What do you do?
I’m a musician.
So you play music?
No, I play noise.
Isn’t noise a kind of music then?
No, noise isn’t music.
This exchange of words is all too common. Many of the people that make loud noise call themselves noiser, but for ease of communication they usually introduce themselves as musicians. It’s just to make do, but this way they are also terrorists blending into the general population. All of this is quite different with the people that make noise at lower volumes. Whether they are composers, like Iannis Xenakis or David Tudor or register as improvisational musicians, engaging in electro-acoustic improvisation with niche audiences, in either case they embrace the idea that “noise is a kind of music too”, up to the point where they argue for its recognition as such, and, in the worst case, even seek to defend its rights.
Noise could be part of music. That was, by and large, the conclusion of the mid-twentieth century. At the time, all kinds of freaks could find acceptance – troublemakers and social elites seemed only one step apart. Action paintings became American national treasures, conceptual art entered collections, and Fluxus and experimental music became part of the compulsory curriculum of middle-class culture. In the end, hearing John Cage talk about silence became as exuberating as hearing Osho talk about love. Along with silence, music welcomed noise into the fold. Tolerance. And a ton of politeness. But like Cage’s undying smile, it quickly becomes annoying. Why can’t noise be itself? Why must it be music?
In that promise as excellent as the American Dream every sound can become music, every urinal can turn into art, every individual can make it big – the radiant light of mercy and wisdom (and wealth and democracy) will shine on all corners. Except for what it does not shine on.
Also except for photographs of Cage not smiling. This is in any case a bit sad for him.
Why must it be successful? Can’t we do politics without becoming politicians? Do stupid cunts have a right to existence? Without the grace of composers, can noise, skulking about, be heard as well? If it isn’t heard, does it have the right to exist? The right not to exist?
Noise music is an answer to the questions above. Similar to this dialogue:
Are you a musician? Do you play music? Are you a noise musician, or a noise artist?
No, I’m no such thing! I’m no such thing!! I’m no thing!!!
Noise music: like noise musicians, a contradictio in terminis. It’s an innate self-confliction, a self-contradictory term that joins its self-destructive counterpart. But for now I don’t want to address noise art, and sound art even less. I even want to draw a clear line from noise in everyday language, which refers to a sound event realized with electronic equipment and speakers at an extremely loud volume that has no ‘musical’ aspect whatsoever. After emerging in 1980s Japan, it found its steady shape in Europe, America and Japan in the 1990s. This isn’t low volume noise or the previously mentioned noise music. It includes Luigi Rossolo’s noise machine Intonarumori, the Soviet noise experiments, the electro-acoustic improvisation in the UK and live electronics in the USA in the 1960s, or the Los Angeles Free Music Society (LAFMS)… Not noise in nature, not the renovations next door… and not differences in political opinions nor protest songs, not swearwords nor depression… not the open rhetoric and symbolism of the word “noise”, not “NOT” in capital letters.
It’s just amplifying “no such thing” infinitely. Like suddenly coming eye to eye with the void itself, and then it suddenly explodes.
But this line of argument is somewhat heartless. That’s because it excludes many forerunners and colleagues, including those who were shot by Stalin because they played with noise. But then there is only this line of argument: to push the logic of noise beyond its boundaries. And only this kind of music (or non-music) is the loudest, the most noise: it’s the most a-logical, with least time for reflection, the most profound emerging from out of the ruins of one’s existence.
Many noisers insist on saying noise isn’t music, but they don’t mind the term noise music. There’s no need to get worked up over a word, but a sentence is a different matter.
People have long gotten used to the word music. It’s not specific, and used rather casually. Being casual is important. Don’t ever be a fucking snob. ‘Contemporary art’ sounds a bit like one ( :s ), ‘sound art’ even more so ( :s +1 ). Carrying on with such a worn-out, washed-out word shows we are playing an ancient game. Maybe it’s even the only game, a game that despite the lack of specifications never stopped taking place. Music originates in rituals. It’s a game of communication with the myriad things of the cosmos, with the spirits and the deceased, it is everywhere. You could find refuge in this old and washed out attitude, and subsist in equality with everything else. Moreover, such mundaneness is a necessary condition for uniqueness to come forth. Just like hearing a cell phone ring tone of a stall owner in the vegetable market and catching a trancy high pitch and the rhythm of the heart. Let them return to God’s side. The vegetable market is the world.
