In Search of Noise Pt. 1

by Owen Davis

Since modernity and the industrial revolution, noise has been a materialistic and conceptual concern--conscious or not--of every practitioner of sound. For those who identify as composers, the passing of the 20th century can be looked at as becoming increasingly saturated, complex, and unavoidably noisy. From the Futurists, through Cage, on to Lachenmann, and now Aaron Cassidy and Michael Maierhof — noise has been an unavoidable problem facing those who try to organize and control it. Noise is such precisely because it actively refuses and resists being music. The glaring contradiction of 'noise music' serves as my conceptual starting point.

In October of 2015, I began a project centered around the problem of noise and noise music. Thinking about noise motivated a series of situations and realizations which collided together into numerous aesthetic and conceptual questions. This investigation has been supplemented with reading Noise/Music: A history, by Paul Heggarty, Noise in and as Music, by Aaron Cassidy and Aaron Einbond, as well as NOISE WATER MEAT, by Douglas Kahn. To begin with, I would like to present some possible definitions of noise.

“Noise,” a Dictionary Definition:

  1. a) Sound or a sound that is loud, unpleasant, unexpected, or undesired.

  1. b) Sound or a sound of any kind: the only     noise was the wind in the pines. A loud outcry or commotion: the noise of the mob; a lot of noise over the new law.     

  2. Physics: A disturbance, especially a random and persistent. disturbance, that obscures or reduces the clarity of a signal.     

  3. Computer science:Irrelevant or meaningless data.

And a proposition into music:

"Noise music in general may be understood to be, quite literally, the musicalization of indiscernibility. Noise music relies on an exploitation of the grey area of contradiction; it lies on the fault line between music and non-music, wanted and unwanted, the pleasurable and grotesque, and so on, pulling in various, conflicting directions."

-Marie Thompson

I decided that I would channel this new noisy energy into my practice by beginning a long-term series of compositions. Seven months later, I am still just as intrigued, if not more so, by this phenomena. My noise pieces have served as experimental frameworks for my growth as a composer and artist. Inside of noise I can explore, succeed, and with any “good” noise, fail.

Thus far I have completed six works in the n(oise) series and each one has challenged me to reconsider my relationship to noise and my approach to making it. I’ve come to learn that noise is much more than sound — it is conceptual, visual, social, and very political. In this series of writings, I will attempt to unpack how noise is created in each work as well and attempt to offer answers to these questions. This essay will deal only with n1 and 2 and the two subsequent essays will continue through the compositional series. n1 was finished in October 2015 for the Flagstaff Arizona-based percussionist Jordan Lewis. He premiered the piece in December 2015 in a local venue called Firecreek Coffee Co., which houses the majority of independently produced performances in Flagstaff. Due to the excessive talking from the adjacent bar, the premiere performance was completely inaudible. It was a beautiful and painful reminder that noise is constantly being defined relatively. n2 was finished in November 2015 for a Chicago-based saxophonist Thomas Caminito and violinist Irine Røsnes. It was premiered on May 20th, 2016 at Transistor in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood in between two sets of original compositions by local jazz musicians. Again, another expression of the relativism of noise.

To inform my compositional approaches to noise in these pieces, I drew on Peter Ablinger’s essay, Black Square and Bottle Rack: Noise and Noises. In this essay, Ablinger posits that there are two conceptual streams taken by composers when utilizing noise in music. These are:

1. individualization/isolation of noises found in the projects, for example, of Cage and Lachenmann in the service of the liberation of noises away from and back into music.

2. complete saturation/totality of sounds found in Ablinger's own work as well as a number of other composers such as Raphael Cendo and Iannis Xenakis.

These two frameworks guide my initial approach for the interaction with and creation of these works. 

Within the entire series, n1  employs the most conventional approach to noise. The piece articulates a 'classic' new music “turning inside out” of the vibraphone. The “unwanted” sounds — pedal touching floor, scraping of resonators, friction of mallets on bars, motor, fan blades, etc, all serve as the primary material where pitch takes a background role and function. Drawing on the methods of Lachenmann and Maierhof, the noisy material informs the structure — another answer to Cage's rhetorical statement, “Beethoven was wrong.” The first layer of noise is expressed by a single sonic object (phrase) that is repeated, manipulated, and transformed in a number of subtle ways. Each transformation is noise to the prior. The second formal layer has designed moments of interruption – silence, growing friction, and a moment in which the performer scratches the microphone, thus instrumentalizing and disrupting the function of an apparatus otherwise intended to amplify the vibraphone bars.

Noise in n2 manifests itself in the performers’ paradoxical or, at worst, false agency given to construct form and material. The preface to the work states: “The first item to consider for the performance of n2 is the initial disruption of the potentially hierarchical situation of the players (workers) realizing the instructions of the sole composer (boss) by forcing agency on the performer to construct the form of the piece by means of ordering 20 pre-made sonic objects fixed in duration”. The freedom of the performers, however, is still a rigid, constricted freedom. The disruption of hierarchy is itself disrupted, a contradiction embodied by “noise music” itself. There is also a compromise, however small, in the material of the piece. In one durational container, there are black boxes that I refer to as indeterminate. As a direct reference to Cage’s Aria, the performer is presented with black boxes in the score for which they choose any sonic event. This materialistic freedom, just like the microphone scraping in n1, breaks a self-reflexive “fourth wall.” In other words, unpredictable elements barge into the sacred situation of music.  Overlapping forces scream for the attention of the listener, creating a highly confusing and noisey situation. 

Each of these “noise pieces” are an expression of what noise could be; subjective answers to the question of noise. Noise has been the prism through which I have been experiencing life — looking and listening for it, as well as learning its potential.