a conceit, but a reasonable one, I believe . . . as long as I can hammer it out in a more coherent manner.

The last sentence of the first paragraph, and all of point 2), is pretty much at the center of the whole discussion, so I'll take a poke at 3) first.

3) When I speak of noise being irreducible, what I am saying is that when you try to unpack noise, all you come up with is more noise. So, an industrial air conditioning unit makes a certain noise, and that noise may be the squeal of a rubber belt, the thrumming of a fan, and the slosh of various liquids inside the unit, but they are all noises in and of themselves.

This thinking is also a reference to set theory, which is frankly above my head at this point. Someday I want to get a book to study up on set theory so I actually have a shot at understanding Badiou's *Being and Event*, which I read a year or two ago more as modernist poetry than an actual philosophical text.

2) I'm trying to have it both ways, aren't I? I'm trying to say that I am consciously creating something outside music, but then using as my definition of music a "pleasing arrangement of sound" with, to my mind at least, "arrangement" being the key there. There is no way for me to say that I am not arranging my sound even if I do things that allow for certain randomness (use of guitar feedback, using mixers plugged into themselves in a way that makes the response difficult to predict, etc.). So, once I start arranging things, I'm done with noise . . . unless I want to focus on the "pleasing" in my definition of music: then I could say that what I am doing is designed to subvert the definition of music by being "not pleasing". But that too is disingenuous, since I listen to "noise" music all the time, so I must (and do) find it pleasing. Besides, as briefly alluded to in the essay, "pleasing" is a very culturally defined idea, so even if I am taking this in a broader cultural context, noise is not an absolute thing.

Now, I could make most of these problems go away by making noise a simple descriptor, such as "alternative" or "college rock" or "grime" or "dub step", but that seems too easy to me. It's not going to be much more than a simple descriptor, but there is something at the core of this idea that is worth chasing out a little further. Noise to me is different than just another subset of popular music, though I don't think I've put my finger on why yet. I'll have to answer the big question you posed in 2) to have any hope of moving in that direction.

Time to retreat to the John Cage books.