Explain noise music to me

April 22, 2009 11:49 AM

After being a total dick in one of idiopath's recent postings, I realize that I need to understand what I am not appreciating.

I've listened to by artists like Tim Hecker, Animal Collective, Black Dices, Metal Machine Music, and Tsunami. I've been to half a dozen noise shows, some at art galleries, some at festivals like Pop Montreal and liked some of what I've heard. When I'm feeling cynical, I imagine that people are listening to things that aren't there.

But I basically never actually want to listen to noise. I like pretty much all music otherwise. I guess I have a "melody + rhythm = music" bias. I know about timbre and I always pay close attention to the way things sound, but without a melody nearby timbre amounts to practically nothing. The only times that I really like the above mentioned bands is when they anchor everything in melody.

Noise seems to require relentlessly focused active listening to appreciate the nuances, or it degenerates into.. noise.

Anyway, I'd like to hear what you like about noise. Also, where do you listen to it? How did you start listening to it? When do you listen to it? Do you only listen to noise? What is fresh and exciting about noise to you? What are the things that you don't like about noise?

posted by dobie (24 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

I can offer some disconnected thoughts about this, though I'm more of an enthusiastic dabbler than an expert.

Your bias towards rhythm and melody at least accounts for some structural elements of the music, which is good. It may help you if you listen for (and/or read about) how some of the noisier music around you is structured. Is it laid out like a playing field, with no salient features? Does it have recognizable elements? Does it make use of repetition, and if not, what is it doing instead? That kind of thing.

If you haven't already read Silence by John Cage, it would certainly help: "Are sounds just sounds or are they Beethoven?"

But beyond an intellectual understanding of it, noisier music does a unique thing for me: it eats into my brain like an acid, leaving an unusual relief map behind. I love to listen to it first thing in the morning: it's like strong coffee. I like Melt-Banana first thing in the morning, too, for the same reason.

I don't love all noise, and it's not the only stuff I listen to. I remember being thrilled to discover Merzbow, because it was finally something that I absolutely could not stand, in fact could not withstand.

It may also be useful to posit a family of noise-type musics (those that make noise with instruments, those that use various kinds of electronics, those that use samplers, those made by live vocalists, Cage's music which has all sorts of unusual aspects, etc.) and realize that each type presents different challenges and rewards to the listener.
posted by sleevener at 12:50 PM on April 22, 2009

disclaimer: I don't know any of the artists you reference, except Animal Collective, whose music I find timid, tame, and boring.
posted by sleevener at 12:57 PM on April 22, 2009

wow I sound like a jerk, sorry Animal Collective, sorry everybody
posted by sleevener at 1:25 PM on April 22, 2009

I’m not someone who puts on music that falls squarely within the category of noise on a daily basis, but I have taught courses that have included sections on the trajectory from bebop to free jazz to John Zorn, and the relationship between jazu-kissa jazz listening rooms in Japan and Japanese noise music, so I have a few general thoughts about it.

Noise music is really tricky to talk about. That’s on purpose. I think Fanon’s idea of ‘saying no to all those who attempt to build a definition of him’ hints at why. It seems like such a messy convergence of streams:

the breakdown of tonality in early-twentieth century art music
later experiments not just serializing pitch but timbre as well through electronics
experiments with randomness in compositions (aleatory techniques)
bebop questioning the conventions of big-band jazz harmony, rhythm and improvisation
free jazz questioning the conventions of bebop, pushing the boundaries of predictability, harmony, rhythm and timbre
rock’s experiments using the electric guitar questioning where the signal ends and the noise begins, often inverting the importance of each

Again and again, with the production and circulation of recordings, what is rebellious to some and unlistenable to others eventually becomes canonic. This freezes it to a certain extent. Just think about Hendrix’s star spangled banner. That has several elements moving towards noise. Yet, he has long since entered the rock pantheon.

That process from fringe to mainstream--the packaging and selling of rebellion--can serve to escalate the terms of authenticity, right? It becomes trickier and trickier to negate if commodification is constantly nipping at your heels. I think noise has something to do with this escalation. It’s like it is saying: Just try to put this in a car commercial, motherfucker! Yeah, sure, you did it to Iggy Pop and Aphex Twin, but what about this??

But that doesn’t even start to sum it up, of course, because I’m sure any performer playing music that at least kind of fits the descriptive would have their own angle. Another interesting feature, I think, is the recuperation of refuse or residue. It’s like junk sculpture. Take something that would be discarded or disregarded, and reconsider it. In the case of sound, that means the malfunctions, the sound of plugging in a guitar whose amp is already on, or turning a mixing board into a squealing instrument of its own by plugging it into itself.

The last scattered thought that comes to mind is that I suspect there are listeners of music described as noise who would claim that at least some of what they listen to does, in fact, conform to “melody + rhythm = music” but that the melodies are in the harmonic partials of the messy timbres, and the rhythms are not strictly metrical, but there nonetheless.
posted by umbú at 2:25 PM on April 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

I enjoy tracks like idiopath's occasionally because they demand attention. My very visual mind seems to enjoy making sense of the most random things and the stranger the better. Here while listening I got images of a chipmunk family sitting around grandfather chipmunk and his one string banjo after the apocalypse. We are transported back into the more chaotic imagery of his story until his plunk plunky banjo (the chorus?) brings us home again. Pretty awesome, and much more interesting than another guitar instrumental.
posted by xorry at 4:38 PM on April 22, 2009

I'm assuming this post was about his latest track - Florida. I haven't read the comments on it yet, so I'm not sure if I got the right one.
posted by xorry at 4:39 PM on April 22, 2009

I see.. I got the wrong song. 'doesn't have to hurt' is obviously documenting grandfather chipmonk in his laser mech fighting the zombie horde while playing video games. What a trooper.
posted by xorry at 4:42 PM on April 22, 2009

The comments over at that song reminded me of a story my music professor told us once. His grandma was listening to some old stuff, Perry Como or somebody like that and he started ragging on it, saying how cheesy it was and stuff. She started to cry and from than on he realized to never talk bad about anyone's taste in music, it's all relative. We all know what we like and no one can tell us different, personally my first instict was to turn my speakers off when I gave the track a listen and after giving it another listen I still didn't really understand the piece but I kinda get it, kinda. It's like me looking at a Pollack, I won't ever understand it but if other people look at it and get enjoyment out of it than that's all that really matters. Dobie you weren't being a total dick, it was actually refreshing to see people getting real at Mefi-Mu but you did kinda talk shit about a piece that someone worked on posted. On the other side I thought Idiopath's defense of "well you just don't understand and btw pop music sucks" wasn't all that constructive either. My point is you're all dicks, myself included.
posted by BrnP84 at 9:46 PM on April 22, 2009

Your favorite noise sucks.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:16 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd be interested in what you guys think of Hrvatski. I can't listen to the stuff myself, but some of my friends think it's groundbreaking stuff.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 11:48 PM on April 22, 2009

My understanding of the genre is completely non-intellectual. It's like preferring the color red, or enjoying a view.

OK, try this. It's a recording of machinery where I work. Blissfully short!

There is just something about this noise that attracts me. I can easily say that it's about the harmonic relationships within the noise and try to analyze it that way, but personally it's a lot more basic. I enjoy moving around in the space near this machine and hearing how the sound changes.

So this is found "noise" and yet it is very musical, and attractive (to some of us). A composer of noise will investigate this attraction and try to make it do things- just as a composer of more traditional music will do with notes and harmony and rhythm.

And I think it is very much personal. I've always been attracted to certain droning machine noises. They are like meditation.

And I couldn't let a discussion of noise music go by without mentioning these guys.
posted by Liv Pooleside at 4:00 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's funny what happened with doesn't have to hurt. When I started listening to it on headphones it was really harsh and loud. Because of the title I just thought it had been posted more as a "statement" than anything else, which is why I left that careless stupid comment. I wasn't until idiopath said:

This is real music. It is the kind of music I listen to.

That I realized to someone else it was music, and that I had been an asshole. The rest of his comment about the "music that girls like leads to felicitous relations with girls" made me laugh and I thought it was a good humored reply.

Also dobie's emperor clothes comment. I read it as saying "we will have to agree to disagree".

