Technical or evocative.
Ask anyone what they like, dislike, or even think about an instrumental piece of music (or let's say, a piece of music without vocals or lyrics. The need for this distinction will soon become clear), and they will most likely give an answer that falls in either of these categories:
Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now from her album of the same name is just crushingly sad. Or: The way Steve Gadd stops the hi-hat on 4 to leave room for Clapton's "Tonight" in Wonderful Tonight is such a simple thing that masterfully amplifies the key part of the chorus. Or: The first three notes of Miles' solo in Flamenco Sketches are so minimalistic but they say so much and are played with so much feeling, you can just feel them! Or a variation or combination of both.
It is strange when you consider what such statements mean; music in itself exists besides something else. Instrumental music is seemingly the vessel through which emotion or technique is transported. In other words: we always tend to have something above (or beyond, or beneath) music as an auditive experience. Describing instrumental music reveals the sediment beneath the auditive sensation, and it is (almost?) impossible to venture away from this sedimentation and relieve ourselves of the cultural and psychological baggage that we bring to listening to music.
What does it mean to listen to music? Is there some form of primal listening, where we only do listen? It is of course impossible to listen to music in a posited "pure" form, as we cannot ever leave our cultural and individual preconception behind. However, can we approximate it?
Enter noise. Music that sometimes to the untrained (and trained) ear feels like the auditive equivalent of a wisdom tooth removal (you know, when the dentist rrrrrrips the tooth out from the bone), it is one of the most interesting subgenres and -cultures in music in my opinion.
What is noise? The most interesting, and I think most fruitful exploration of Noise music, comes from Paul Hegarty. Essentially he argues that noise can only be defined as a negative. Noise is what is not deemed music. This is interesting, because it introduces a cultural aspect into the definition. Arguably what we consider relatively normal, such as e.g. distorted guitars or screams, would not even have been considered to be in the same ballpark as music a century ago. So weirdly enough it seems that noise is ever evolving and we might even conceive of a future where everything is music.1
One of the most "extreme" subgenres of Noise is Harsh Noise Wall, which is exactly what you get - a (more or less) unchanging and unwavering wall of noise. What is the appeal? Let's consider two examples:
First of Thousands of Dead Gods from The Rita. The sounds for the record were recorded in an underwater shark-exploration tank (which were then of course heavily processed). Now that you have this information, does it make any more sense to you? I have read some people trying to make sense of the song (which is one of the most well known of The Rita), using the background to enhance the song with some meaning. Whether the artists intent was to do this, is irrelevant, but people were describing the song as an evocation of the panic that one must feel in such a shark tank. The Rita captured the feeling of dread, being submerged into cold water, with miles and miles of nothing beneath you, the panic setting in, as something that could rip you apart in an instant crashes against the metal bars, etc.
Aside from creative interpretations, I think that Noise can help us see the way in which we talk about music specifically. Compared to The Rita, let‘s consider a second example, from French musician Vomir:
The song is entitled Claustration 1. Claustration referring to a „shutting up or enclosing“, „confinement“, etc. Now, one could definitely make the case, as with Thousands of Dead Gods, that the music represents this act of claustration; an evocation of unbearable lonesomeness, when silence becomes not a calming pause but an oppressive absence, when the ever-present ringing in your ears becomes a harsh intrusion. But with this, we are immediately faced with a set of questions:
What differentiates not only the two songs, but the two evocations? What about Thousands of Dead Gods represents the panic from an apex predator, what about Claustration the feeling of unbearable solitude?2 So in general: Purely from an auditive point of view, what element of Thousands of Dead Gods represents the panic specific to it, and the same with Claustration? Of course you can make out differences in both songs, both in texture and dynamic, but they would probably not amount to much, or at least not be different enough that you can identify specific emotions in them.
As said before, the philosophical value of noise lies in its negative aspects. With noise, we can‘t fall back on seemingly self-evident cultural associations and representations; where e.g. a minor triad somehow feels sad, compared to a major triad.
Aside from the respective titles and artworks of both songs, everything that suggests feelings of panic or claustrophobia is pretty evidently absent from the music itself. We could further say that noise is the negation of such associations, for which we could use the widespread absence of titles for harsh noise walls as evidence.3 We can clearly see how those feelings are brought to the music by its listener and not the other way around. There is little - and little use - to distinguish between both examples that would help us pinpoint what exactly evokes their respective associations, aside from the titles and artworks.
Essentially we could say that what Noise and Harsh Noise Wall can do, is bring us closer to music as an auditive experience. Where in more conventional instrumental songs, we can relate our associations to some part of the musical form, thereby relying content to form - e.g. „This song sounds sad because it is written in a minor key.“, „This sudden use of dissonance creates tension.“, etc. - this is quite a futile endeavour with Noise, and I think not because we don‘t have the vocabulary or theoretical framework to talk about Noise in the same manner yet, but exactly because Noise presents itself as separate from such aspects. Noise, as we‘ve seen in the definition from Hegarty, negates any theoretical framework, any qualification, by its very nature. Describing Noise is describing what it is not. In that, one of Noise‘s primary absence is content, where Noise is more form than content, as the latter is invariably external and so can serve to highlight, just how much we bring to music when listening to it, how subjective the act of listening even is. It is not that Noise is more or less subjective than other more conventional forms of music, or that those forms have somehow „more content“. It is more that Noise very deliberately seems to eschew content.
While it is debatable if there even exists some form of pure listening, or if we should even try to attain it, Noise can serve as an approximation of it - or at least as some form of counter-cultural listening experience, in showing us, how pervasive and subliminal our cultural, social and even economical background is when listening to music. In the end we can say that Noise is inherently counter-cultural and critical.
- And if my library would have his book Noise/Music currently back in stock, I would even have quoted some things here... ↩
- This feeling is only accentuated if you have not listened to a lot of Noise, where most of it probably sounds the same. ↩
- Vomir especially very frequently „titles“ his songs as Untitled, or Untitled 1, Untitled 2, etc. ↩