I listen to a lot of music which falls under the category ‘noise music’, and something I’ve heard more than once when others have (by design or otherwise) been exposed to it is: “this isn’t music” or “did they think this was good when they wrote it?” Past any immediate, stinging insecurity regarding my own taste it might cause, this kind of statement is very interesting as an indicator of what we generally ‘accept’ as music, and how we approach art and creative work as a whole.
Landing on a concise, encompassing definition of noise music is essentially as impossible as dissecting any other generic label; for the sake of this article, noise music is music which features noise as a sonic feature (defining noise itself is, again, difficult, but the first thing which comes to mind is probably apt- heavy distortion, ‘unmusical’ sounds like that of a blender full of nails, a feline yowl, etc.).
This isn’t intended as an encyclopedic appraisal of noise music as an artistic field, and especially not as a justification or apology for noise, but instead an (insultingly) brief look at how it might work and what it might be saying in itself, and how this might reflexively inform or illuminate our critical habits.
One thing worth addressing is the inherently contrarian nature of noise. Artists create deliberately; the abrasive, venomous sound of noise is not included in a piece as an accident, a failure of sound engineering; it is employed for a reason. So what is the point of making music which sounds unmusical, which is unpleasant? Isn’t music supposed to be ‘enriching’ in our lives, a form of emotional self-indulgence where we are willingly coerced into feeling a certain way? Surely none of that works if the sonic quality of the music itself is this abrasive. I’d argue that this is the point. We often think of music, and in a more general sense art as a whole, as something which has been made for us as consumers. It is produced in a transactional system where the experiential pleasure a piece of media on behalf of its audience is exchanged for the continued, legitimised economic status of its creator — if people don’t like your music it doesn’t get plays on Spotify, if it doesn’t get played then you don’t get paid.
So noise, broadly, is a rejection of this. It’s music which doesn’t owe you anything, which prioritises the expressive spirit of its creator over the pleasure or ease-of-listening of its audience (of course this isn’t to say that noise is the only kind of music which prioritises the creator’s expression, but is perhaps the most glaring example of such an approach, exacerbated by its intrinsically pugilistic features).
With this in mind, I’d like to examine some actual pieces of noise music, and how they are a representation of this prioritisation, or might be interpreted as such. One of my personal favourite groups of all time is the currently-active, Dublin-born Girl Band (all male). Girl Band effortlessly combine noise features with the typical struggle between urgency and ennui of post-punk songwriting, all with a genuine tongue-in-cheek delight in the music itself, and some decisively monolithic crescendos. Girl Band’s approach to noise is one which I, as might be leaking through here, am particularly fascinated by. In several cases they have created pieces which, as they progress, are essentially wrought out of noise, in that they feature a strong current of noise throughout, from which something we might more readily accept as ‘musical’ is steadily built. In songs such as ‘Paul’, ‘Why They Hide Their Bodies Under My Garage’, and ‘Handswaps’ (all brilliant), noise seems to have a presence prior to the piece itself, as if it is not being generated instrumentally but instead summoned or reigned in. Perhaps a clearer analogy is that of sculpture, that from the massive brick of noise chunks are methodically and exquisitely hewn away to form the silhouette of music. Of course, the noise in these cases is being generated instrumentally — sound is not actually a material which musicians seize and manipulate with their hands like clay.
Even so, this analogy of sculpture presents in turn another worthwhile interpretation; that of these songs as a record of their own creation, starting as noise, being noise, and becoming something other than noise all whilst retaining something of its original matter. Music is often delivered to us in a ‘complete’ state, a devised sequence of rhythms, repetitions, melodies, etc. which has been constructed in full before its presentation to the audience. However, in this case the audience is treated to an insight into, or perhaps simulation of, the song’s creation itself, a reminder that it is not a phenomenon which exists separate to its artist but is instead a projection and continuation of their own existence — in truth you only have one degree of separation from every artist you listen to, through their music.
Whilst this is only a minute selection of pieces, and an even more minute appraisal of them respectively (which does not reflect anything particularly on, say, the immediate, beaten-into-submission noise of Death Grips or the rapturously invoked noise of Lightning Bolt), it can lead into an appreciation of noise as a kind of abstract substance which reveals not only something about artistic approaches but a wider philosophy of existence. The above sculpture-analogy is essentially a creation-myth, where the oceans and firmament of music are separated from the preceding chaos of noise. Imagine, then, that we are surrounded by an endless field of noise — every person, whether they can ‘hear’ or not, is moving through this field of non-musical sound, the raw chaos of natural existence — and that although this chaos may not offer itself as pleasurable, it is necessary, and, for that matter, does not care what people think about it, with the moment of experiencing noise music itself being exposed to a natal image of transcendent noise. Understanding this gives you the opportunity to retreat from critical bias and conceive of yourself as a miniscule object in a vast and indifferent ocean (into which noise music is a merely human-sized porthole), whose expectations are justified only in themselves, and to in turn examine what exactly it is you value — not to berate or exalt yourself, but simply to understand on a deeper level what constitutes your taste and as such your identity.
In other words, noise is a cold but not unwelcome reminder that the world does not revolve around the customer, the audience member, the individual, you.
How you take or respond to this is, of course, up to you.
That’s the point.
Image credit to the author.