And regarding the actual subject of the thread: I know nothing about the movement or the music, but I wanted to say that umbú's answer above is really interesting.
posted by micayetoca at 6:58 AM on April 23, 2009

There is just something about this noise that attracts me. I can easily say that it's about the harmonic relationships within the noise and try to analyze it that way, but personally it's a lot more basic. I enjoy moving around in the space near this machine and hearing how the sound changes.

Same here. I haven't had much exposure to the whole noise scene, and my preference tends to be more on the noise-rock side where noise elements are embedded in more traditional songs. I like some pure noise music because they use sounds in interesting ways that for whatever reason I like. I don't think about it on an intellectual level, and for me it can just be background music (I can put on a Masonna album in my car and zone out).

From dobie's comment in the doesn't have to hurt thread:

I feel that this sort of music is so deconstructed as to be like projecting dusty film stock onto a wall and saying "These are the kind of films I like".

I think it's more analogous to experimental psychedelic films. Some people will appreciate them on an intellectual level, some people will like them because they are aesthetically pleasing, some people will only find them interesting on acid, and some people will find them boring or incomprehensible. Same with noise music.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:21 AM on April 23, 2009

I know where you are coming from - I've never been able to really appreciate the more estoric genres of music.

I do force my self to experience them every now and then - well more the 'Improv' scene than stuff like the Idiopath track linked to. say Farmers Manual, Fennesz, Pimmon, Oren Ambarchi, Martin Ng, various Australian Improv stuff I guess.

I go to these gigs occasionally and wonder - whats it all about?
posted by mary8nne at 8:38 AM on April 23, 2009

Try starting with a crossover track, like Kid 606's Straight Outta Compton remix.
posted by ageispolis at 12:25 PM on April 23, 2009

My favorite noise music comes from the early electronic movement. It's really quite approachable. I think this is because they were dealing with tape as a medium. Digital really gives artist a better chance at hurting your ears because it encodes so much more high frequency content.

Check out Lois and Bebe Barron's soundtrack to Forbidden Planet and Ilhan Mimaroglu's Fanfare to here some of my favorite examples of this.
posted by dagosto at 12:52 PM on April 24, 2009

whoops - hear
posted by dagosto at 2:36 PM on April 24, 2009

My question in response to your question: why does it need to be explained? If you don't enjoy it, don't listen to it. Not all art is easy to understand or easy to process.

I once got into an argument with someone who insisted that pool/billiards was not a sport, because it didn't include a high degree of physical exertion. I pointed out that by the dictionary definition, it really is a sport.

In the end, who cares? If you enjoy listening to noise music or playing pool, it doesn't matter what label is applied to the activity. If you don't, and can't understand why others do, why complain? Spend your time instead on something you do enjoy.

Unless, of course, being contrarian on forums is what you enjoy, then by all means... ;-)
posted by wastelands at 4:34 PM on April 25, 2009

Tim Hecker, Animal Collective, Black Dices [sic]

I reject genres and the need to pigeonhole stuff, but I have to say that these very much aren't noise. Tim Hecker's output is like aural wallpaper. The kind of thing you could put on in the background and people might think it was 'nice', if they thought anything at all.

Noise is about adrenaline. It's about energy. A raw, visceral, physical sensation. A punch in the stomach that winds you, rather than a bag of sugary, pointless candyfloss that's all bulk and no substance. Exhilaration. It's a reminder that I'm alive. It's about absolute power and control. Imagine standing behind a jet engine in a heat proof suit. Or being in a storm drain and seeing the first solid mass of seething flood waters crashing towards you. It's like this, but in the comfort and safety of your own home.

But as others have said, if it doesn't interest you, then don't listen to it. But you should respect the fact that others get something genuine from it, and aren't just claiming to like it in order to piss you off.

Noise seems to require relentlessly focused active listening to appreciate the nuances

Yes. That's one of the reasons I enjoy it.
posted by Beautiful Screaming Lady at 6:17 PM on April 28, 2009

Thanks for your responses, dagosto your links are awesome. Umbu, I feel like we could talk for hours (Or I could harass you with sophomoric questions for hours).

