Noise Matters: Discussions on noise and sound (Part II of III)


Continuing in his quest for the definition of noise, Greg Hainge, author of Noise Matters, posed the question “What is noise?” to some of sound’s most interested parties. Last time, Hainge divulged his inspiration for the question and previewed the slew of personal responses with Haco’s answer.

This week Hainge gives us even more personal responses from noise fans. Read on for a diverse handful of definitions for noise:

Darrin Verhagen: lecturer, composer, sonic sadist.

To use the information technology definition of “noise” as “data without meaning” is meaningless in relation to Power Electronics. It takes the noise out of Noise Music immediately. In this genre, the data is the meaning. Similarly, it removes the noise from “natural” sonic violence – as all the noises that splinter, smash, crack and explode attend some of the most “meaning”-laden events we’re ever likely to experience. It is too simple to view the world as a “carrier”, a transmission to be interrupted. And given that sound traditionally authenticates, materializes or indicates something else, from the ground up, its capacity for meaninglessness is seriously hampered.

In my practice, I have eschewed any false binaries from the outset. Noise Music isn’t a petulant force railing against some kind of cultural hegemony, it’s a logical extension of all the prevalent musical trends in 20th Century music. Culturally, it’s unsustainable to simply cite its intensity to render it illegitimate.

There is something to be said, however, for an examination of the experience of Noise Music. And as culturally “musical” as Power Electronics may be, perhaps experientially there are arguments to be made for its reception to be heard more as environmental rather than musical sound.

Jussi Parikka: writer, media theorist, media archaeologist.

You don’t need an etymology book in your hand to know that noise connects to nausea. Just turn up your stereo loud enough and persist. Loudness turned into noise can make your bowels turn, and sickness overtake your body. A classic function of media: disorientation of the senses. Noise can clear out the room when you want it to. You can clear spaces, push people away if you want. Or make someone wish they were not in the space, when you debilitate their possibility of saying no to sound. Connecting it to psychoanalytic theories of sensation, sound is hard to resist.

Noise connects to contemporary politics, as is well argued by a range of scholars from Steve Goodman to Suzanne Cuzick. Such cultural theory-musicologists as Milla Tiainen have convincingly argued about the multiplicity of sounds that constitute bodies as collectivities of becoming. The continuum between sound-noise is the axis through which to understand the political constitution of contemporary bodies and collectivities. What holds bodies together is affect, but that glue is also a force of push and pull.

What is interesting about noise is that it is emblematic of the emergence of technical media culture. Noise too has a history, and not only in the aesthetic or even urban development sense. Noise has an engineering oriented media archaeology. Imagine the sounds and noises Denis Kaufman, better known as Dziga Vertov, created at the Petrograd Psychoneurological Institute, in the Laboratory of Hearing.

Engineering noise is related to the wider communication theory issue formally formulated in the 1940s: communication takes place always in the presence of noise. Any kind of consideration of the ontology of noise is at least an implicit nod to the fact that noise becomes measurable in the age of technical media. It becomes an issue of epistemology, in a manner that bypasses the semantic understanding of noise. We are not dealing with meaning, but with various frequencies and patterns that define the world of information and sound. Both information and sound are ontologically time-critical: they unfold in time, and in ways that are not only experiential in the sense that phenomenology taught us, but speculative. There is noise everywhere, as Hainge points out, referring to Bogost and the black noise of objects. Even humans are “noisy narrowband devices” as Licklider coined us in comparison to computers.

“Message or Noise?” This was a shorter text by Michel Foucault, and picked up by the media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst, who has been one of the theorists keen to rescue noise and signals from meaning-based approaches. Instead, in the age of information, even human perception becomes conditioned by the events of signal processing and signal-to-noise ratio in the transmission of mediatic content. This argument by Ernst resonates with a range of material media theory emphases of recent years, including that of Friedrich Kittler. In the age of technical media, we are able to record pure noise as obediently as the harmonious meaningful phrases of poetry, and transmission takes place in a careful engineering of that aforementioned ratio: signal to noise. Hence, it is not a question of message or noise, just that of messages in noise. And noise in messages.

Joseph Nechvatal: artist and author. School of Visual Arts, New York.

