Noise Art and Perception

On my last show, I was hanging out in chat, as I often do– typing to listeners, taking requests, fielding questions, creating an additional dimension of participation for the show. Having convinced one chatter to browse over to the show’s website and actually check out the show, I was amused at his comment: “Sorry, it’s nothing but static.”

Obviously, this wasn’t the case, or this would be a rather pointless blog entry. What this fellow was hearing (and probably for the first time) was noise art. Specifically, Toshiji Mikawa, but that’s not terribly important right now. So while I got a little giggle out of his reaction, I was also troubled– “how quickly we can stop ourselves from hearing!” I wondered.


Now, I’m fully aware that noise isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. That’s fine. What bothers me is that people have allowed themselves to be conditioned to such a point that they are unable to perceive alternate forms of music. It’s not too much of a stretch to make the hypothesis that this person wouldn’t be able to perceive the music surrounding us in the natural world either.I didn’t have time to really analyze this situation as much as I would have liked, but certainly, a number of questions came to my mind. At what aural boundary might have this listener perceived the sounds to be musical? (Considering that the simple cues of it being on a radio broadcast, and being urged to listen by the DJ himself were not enough, my suspicion is that the cues would have had to be much greater!) Would increased listening time been more helpful, or would the sounds themselves need to have been altered?

Might it have been possible to broadcast a sound so foreign it could not be heard at all?

Of course, this is the sort of extreme area of thinking that attracts me the most. For a long time, I’ve tried to find or create sounds that have no “history,” no basis in the musical past. Sounds that are not as much divorced from music, as much as they should not be yet. They’re my Lovecraft sounds, things I can’t describe without a rush of adjectives, and I enjoy hunting after them. But this… a sound that can’t be heard! Amazing!

This also brings me to one of the most fascinating aspects of noise art: Noise isn’t a place, it’s a boundary. I believe it is quite possibly the only musical genre definable by individual listeners where a single track can truly BE or NOT BE noise… so its no longer the finite sounds themselves, but the threshold and needs of the listener. In this way, noise is a very complex art form that can easily develop into serious levels of thought and question. There are the basics– If “noise” is something unwanted, does it become “music” only by virtue of it being listened to with a critical ear? Am I then “chasing” something that will constantly elude me? What is the role of a message in noise?

And the deeper questions– What is the significance of our “self” in relation to noise? Is noise art asking us to expand our ability to grasp the monolithic nature of these sounds, or abandon our will to its absurdity?

Again, is it possible to make a noise so great that it can’t be heard?

9 Responses to “Noise Art and Perception”

  1. howsthatsound Says:

    i think one point to note in this situation is that both of your positions are merely pointers to a greater ideology. ideology defined in the older sense… that you are defined by what you take for granted.
    in his ideology (one that has been given him, like a fingerprint, but one that he does not own) “music” has a definition that excludes “noise” and furthermore is fixed and immovable, while in your ideology it seems that nothing is “fixed” and that the act of seeking “music” is something that causes constant revision of any terminology you may utilize.
    this points then to a larger issue. where did his ideology come from, and why is it fixed? the answer of course, is that is comes from society at large. popular culture is one big social conditioning environment, with every person, tv ad and radio disc jokey reenforcing a common set of mutually agreed upon values and marginalizing any anommaly it comes in contact with.
    sorry to blather on here, but the point i’m getting to is that it is a matter of freedom from, or slavery to the prevailing ideology, and it is unfortunately the burden of each individual alone to find a way to get free. of course “free” is just another word and in action it is not a place, but a moving equilibrium.
    blah blah blah….

    anyway, great post, obviously it got me thinking. :)

  2. Daniel Thompson Says:

    Great questions from both you and your commenter. I tend to think of music as the organisation of sound, yet nearly every sound has some sort of organisation. Some types of organisation are easier to understand than others. This may be because of physiology or because of cultural conditioning. Music theory often tries to generalise natural responses to sound, but it never captures the full picture. The theory then influences music in a such a way that we become conditioned to certain patterns and types of organisation. Since this has been going on for thousands of years, I really don’t know where we stand. I’m not sure what constitutes a natural response to sound and what constitutes conditioned response. I suspect that both factors must always play a role.

    I also suspect that the first musicians were not musicians in the traditional sense, but were noise enthusiasts. There was a time when it was critically important to listen attentively to your environment. A rustle of leaves could indicate a life threatening situation. Without artificial lighting, sound was often the only way to evaluate the safety of your environment.

    It’s only natural that such people would experiment with sound production and eventually learn that certain rhythms or melodic patterns were more pleasing than others. Perhaps, there was a gradual transition from noise to what we would recognise as music.

    I don’t know too much about “noise” music, but it seems like a great opportunity to reevaluate the structure of sound and our responses to it. If conventional music has already been developed once from noise experiments, why not see if a similar evolution can take place along an entirely different path that exploits different types of organisation?

    When I hear static, I sometimes think of it as the opposite of music. At other times, I recall that some of that static results from leftover radiation from the birth of the universe. What could be more natural? Maybe static is the best example of nature’s music.

  3. Alex Says:

    noise is neither a place nor a boundary
    noise is noise
    nothing else
    thats why i love it!
    and yes, to the untrained ear, noise does sound like static
    but there is alot more improvisational structure to it
    really listen to it, and you will hear what it has to offer

  4. startlingmoniker Says:

    I’d watch out with the “untrained ear” thing, Alex… the guy above you is a composer!

  5. Alex Says:

    i meant it NOISE wise
    untrained ear to noise!
    which is alot of people

  6. myninjaplease » Blog Archive » noize art Says:

    […] startlingmoniker.wordpress […]

  7. M Gardens Says:

    Why does noise have to be art?

    That pretty much pulls the carpet out from under it, in my book.

    Art = money laundering

  8. startlingmoniker Says:

    I’m just writing about noise art– not noise in general. Besides, if noise is presented in an artistic context (an album, with an artists name, liner notes, etc).. isn’t it a bit convenient to use the reasoning you present to avoid any sort of negative reaction?

  9. Noise FeSTL 2007! « Startling Moniker Says:

    […] we all have our own connection to the sounds we listen to; regardless of whether we know them as music, nature, sound, or noise. For me, noise continues past […]

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: