Noise music  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Noise music is a sub-genre of experimental music constructed from noise as opposed to recognisable sound or pitches. "Noise" music is regarded by some as a contradiction in terms, because "noise" is generally defined as unwanted and undesigned or unintentional sound and music as the opposite. However, "noise" in a more general sense refers to any extremely loud or discordant sound, and that these sounds are often the basis of noise music. Secondly, as famous noise musician Masami Akita (who records under the name Merzbow) said, "If by noise you mean uncomfortable sound, then pop music is noise to me." Noise music is not necessarily "noise" to the listeners, although it is certainly "noisy" in the more general sense of the term. Practitioners themselves do not generally refer to it as "Noise Music"; they just call it "Noise", tacking the term "music" on the end is an explanatory device only necessary among outsiders.


Characteristics and influences

Noise music is loosely related to industrial music, sharing its DIY ethos, independence and ethic of using "non-musical" sources. Often described as "punishing and abrasive" by those with a flair for the dramatic, Noise music can be very loud and dissonant, ranging from the free-form extreme electronic music of Merzbow and Masonna to the more sculptured sounds of Boyd Rice and Black Leather Jesus, to the cold haiku sound-scapes of Ryoji Ikeda and Sachiko M.


Luigi Russolo

Luigi Russolo, a Futurist painter of the very early 20th century, was perhaps the first noise music artist. His 1913 manifesto L'Arte dei rumori (The Art of Noises) stated that the industrial revolution had given modern men a greater capacity to appreciate more complex sounds. Russolo found traditional melodic music confining and envisioned noise music as its future replacement. He designed and constructed a number of noise-generating devices called Intonarumori and assembled a noise orchestra to perform with them. A performance of his Gran Concerto Futuristico (1917) was met with strong disapproval and violence from the audience, as Russolo himself had predicted. None of his intoning devices have survived, though recently some have been reconstructed and used in performances. Although Russolo's works bear little resemblance to modern noise music, his pioneering creations cannot be overlooked as an essential stage in the evolution of this genre, and many artists are now familiar with his manifesto.

Other early composers

Russolo was a little-known fringe character, however; mainstream composer Arnold Schoenberg's proclaimed "Emancipation of the dissonance" (the idea that music could just as well be based upon dissonance as consonance) in the early 20th century was probably the origin of noise music. By the 1920s, composers (in particular Edgard Varèse and George Antheil) began to use early mechanical musical instruments--such as the player piano and the siren--to create music that referenced the noise of the modern world. In the 1930s, under the influence of Henry Cowell in San Francisco, Lou Harrison and John Cage began composing music for "junk" percussion ensembles — scouring junkyards and Chinatown antique shops for appropriately tuned brake drums, flower pots, gongs, and more. Cage started his Imaginary Landscape series in 1939, which combined elements like recorded sound, percussion, and (in the case of Imaginary Landscape #4) twelve radios. After the second world war, other composers (including G.M. Koenig, Iannis Xenakis, and Karlheinz Stockhausen) started to experiment with early synthesizers, tape machines and radio equipment to produce electronic music, often with very noisy sounds and incomprehensible structures. Much of this music has proven influential on the creators of noise music.

With the advent of the radio, Pierre Schaeffer coined the term musique concrete to refer to the peculiar nature of sounds on tape, separated from the source that generated them initially. His ideas about non-referential sounds take their most extreme form in noise music, which often blurs or obscures the actions which produced the sounds while also suggesting the physicality of sound itself.

The 1968 album We're Only In It For the Money by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention contains a number of noise elements.

The sudden affordability of home recording technology in the 1970s with the simultaneous influence of punk rock established a new aesthetic and instigated what is commonly referred to as noise music today. When anyone could produce noise, and anyone could record and distribute it, then noise music provided a way for any person (artist or non-artist) to experiment with sound as a painter might with visual material.


Originally influenced by the sounds of European bands like Whitehouse and the Italian non-musician Maurizio Bianchi/M. B., Japanese noise artists pushed this approach to an extreme of loudness and density, which in turn became a major influence on western noise bands. Sometimes known as "Japanoise" (a pun not just in English, but even in Japanese: ジャパノイズ ), it is usually associated with "harsh" characteristics including walls of white noise, non-linear pulses, arrhythmic beats, distorted sound loops, unintelligible dialogue, and sirens.

Since the late 1980s this Japanese style has been probably the most prolific and noticeable part of the Noise Music scene. Likewise the popularity and prolific output of musicians such as the aforementioned Noise Music figurehead/posterboy Merzbow, C.C.C.C. and other names like KK Null, Masonna, The Gerogerigegege and Hanatarash (founded by Boredoms frontman, Yamatsuka Eye) have made Japan something of a Mecca for many noise fans. In terms of sales, Noise music is not particularly more popular in Japan than in Europe or America. However, there is perhaps a higher level of recognition from crossover with mainstream genres and events, such as fashion shows or dance performances with music by noise artists, and a comparatively large number of live noise performances are held in Tokyo.

Recently the noise scene has given birth to a form of freely improvised electronic music known by the press as onkyo-kei, with leading lights including the aforementioned Sachiko M.

Albums and non-noise influences

Lou Reed's double-LP album Metal Machine Music released in 1975 is an early, well-known example of noise music.