Frederick Nietzsche famously assimilated the Apollonian into the Dionysian under the name of an experience of art. Noise, for me, attempts an equivalent experience, as it fuses form with chaotic disturbance. It is an attempt at situating us somewhere between the surface of empirical reality and the chasm of shattering incoherence where we must each pick through noisy mesh and recover meaning out of entangled ground. This approach relates to my book Immersion Into Noise (2011) where I have mapped out a broad-spectrum of aesthetic activity I call the art of noise by tracing its past eruptions where figure/ground merge and flip the common emphasis to some extent. Immersion Into Noise concludes with a look at the figural aspect of this aesthetic lodged within the ground of consciousness itself.

Robin Rimbaud: scanner : artist, sound designer, composer, occasional professor

Noise is all around me

Noise is all around me. I just opened the newspaper this morning to discover a review of Noise: A Human History, a new BBC radio series which explores the British Library’s sound archive, opening listeners ears to Neolithic sites in Orkney and prehistoric caves in France. Apparently many of these caves were tranquil places until noisy humans brought life to them with their movements. I turn to another magazine on my desk, British music journal The Wire, with a feature on German composer Jakob Ullman, whose works test the very limits of audibility. It seems that his elegiac and contemplative compositions were rooted in a childhood trauma where the East German government tortured local agricultural peasants by playing recordings of marches exceptionally loud, 24 hours a day, non-stop. “I was a little child and I was so afraid of this kind of musical noise that I started to hate it…You cannot compete with the noise of the world. Impossible. The less loud music is, the better I can hear it.”

Then last week I watched a DVD documentary on John Cage and a scene focused on composer Christian Woolf roaming around Cage’s old ramshackle hut in Stony Point, New York. It seems that despite Cage’s desire to live this utopian dream and living off the land, he missed the noise of New York City and returned there six months later.

Yet it’s curious how noise is commonly linked to a negative response, as something annoying and irritating, and many times this is true. The sound of your neighbour drilling late into the evening, above the volume of your conversation at home is deeply frustrating. Living beside a street filled with car sirens for many can damage their mental health and affect behavior in a detrimental way.

For myself, I am fascinated by the noise that surrounds me. It offers a frame within which I operate. Do people wear headphones to avoid the noise around them, or just to avoid speakers to others whilst commuting? I rarely ever wear headphones outside of the studio as I enjoy navigating through my sonic landscape with a clear channel. In not shutting out sounds I allow my ears to exercise their natural function.

It’s widely acknowledged now that the acoustical properties of spaces can produce very strange effects. French scientist Vladimir Gavreau famously made experiments on the biological effects of infrasound, that’s below the normal level of hearing. He discovered that his laboratory was vibrating in unison with a defective industrial ventilator in a building some distance from his. This was caused by extremely low frequency sound waves that literally induced pain in him. It’s obvious that an undetectable, and mentally disturbing, phenomenon such as this could be construed as paranormal.

Similarly when architect Bernard Tschumi designed French art school Le Fresnoy, he conceived of a building without a centre, a new structure wrapped around another already existing development. What exists now is a sense of the in‐between, a place between past and present, beginning and closing conversations between different times and places. Visiting artists, guests and Professors (which I myself have been since 2009) have all spoken about the ‘ghosts’ resident in the building and one writer even went so far as to write a story inspired by this resonance.

Whilst in residence there I made a work, In‐Between, that explored an experience that utilises all the mysterious noise that resides in Le Fresnoy, from the drone of the air conditioning, the hum of electricity, the ductwork for heating and ventilation, as well as the movement of bodies within. In my research I believe I discovered the source of this unsteady feeling resident inside Le Fresnoy.

Sound frequencies have been known to cause all manner of surprising responses in recipients, as Gavreau reported. In recording the ventilation system that snakes its way through the entire building I found low‐level 17 Hz near‐infrasonic tones registered throughout. The presence of these tones can lead to feelings of anxiety, uneasiness, sorrow, fear and pressure, and especially that sense of a chill down the spine. In the past people have commonly attributed these sensations to ghosts whereas in fact it is an unconscious response to the physicality of sound.

Resonant frequencies at 18 Hz also have the ability to alter sight through the vibration of the eyeballs, thereby causing grey abstract shapes to seemingly appear in view. So noise makes us see differently too. So noise is interference. It resonates all around us. Not only through our eyes but our eyes and touch, and as a composer I’m drawn to musical tools that software offers to enliven sound. I like to corrode sounds with decreasing bit rates, so that they collapse into ruin, whilst erosion tools saturate and demolish the sound.

