“Electronic music” can mean almost anything these days when nearly every album you buy has been recorded, edited, or processed on some level by computers, to say nothing of all the tones generated by plug-in software and synthesizers. But when an anthology couples it with the word “noise”, you’d be forgiven if that horizon shrinks way down in your mind’s eye to a two-dimensional plane occupied by such questionable gods of sonic attrition as Merzbow.
Of course, noise has been an aspect of popular music since the beginning of the rock era, when Sam Phillips preferred the distorted sound of a damaged amplifier for Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88”, but as the fifth installment of An Anthology of Noise & Electronic Music makes clear, some members of the avant-garde were already at that time exploring the possibilities of music that didn’t just incorporate noise to accentuate conventional songs, but simply was noise. If you’re not sure how fruitful of an idea that was (or is), this compilation might help you make up your mind.
Disc One features pieces recorded between 1959 and 2007. Although they draw from an extremely diverse set of equipment, sample sources, and compositional techniques, there are are enough recurring motifs that we can get the ‘what does it sound like’ question out of the way pretty quickly: there are lots of mechanical scrapes, hypnotic pulses, effects that recall creaking floorboards, animal-like utterances, and obscure—often rhythmically shifting—masses of material that sound eaves-dropped via poor shortwave communication to another universe.
Most of the tracks are worthwhile, and they’re sequenced well, the more atmospheric ones kept in balance with the more rhythmic ones. The most successful, like Li Chin Sung’s “Shame” (a 2007 remix of composer Tetsuo Furudate) and Claude Bailif’s Points, Mouvements (1962) are strong on both, and will likely sound like the most musical pieces to less academically inclined ears. The former builds off a gorgeous, distant drone and deeply pounding beat, adding in the sounds of an unashamedly synthetic zoo, with the equivalent of crickets, birds or whales, and rain all making themselves heard without exactly commingling. When the whale-birds enter into a call-and-response that seems to be influenced by the beat, Sung finds a zone I would gladly remain suspended in for ten minutes, but he wisely fades out there, leaving us teased by the sweet falseness of the whole thing, trying in vain to imagine it. The Bailif piece is a serial composition proceeding from a drone mixed with bell-like overtones, through mechanical scrapes/found percussion sounds, and on to warm, hypnotic clicks while improbably retaining some inner thread of order throughout all these shifts. But Richard Maxfield’s “Pastoral Symphony” (1960) in a way makes the strongest impression, his sci-fi early synth pulses often sound as if they’re trying—not very successfully—to mimic human voices, and that ineffectual effort is bizarrely affecting.
The second disc doesn’t hold to anywhere near the same standard. Apart from a previously unreleased, skeletal live version of Pere Ubu’s “Sentimental Journey” (that’s a significant improvement on the original), its selections feel far more conceptually than musically motivated. Series curator (and Sub Rosa co-founder) Guy Marc Hinant writes in the liner notes that one of the particular goals in putting together this volume of the Anthology was to concentrate on works that use the human voice “not as sung words… but as the word itself, recited, distorted, rendered abstract or disaggregated and screamed.” It’s hard to be sure without a complete list of sound sources for every piece, but I didn’t hear too many human voices on Disc One, which is good, because the voice-dependent pieces too often seem to have nothing much up their sleeve beyond de-contextualizing the voices. Listening to these tracks, I become slightly excited or hopeful whenever my ears discern a new voice, but then gradually disappointed as I realize they are too electronically mangled to contain any consistent affect or coherent identity. This may be precisely what Hinant finds interesting about them, and it is somewhat interesting to think about, but the effect while listening to the tracks is boring and wearying rather than profound.
Thinking back to the Maxfield piece, one realizes that the sound of machines straining to imitate humans is so much more resonant than its opposite. The one suggests growth, the other regression.