On Subverting Sonic Rules: 'Resonances: Noise and Contemporary Music'

Noise may antagonize, subvert, transcend or annoy, but one person's noise is almost always another's music.

Resonances: Noise and Contemporary Music

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Length: 288 pages
Editors: Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan, Nicola Spelman
Price: $29.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2013-07

The Noise as/versus Music contention seems, at this point, moot. Rasps, squawks, screams, feedback, shrieking, pounding: Noise -- as something distinct from, say, the traditional harmonic paradigm of most Western music -- has been largely naturalized, through experimental classical and jazz, rock ’n’ roll, rock, punk, industrial, techno and onward. Noise may still antagonize, subvert, transcend, or simply annoy, but one person’s noise is almost always simply another person’s music.

Resonances: Noise and Contemporary Music is a collection of scholarly essays examining the varieties of noise music, and the impact of noise on music -- or, as the introduction pluralizes in true academic fashion, “musics”. The collection itself is a diverse mix, with topics ranging from artists like Xenakis and Hendrix, Lou Reed and Filthy Turd, to compositional techniques and cultural ramifications of noise.

The book’s editors, Michael Goddard, Benjamin Halligan and Nicola Spelman, are all distinguished UK lecturers, and their book is strictly academic. So much so that reading the introduction made me a bit skittish. Academics often speak their own language -- call it jargonese -- a combination of near-hermetic verbiage and over-delicate objectivity. When you see a word like “music” pluralized as “musics”, for example, you know what you’re in for. Here’s the introduction’s second sentence:

Such debates [contemporary histories of popular music] are class-ridden, evidence racial prejudices and profiling, continually undermine traditional musicological assumptions, radically problematize the commercial framings of music, mark all pivotal shifts in music across at least one hundred years, relentlessly advance the ‘death of the author’, are called upon to define time, place and national identity, and outmanoeuvre demarcations of high art and low culture.

Luckily, most of the following chapters avoid this kind of cacophony of ideas.

One of the more engaging essays, “Sounds Incorporated: Dissonant Sorties into Popular Culture” is by Stephen Mallinder, a founding member of the band Cabaret Voltaire. Mallinder discusses the encroachments or infiltrations of noise into popular culture, so that “[p]opular music has found itself sharing in the spoils of innovation” provided not only by such seminal rock groups as The Velvet Underground (not to mention Cabaret Voltaire themselves), “heretics who challenged the rules of audience engagement, and what actually constituted popular sound, and so came to shape our listening”, but “from more prosaic sources [as well]: Shadow Morton’s motorbike screeches in the Shangri La’s ‘Leader of the Pack’ (1965) or the nightmarish memories of subterranean sounds emanating from the black and white television.”

Mallinder states: “Popular culture is a gateway through which many enter in order to discover how the rules that govern majority tastes can be undone, to subversive effect.”

Such subversion comes in many forms, from the aesthetic to the political, with both often inextricably meshed. On the aesthetic end, Jennifer Shryane’s chapter “Stairwells of Abjection and Screaming Bodies: Einsturzende Neubauten’s Artaudian Noise Music” looks at the theatrical energies of the highly influential Berlin group, and their realization of Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty:

Neubauten’s… performance of destruction [was] a version of Artaud’s theatre of the plague… intended to ‘infect’ and collapse West Germany’s Economic Miracle in the 1980s and its accompanying architecture and culture, much as Artaud had hoped his plague would eradicate the stultifying, text-bound theatre of his day.

Shryane also picks out Neubauten’s “use of found and self-built instrumentation rag-picked from Berlin’s… terrain in response to Artaud’s proposal for ‘utterly unusual sound properties and vibrations’ [and singer] Blixa Bargeld’s non-linguistic vocalization and use of the scream… as a ‘material’ voice which brings with it pain for both the expeller and the receiver.”

Punk noise has taken an even more overtly and dangerously political turn in Russia, as Yngvar B. Steinholt’s chapter “Roars of Discontent: Noise and Disaffection in Two Cases of Russian Punk” reveals. Steinholt examines the anarchic protest performances of two groups, Grazhdanskaia Oborona (or GrOb) and Pussy Riot, the latter of whom have most recently found themselves in deep political trouble, including imprisonment. A performance or “occupation” of their “punk prayer”, “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away”, at the altar of Christ the Saviour Church in Moscow, resulted in at least two of the women involved with the group “detained pending investigation.”

Though Pussy Riot has a number of defenders, both internationally and in their own country, Steinholt states that “the ability of Russians to rejoice in this noise receded somewhat as performances began taking place in locations of higher symbolic importance” and even “[m]any of Pussy Riot’s high-profile supporters initially denounced the punk prayer as deeply insulting and stupid, whilst continuing to petition for their release.”

Apparently, many people like their noise to stay put. Venue is everything. And too much desecration is not what the people want.

As Steinholt remarks, in a sentence of beautiful euphemism: “A consequence of sacrificing the minimal aestheticizing of the musical sound is a reduced potential for listening pleasure.”

Yet noise remains a strongly effective compositional tool.

Eric Lyon’s “Using Noise Techniques to Destabilize Composition and Improvisation” is a heady analysis requiring a fair degree of musical/compositional knowledge, though the illustrations and figures of notated examples are extremely intriguing. For example, this is from a free-form “directive pool” for a piece entitled Noise Quartet #1:

Play almost nothing

Choose one sound and stick to it

Play only what someone else is already playing…

Go Crazy!...

Also intriguing, and providing a nice brain-breather, is the photographic Archive, “Indestructible Energy: Seeing Noise” by photographer Julie R. Kane, a collection from performances or “noise gigs” from the likes of Throbbing Gristle, Swans and the appropriately named Filthy Turd.

Despite its ostensibly “low” or pop culture subjects, Resonances is fairly highbrow. The book’s language is intensively scholarly, and its appeal mostly academic. At times, perusing its 20-plus chapters, I felt like I was attending a particularly loud conference of an overwhelming series of lectures, all dense and dissonant. But if you can bear the noise, it’s worth it.


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