The Music of Noise

I guess it makes sense to think noise is bad and sound is good but it's not the way I think about audible material.

The distinction seems to be a value based on subjective experience. A noise might be unappreciated as sound one particular moment. If I'm making a recording, then maybe I have some control over the role of noise among the sounds I curate. But, do these decisions make me a noise snob?

So, I asked Tim "What do you make of the term ‘noise’ as a genre?" I used to hate all that noise.

"(I am not including the genre of music know as ‘noise’ in that sense)" he added to his reply, which is a shame since I was attempting to deconstruct the binary logic of his terms. Then he might recognise that noise can be valuable too.

(Edit: Here's Tim's reply on Twitter.)

About decade ago I had definitive 'A-ha!' moment when I couldn't sustain the distinction between noise and sound. I remember going along to a few of the Wagga Space Program's Unsound events and found myself annoyed by the 'noise' artists who'd play an interesting field recording or other ambient sounds and then interrupt it with white noise.

The contrast between a soothing sound and a loud noise was interesting once or twice, particularly as texture on a large sound system. After a couple of artists did it during their sets, it seemed like a 'noise' artist cliche. It lead me to realise that it was context that made this noise noisy, since I could enjoy it at other times.

There are plenty of times when music becomes noise. Being jolted awake by loud music, like an alarm clock, is one example of music becoming noise. The way music is used during siege settings or interrogations must also make them seem noisy.

Anyway, I stopped thinking how much I hated 'noise' art and began questioning what else my subjective experience might be stopping me from experiencing. Then I learned that noise could be as interesting as music.

The Wagga Space Program had a cool philosophy that being based in regional Australia was a key part of their sound.

It started to make a lot of sense to me when I was introduced to Alan Lamb, whose large-scale aeolian harp he calls 'the wires' changed the way I listen to sound. Lamb's wires had been installed outside Wagga Wagga during 2004 and I spent many hours listening to their shifting harmonics. The sound varied from test-tone-like hum to softer breathing as the wind caressed barely-audible vibrations.

Lamb also introduced me to piezo contact microphones. Recording with these captures vibrations directly, rather than the vibrations in air captured with a microphone's diaphragm. It's quite cool to think you're hearing how something feels.

Contact mics can also transform objects into instruments. Like the fence near the playground at the end of my street that makes an evil double bass sound when there's a strong westerly.

Once I began thinking of how to use environmental noise in musical remixes, the difference between noise and sound became a question of frequencies. It brought into focus the physics of a situation in determining the value of a sound in my composition.

A piece at the Wired website explains that the main harmonic overtone heard (other than the octave above) when striking a physical object is a fifth to the fundamental tone. It has an inherent chord within the sound but the resonance of different structures can filter the result. This leads sounds to vary within different corners of large metal objects like slippery slides.

I've been amazed at how much variety you get tapping different parts of a slide. Tapping in various places produces different tones. Like the piping along the sides, the ladder, the sheet that forms the slide part, etc. Not every sound will be musical, some might even be called noise. It probably depends how I'm feeling that day whether I'm feeling a particular sound but plenty find their way into my recordings.

My 2012 project For 100 Years embraced the idea of noise being musical and drew on the Italian Futurist movement, in part because they were active at the time of Leeton's construction. The local newspaper sometimes use inverted commas around the word "music” in reference to my material. Maybe I'm sensitive to irony but I wonder if some are still getting accustomed to how the concept of music was challenged in the 20th Century by the idea promoted by John Cage that noise and music overlap in sound.

I was a musician before moving to regional NSW but being here has opened my ears to the landscape. Alan Lamb's work can only really exist in a regional context. The interplay between the surrounding sounds like birdsong and his wires really captivated me. I spent many hours listening to the long decay of chirps as well as the rise and fall of harmonics.

It's no wonder that many romantic poets and composers have found inspiration in aeolian harps. These sounds changed my landscape, once I stopped hearing noise.

As Coleridge observed:
Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a World like this
Where e'en the Breezes of the simple Air
Possess the power and Spirit of Melody