Noise: there are no eternally fixed differences, only the commonness of the chaosmos.
Music: when the ubiquitous, mundane noise is being ignored, music, which is ubiquitous and specific, will replace it and become the atmosphere, the background, and even noise.
Noise is the original state of all sounds, the order-less order of the universe. Amplify it and you get an explosion. Free your reigns and it’s chaosmos. Really, the moment you let go everything falls back into the primordial soup. When you see people that are dressed to the nines, those celebrities and brides, don’t you feel sad and amused that they’ll one day will be wrinkled, drooling and dying?
Also, when noise starts breaking down into categories: “Harsh Noise”, “Harsh Noise Wall” (HNW), “Fast Cut Noise”, “Psychedelic Noise”, “Noisecore”, “Shitcore”… then noise must from start to end stay in one body, in one state. That’s just like if you were to be labeled wise, you would have to gently smile all the way… apparently even noise longs for some sense of security… but maybe it’s more apt for noise to exist within paradox, which is why by the early 1990s, the Japanese started saying noise is dead. It had been defined. That weird group, Gerogerigegege, who masturbate and sing karaoke on stage, didn’t they reach the absurd dignity of noise, only to disappear, rejected by all the categories mentioned above?
Come to speak of it, living an already-dead life is yet another paradox. If noise is a paradox, then today, to keep playing noise while not being played by noise is not only impossible, but also possible.
The Intonarumori, a futurist instrument of the 1910s, was a pile of wooden boxes which made noises by striking and rubbing gears and levers. The Soviet noise machines of the 1920s came in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they used steam engines, film strips, and guns, sometimes just their hands. In the 1930s, Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters employed record players. In the 1950s, Cage bought short-wave radio sets. In the 1960s, everyone was welding electronic parts. In the 1980s, guitar effects were cheap and numerous… After the 1990s, subwoofers became common, along with laptop computers. Noise is the product of machines. Without electricity there will be no 130 decibel out-of-body experience. More precisely, noise occurs when people throw themselves into the sea of machines. The earth has already started warming, melting. Since we’re doomed anyway, why not die swimming. Who knows, you might even die a worthy death.
In the 1970s when industrial music sprang up in the UK there was a famous slogan: “Industrial Music for Industrial People” (by the artist Monte Cazazza). So noise was also the noise for noisers, an instance of feedback. Since the industrial revolution, we have all become noisers, but only a minority actively embraces this fact. They don’t look like they are resisting the times, as they don’t seek to return to nature or believe that heaven and man are one. Instead, they are even further from nature than machines. They listen to machines and garbage, amplify their sounds, and make them break through their limits, which brings their malfunctioning and destructions out into the open. Then in the 1970s, the Survival Research Laboratories appeared in San Francisco, with performances centering on fighting with and destroying robots. It no longer was a question of performing with the human body, because the old body had already been sacrificed to the machines.
All this should be traced back to the Futurists, Dadaists and the Soviet Avant-Garde/Communists. In that strange new world riven with conflicts, those people were equally strange. They are the forerunners of the sacrifice because they did not only bid farewell to the illusion of pastoral melodies but also to individuality and the self. There would be no techniques and masters anymore, no aesthetics and morality either. Through mechanization the willful death of the old body took these worn-out clichés down with it, a suicide bomber. And this in the end was for the sake of a better world. In a society that at the time embodied the greatest promise Tatlin designed the Soviets a flying machine, demonstrating the potential of science and poetry (and tragedy and destruction). Soviet youngsters putting on their gliding wings, that image resonates with that of Hugo Ball in Zurich in 1913, when he dressed up in a Cubist cone of a costume and recited that sound poem [called Karawane] that imitated the sounds of machines and war. The scene also resembles how Gerogerigegege electro-shocked their anuses and used vacuum cleaners on their dicks. In machines new bodies are born.
Today’s loud noise music/non-music builds on the noise movements of a century ago. But it would be better to say that it builds memorials to the failure of these movements. The Art of Noise, that oft-cited (over-cited) manifesto, starts off from listening to the sounds of everyday life. Sound poetry from the same era began by abolishing the meaning of language and returning to the physicality of language. However, they all failed, including the Italian and USSR efforts to reform society through art. One reason was the lack of sufficiently loud instruments. Another lies in the marriages with powerful parties with diverging agendas. And there are many more reasons, not least the fact that noise actually wants to fail. In a world of success noise has a propensity for failure, for returning to the chaosmos, for preserving the potential of returning to scratch, for striking out taxonomy and museums and bank deposits…
Through the prism of noise, the idea that heaven and man are one [an axiom of ancient Chinese philosophy] reveals an attitude against the modern world. Either you destroy yourself and thereby destroy the systems of circulation attached to the self, or you cut off circulation, including the circulation of capital (economics), the circulation of meaning (language), the circulation of subjectivity (symbolic order), and so liberate the self and return it to nothingness.
Loud noise, with its forced, immediate physiological reactions, is larger than the scandals of the avant-garde of a century ago, or the happenings and bloody events of Fluxus and the Viennese Actionists. It is roughly akin to the drugs of shamans and witch doctors. In terms of temporal delimitation, it is the time in which ancient sorcery and ceremony, symbols and experience co-exist. On the other hand, it is cyberpunk’s drug-enabled fusion of man and machine. It is a future witchcraft that mashes up flesh and machines. Noise as a drug is neither natural nor chemical. It is an intense physical vibration and neurological activity. To the modernized, anxious body, noise is like seizing oneself by the hair. Not to leave the earth but to shake the body up, to exorcise it.
After the loud, intense and extreme Japanoise, Harsh Noise Wall (HNW) appeared on the scene. The French group Vomir described them in this way: “no dynamic, no change, no development, no ideas”. This emotionless manifesto reminds one again of Gerogerigegege, who said: “Fuck compose, fuck melody, dedicated to no one, thanks to no one. ART IS OVER.” This resembles conceptual art’s obituary for Dada. When noise is defined and familiar, it becomes just another abstract expressionist painting (expressing what?) or free jazz (free in what sense?), a show of venting by subjects. Then there will be new noises to overthrow these performers, these suicides, these emotionally moving subjects (is that not a crime? When you help others to say what they can’t put into words, when you make people cry and find answers?).
In other words, noise returns to the chaosmos. Moreover it’s another return out of its own volition. Those sounds are like deer in headlights. Vinyl records, 15 euros, bring them home and the neighbors think you’ve bought three washing machines. Or a sea. The sea, too, is dull like a deer in headlights.
The sea is a sound which people do not tire of. Provoking it would be ill-advised, and since the human body is made up of 70% water, the sea is home. Humanity comes from amino acids, which come from the sea. Or from a stinky sewer – it’s all the same.
Humans come from the uterus, immersed in amniotic fluid, vibrating occasionally. If noise wouldn’t surge out so intensely, it should immerse us like amniotic fluid. So why shouldn’t the washing machine take the place of the Rinpoche lama, especially when you own three of them?