The only thing I know is that I will pretty much always be wrong about most things. I'm quite fascinated in understanding why people love the music that they do. Clearly many people here love noise music and I respect that to the utmost.

I say this because I felt bad about getting all surly with idiopath as I was having a bad day at the time and I took it out on the Internets [sic]. I wanted to move things it in a positive direction, for me at least, and try to build something where there was nothing before. Hence my question.

However, I don't agree with the sentiment "If you don't like something you should ignore it". I doubt most of you ignore things that you don't like. Ambivalence is far worse than dislike, because at least dislike means you feel something. Is that not the purpose of art?

Dislike turns to love quite often, in my experience.
posted by dobie at 7:33 AM on April 29, 2009

I just noticed this thread, I have been exceptionally busy all week.

For the record, I don't recall ever talking shit about pop music. The point about the "music girls like" comment was that I would need a motivation to make music if I didn't make it because I liked it. What better motivation than sex, right? If you look back at my comments there, nothing I said was about pop music. Really. Not one word.

Regarding why I like noise, and how I come to appreciate it, I was visiting my birth mother and she had this punk room-mate (who I thought was increadibly hot) and I was going through her records and listening to her Butthole Surfers albums. She noticed I liked the weirder stuff, so she introduced me to this compilation called "dry lungs". It hurt, it blew my mind, it confused me, I made a tape and I just laid down on the floor in front of the speakers completely overwhelmed and overpowered, unable to think in the presence of the barrage of sound. And eventually I started to hear the patterns, and notice the nuances, and think about how one goes about making something like that. Then I discovered Merzbow, who was kind of the ultimate point of this style, it seemed like you could not go any further. I used to joke with my friends about having a Merzbow cover band, the joke being that you can't differentiate one of his tracks from another anyway, so how would you know a cover. I am fifteen years wizer now, and I can hear the diference between one Merzbow track and another, and now I would know if someone was doing of a Merzbow cover, at least if it were one of the tracks I have listened to closely. Now I can think when I listen to noise, I can pick out the nuances.

Noise is as much defined by its negative criteria as the positive. The lack of a beat. The lack of a melody. It lacks training wheels or floatation devices or seatbelts or airbags, you are out there on your own. Noise is there in the act of listening, as much as the artifact, and that is the small way that the emperor's new clothes comment was spot on.

There are millions of ways to listen to sounds. Each of these has a music that could go with it. There is a way that all music, all art even, is the emporer's new clothes. We make it up in the way we learn to understand it, it is often as not a shorthand for a way of experiencing, a set of rituals and social understandings about what sounds should mean. And noise tries to rattle that cage. If you think music is spiritual, it will be laughably obscene. If you think music expresses your deeper inner emotions and feelings, it will be cold, inhuman, and alien. If you think it is about social ritual, it will be introspective and isolating. To me noise has some of the transgressive and transcendant character that Battaile described when he talked about the erotic.

What I would criticise in noise (besides the elsewhere mentioned unfriendliness of the scene to women), is the fact that much of it falters when it is not standing up in stark contrast to traditional music, it is the Satan to the musical Jesus. It often needs you to expect a melody so it can say "gotcha!". But the better stuff can stand on its own. Coming from the world of classical music there is Iannis Xenakis. The much-mentioned Merzbow is mentioned for good reason. Massona is playful, and you can tell that he doesn't take himself too seriously (he quotes "the dance of the sugar plum fairies" on the harmonica on his track "like a vagina").

This has turned into a MAJOR rant, so I should cut it short, but hopefully this gives a few glimpses into why I love noise.
posted by idiopath at 11:29 PM on May 1, 2009 [5 favorites]

Re: hrvatski, his stuff is more glitch techno than it is noise, as far as my taxonomy is concerned. It is the difference between going without a hat and streaking - yeah, it is just a difference of degree, but there is a massive change that happens somewhere in between that puts them in very different categories.
posted by idiopath at 11:54 PM on May 1, 2009

I concer: Hrvatski / Drill and Bass / Drum n Bass Techno / Kid 606 are not 'Noise Music' as they rely to much on standard music constructions ie beats, bass lines, etc.
posted by mary8nne at 2:29 AM on May 3, 2009

posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:08 AM on May 3, 2009

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