Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Noise vs music

You and I have very different tastes in music…‘ observed husband this evening (well spotted, after ten years). It’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a bit lately, though. The incredible subjectivity of music, the individuality of dis/likes in it, the difference of people’s reactions. Husband inclines very much towards music with lyrics, preferably political ones, and seems to get very little out of most instrumental works. That means he tends to prefer genres where the sung lyrics are fairly clear and audible, which often means folk or softer rock.

My reactions to music seem to be more about the sound than the words. I spend quite a lot of time wishing that singers would sod off and stop messing up the visceral experience of a perfect guitar riff(/fiddle/flute/oud/cello) with their annoying (trite/cliched/sexist) words. And however good the lyrics, if a piece of music doesn’t get me in the gut then I’m not going to be interested in it.

By way of an example, the CD that inspired husband’s comment this evening was Talvin Singh’s compilation Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground. I’d forgotten I even owned it, which is great, because I get to be amazed by its transcendental beauty all over again. Here’s a sample – the sublime theme tune from Mumbai, by AR Rahman:

Inadvertently, though, husband also provided me with the hook for a post on an article which I came across a few days ago, wanted to blog, but hadn’t found a way to think about (beyond: here’s an interesting article). It’s The Aesthetics of Noise by Torben Sangild and looks at the role of noise (as opposed to sound) in music.

Noise can blow your head out. Noise is rage. Noise is ecstatic. Noise is psychedelic. Noise is often on the edge between annoyance and bliss. Noises are many things. Noise is a difficult concept to deal with” it opens. From that beginning, we get an etymology and definition of ‘noise’ and then a potted history of the place of noise in music, from the elimination of noise – ie irregularity – in the ultra-pure religious music of medieval Europe, to the reintroduction of noise into music in the twentieth century for various reasons – the dramatic, the aesthetic, the exploratory or theoretical. It references, amongst other songs, Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray (and here is Joy Division covering it, because I prefer this version – sorry!)

Pere Ubu’s ’30 Seconds Over Tokyo’

and especially My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless album:

(with MBV, Lush, Husker Du and Band of Susans we’re getting into some of the soundtrack to my late teens… blasts from the past).

Sangild then goes on to use Nietzschean concepts to think about what different types of noise-in-music do:

Apollo represents appearance, form, individuality, beauty and dream; the Apollonian aesthetics is an embellishment of suffering, a self-conscious lie, a veiling of cruelty by use of form and elegance, a semblance of beauty. Dionysus, on the other hand, represents ecstasy, being, will, intoxication and unity; the Dionysian aesthetics is a direct confrontation with the terrible foundation of being, an absurd will driving us all in our meaningless lives. In the Dionysian ecstasy individuality is transgressed in favor of identification with the universal will – a frightening yet blissful experience. Frightening, that is, because it is a death-like giving up of the Ego, if only for a few seconds; blissful in letting go of the responsibilities of being a subject

… before rounding up with a brief consideration of whether – as some musicians might claim – there is something politically or socially subversive to be extracted from the use of noise in music. To this, Sangild says:

I have often been asked whether noise is subversive. I tend towards the answer “no, not directly, but it has a critical potential.” If subversion is what punk imagined itself to be, a riot that shocks bourgeois culture, I do not see any such possibilities in music

… and cites the commercialisation of both music and youthful rebellion as something which militates against true rebellion, whilst also pointing out the marginality and instability of noise and its ‘meanings’.

2 comments on “Noise vs music

  1. Jeff Nguyen
    May 27, 2013

    I was a big post-Joy Division/New Order fan. In my opinion, music is most definitely a subversive act which is why the corporate plantation worked so hard to co-opt the punk and hip hop movements. Music and books probably saved my life, not to mention helped to give it meaning.

    • Sarah Irving
      May 27, 2013

      I suppose the point from this article isn’t whether music can be subversive – I’d say of course it can, as much as any other cultural form, but whether noise itself as a part of music is subversive, and for the author the answer to that is no. Hip-hop, for instance, is subversive, but doesn’t routinely employ ‘noise’ within the music, its subversion lies partly in lyrics and partly in clever sampling and referencing. Some punk is also, of course, subversive, but what I think Sangild is questioning is the noise = rebelliousness equation which might have been true very briefly at the start of the punk movement but was rapidly appropriated.

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