About this ordinary, beginningless and endless noise, the Boddhisattva Guanyin, who once lived by the sea, said: “At first by directing the organ of hearing into the stream of meditation, this organ was detached from its object, and by wiping out (the concept of) both sound and stream-entry, both disturbance and stillness became clearly non-existent. Thus advancing step by step both hearing and its object ceased completely, but I did not stop where they ended. When the awareness of this state and this state itself were realized as non-existent, both subject and object merged into the void, the awareness of which became all-embracing. With further elimination of the void and its object both creation and annihilation vanished, giving way to the state of Nirvana which then manifested. Suddenly I leaped over both the mundane and supramundane, thereby realizing an all-embracing brightness pervading the ten directions…. (“Meditation on the Organ of Hearing”, Śūraṅgama Sūtra, Translated by Upasaka Lu K’uan Yu, Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc., 191–2). He/she found the path through listening. Later, he/she was recast as a divinity who answered all prayers, being especially apt at helping people get pregnant and give birth to boys. But he/she can’t listen to noise in our stead. So at the laundromat by the sea, is what she hears the same as what I hear? Can she, like dogs, hear frequencies around 50,000 Hertz? It seems trivial, at least she doesn’t care anymore. She cast away the interface between the listening subject and the sonic object. In the movement of sound/listening, she entered that moment between live and death where the continuity between the two doesn’t exist anymore. They are experienced as basic physical forms, which is vibration. Then they disappear without differentiation.
The human voice is a specific bioelectric phenomenon. From the beginningless and endless vibrations of the myriad things it selects frequencies between 20 and 20,000 Hertz, and converts these into electric signals, which are transported by the brain’s nervous system. Overly weak signals are called silence.
We invented the concept of noise because we invented language and music. From all vibrations we selected a small part – reorganized, produced and reproduced, compiling a circulated network of meaning. And the rest is noise (here I borrow Alex Ross’s book title).
However, it’s not this ‘rest’ that produces noise, but the excess. The definition of zao, “noise”, in classical Chinese is as an excess of sound. This is a condition rather than an eternal form. The sounds that at one time co-exist peacefully with us, whether as chaosmos or in clarity, whether they are crude and simple or pleasantly reverberating, once in excess they are annoying. Then there is no way to filter accurate meaning (separating the signal from the noise and interpreting the data), and the brain crashes. From another point of view, if humans could shrink at will and observe every particle of sound, these particles will again appear out of the chaosmos into distinctness. Who knows, they might even have noses and faces?
Excess is a gift of nature, and also of human endeavor. Perhaps the latter takes on a greater proportion. We don’t, after all, rely on foraging for wild fruits, we harvest petrol. Excess language, excess thought, excess expression cannot really be stocked in granaries. The will of energy is in its inclination for liberation, thereby returning to the void. Entropy is a universal law that seems to go against human desire. Yet it acts up in every place of excess. In the words of Georges Bataille, the inevitability of modern war lies in the inevitability of excess in modern economics. Precisely in this sense Jacques Attali’s political economy of noise can arrive at the consumptive celebration of noise.
As a politician and a banker, Attali, himself a success, collects, guides and manages noise in political and economic contexts. He does not agree with consumption and exploitation at all, he simply excels at the circulation and accumulation of capital. Music in the 20th century has done everything it can to absorb and organize noise, even giving it names. It acted just like capitalism digests economic crises, turning cold money into hot money, making slow cash fast, converting ideological enemies into business partners, transforming violence into the aesthetics of violence. The century of noise is being confounded by this conundrum: emerging from the chaosmos, existing intensely, and then exposed to attention, acquiesced to, and inserted into reproduction, only to destroy the road ahead, veering from the trajectory, ambiguous and lost.
In a fatalistic world, machines and people only produce noise through malfunction. That is not to live a more worthy life but, on the contrary, the life span of both of them could be shortened (just like the Buddha did not live long). And a malfunction is a valueless breakthrough. And the lack of value and meaning lead to ultimate equality. It’s the starting point, which contains all possible directions. Noise consumes excess information, like when during the Chinese New Year consumption racks up – eating, drinking, setting off firecrackers – all for a year’s peace and silence. Yes, these traditions have already been twisted. So noise has become the radical version of the Chinese New Year, and also its realistic version, by means of a response to this world where even getting through Chinese New Year becomes reproduction. Go back to the starting point.
Translated by Daniel Szehin Ho
Proofread by Jeroen Groenewegen-Lau
(originally published on catalogue of 10th shanghai biennale)