Thinking about noise, I recognize that much of the music that has accompanied me as I grow up has been reflective of this noisy environment. Early recordings by industrial acts such as Throbbing Gristle, SPK and Einstürzende Neubauten frequently echoed our modernised society, taking the raw materials around and applying them in a creative manner, so hammers, engines and metal would feature in the character of the music. And remember many years earlier, composers Edgard Varèse and George Antheil had been using car horns and sirens in their controversial works. Not that audiences or critics particularly liked them though of course.

More recently, the works of artists such as Ben Frost, The Haxan Cloak, Raime, and Tim Hecker have embraced noise as a musical force that I have found much sympathy with. In their recordings, harsh noise often collapses into a meditative heartbreaking drone, producing a kind of blissful ecstasy especially in a live context. It’s as if these works are exploring a cartography of our time, combatting the digital, tearing apart the harmonies from inside.

When I collaborated with American artist Mike Kelley on our installation, Esprits de Paris, at Centres Pompidou in Paris in 2002, we were both drawn to ideas circulating around recording the dead, capturing spirit voices from beyond. We chose a number of recognised ‘haunted’ sites in Paris and recorded these on both video and a digital recorder. However we deliberately left the lens cap on the video camera, and the microphone was turned off on the audio recorder. So the machines, then, in essence, recorded themselves and not the sites they were situated in. In post‐production, to accentuate the white noise elements sound playback levels of the tapes were radically raised so that whatever natural hiss was present on the tape stock was be accentuated.

As such, this white noise, this nothingness, this unwanted detritus, became the main focal point, with meaning brought from under the surface of invisibility. Our disembodied relationship to these abstract and ambiguous sounds meant that we have a kind of tabula rasa situation, where the listener is free to interpret as they wish.

Noise can be a comfort, a presence. Despite never watching television at home I find myself switching it on in hotels as I travel, almost as a matter of habit. Even in countries when I understand nothing of the language it’s the presence rather than the absence that I enjoy. Silence for me can be troubling and uncomfortable.

Today, noise is spoken of in many other contexts – the noise of information via social networks, the noise inherent in a video image, but ultimately we are speaking about control. Noise for many is uncontrollable and that in itself can be troubling. A river of noise flows through our lives and I think it’s invaluable at times to simply sit on the virtual riverbank and marvel at the current, the tide of our lives.

Jane Grant: artist, scholar, reader in digital arts, Plymouth University, UK.

Noise is the incipient something between 1 and 0. Noise amplifies thresholds and forms a bridge from the internal to the external. Noise carries imprints of memory both coming into being and diminishing. Noise is pervasive and implicit. In cellular structures noise resonates both between and within the cell. Furthermore, noise links the internal workings of groups or singular cells to exteriority, resonating in tune to their environment. Noise is the not yet, the signal’s maybe, a mutable betweenness of all possible outcomes.
‘Ghost’* is a sonic artwork that uses a ‘memory’ embedded model of spiking neurons. The artwork merges internal sounds or memory with the external sonic environment. The work consists of eight microphones connected to eight loud speakers and a small network of artificial spiking neurons. As external sounds are made they are fragmented by the neuronal model and replayed through the speakers over layering the endogenous sounds already embedded in the model; when the external sounds fail to reach a particular threshold, the ‘memory embedded’ sounds begin to be heard. Over time, the external sounds being to embed themselves into the model, gathering sensory information and sonifying both the past and the present. I have used the term ‘sonic ghosts’ to describe endogenous noise embedded in the cortex that arises when external stimulation is decreased or not present, for these ghosts represent the infinite possible outcomes of such a complex system modeled on the human brain that stores memories in no place specific, and are brought forth not fully formed. These noisy ghosts become the buoyancy of the system, keeping things active when external stimulus falls away and the exchange is no longer a between the endogenous and exogenous, the internal and the external but a conversation of the interior complexities of the neural system, of coming into being, the possible, the not yet.
*Ghost is a sonic artwork by the Jane Grant, which was premiered at ISEA Istanbul/ Istanbul Biennial in 2011.

Stay tuned for the final installation of Noise Matters next week.

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