It is very likely that Reed was aware of the electronic drone music produced in the mid-60s by his Velvet Underground cohort John Cale with artists such as Tony Conrad and LaMonte Young (see the CD release of Inside the Dream Syndicate Volume 1: Day of Niagara).

A lesser known release, though perhaps more influential on this sub-genre, is Boyd Rice's 1978 LP, Pagan Muzak.

In 1988, RRRecords released a series of anti-records in which ordinary vinyl LPs and, in some cases, flexidiscs were physically transformed into noise records.

Influence of Dada and Surrealism on Noise Music

Many noise artists, both the original musique concrete and modern noise artists, share an interest in the ideas of Dada and Surrealism. Merzbow made Dada and surrealism in audio and visual forms. The Cabaret Voltaire (Zurich) was a place where Dadaists gathered for "meetings", which often involved reciting poetry made up of incoherent words, but there were also sessions of "Noise Music" held there. These usually consisted of the participants hitting, throwing, beating, bashing anything that was laying around, along with chanting nonsensical poetry. This was likely the first real Noise Music made for "artistic" purpose.

Mixing of forms

In Canada the Nihilist Spasm Band has been performing acoustic-based noise music for decades. The aptly named noise rock fuses rock to noise, usually with recognisable "rock" instrumentation, but with greater use of distortion and electronic effects, varying degrees of atonalism, improvisation and white noise. One of the best-known bands of this genre is Boredoms. This style is more like a "traditional" band compared to abstract or electronic noise and sometimes bears a similarity to grindcore. The name noisecore is also used to refer to noise-influenced hardcore techno or rock.

Fans of the genre sometimes distinguish between "harsh noise", the more well-known super-dense and abrasive sounds of Merzbow, Masonna and similar artists, and other loose sub-genres like "rhythmic noise", "power electronics", "free noise" and so on. Confusingly, some industrial techno sub-genres have very similar names, i.e. power noise. Power noise is comparatively conventionally musical, and is not to be confused with power electronics, the synthesizer based subgenre of abstract and experimental noise performed by Whitehouse.

One possible influence of noise music has been to change the way of thinking about what is "musical" or "unmusical" noise, and recently many different genres, such as techno and hip-hop, include some kinds of sounds that could be viewed as "noise".

Methods and Inspirations

In much the same way the early modernists were inspired by primitive art, some contemporary noisicians are excited by the archaic audio technologies, such as wire-recorders, the 8-track cartridge, and vinyl records. For instance, some still choose to release their work on vinyl. According to GX Jupitter-Larsen many artists not only build their own noise-generating devices, but even their own specialized recording equipment.

Many performances by noise artists are extremely loud and can be near-deafening. The frequencies used by many are both shrieking and overpowering.

David Jackman said his first noise performance, albeit unintentional, was when he was 14 years old. He and his father demolished an old piano using an axe and hammer. Jackman called it "a huge racket".

An outburst of emotion is the effect given by the performances of the group C.C.C.C., headed by former Japanese porn-star Mayuko Hino. One senses a socio-political fetishism with the work of Con-Dom, formed by Mike Dando to explore the many sides of personal faith. In a sensuous merging of body and machine, the French sound-composer Manon Anne Gillis gives birth to her noise. Intimately demonstrated by a 1995 performance, in which she kept pulling out, from under her dress, strands of audio tape accompanied by the sound of recorded material being yanked over the playback heads of a tape-deck.

Many noise artists are fixated on either one sound, or one type of sound. A.M.K. uses, as his only sound source, the montage. His montages are flexi-discs that he cuts up and recombines and then plays on regular turntables. Even his CD releases sound just like broken records. A.M.K. started to cut up readymade flexi-discs in 1986. Eleven years later he would start to record and release his own limited-edition flexi-discs for the sole purpose of montaging them.

Zipper Spy is an avid collector of zippers. She also loves the sound zippers make. Amplified zippers may not be the only sound source she plays with, but zippers are nearly always the dominant ingredient in her compositions. When asked why she loves zippers so much, she simply replied; "I hear zippers in everything."

Others base their sound on the type of audio equipment they build for themselves. Both Chop Shop and Speculum Fight are examples of this approach. Chop Shop was formed by Scot Konzelmann, who builds speakers. Since 1987, he has been developing his speaker constructions to focus the listener into linking physical sounds through visible sources. Konzelmann thinks of it as a kind of ventriloquism.

Speculum Fight, otherwise known as Damion Romero, deals with tones and frequencies that are seductive to the listener. To achieve these soundscapes, Romero builds a variety of custom-made devices. These include microphones that look like small wooden boxes, and antique audio test-equipment re-wired as feedback generators.

The noise-poet blackhumour, who has been active since the mid-1980s, uses only recordings of human voice. Some noise critics have described blackhumour's work as a hybrid of noise and literature. However, blackhumour has stated on many occasions that he sees his noise as an extension of literature. Godzilla, not literature, is the inspiration for Daniel Menche's recent interest in human voice. Since 1988 Menche has carefully crafted noise from sound sources like his heart, lungs, chest, and fist.

GX Jupitter-Larsen had always enjoyed listening to the scratches etched across the grooves of a record much more than the recorded material stamped onto it. In fact, his first real creative success with noise was with the self-titled vinyl record "The Haters", which he released in 1983. It's a silent record that comes with instructions that informs the holder that he must first complete the record by scratching it before he can listen to it on his stereo.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Noise music" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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