Noise and the Tao Te Ching

As I have previously mentioned, one of the most rewarding aspects of noise art is its paradoxical nature. It is simulataneously complex (physically constructed of many competing elements), but simple (white noise, which has a flat spectrum over a broad frequency band, is sometimes used to put people to sleep!)… Much noise art aims to be shocking, but ultimately– as many long-time listeners will attest, loses this ability somewhat. Noise is and isn’t music all at once– its somehow more than a naturally occurring event, but also never totally under control, either. Often devoid of even the most basic of messages, it can still overwhelm listeners with randomness, chaos, and the inhuman quality of formlessness. The best noise plays with our innate desire to “know” and to “define” the unknown by naming it, examining it, studying its constituent parts; but it eludes us, existing in a Lovecraftian grey zone where only disembodied adjectives attempt to suffice.

For all its aggressive qualities, though, I find that the closest relative to contemporary noise art can be found in the nearly 3,000 year-old Chinese text of the Tao Te Ching, which is equally paradoxical– championing the strength of the weak, the intelligence of unknowing, and even the usefulness of nothing.Consider this quote, from a translation by James Legge:

Music and dainties will make the passing guest stop (for a time).
But though the Tao as it comes from the mouth, seems insipid and has
no flavour, though it seems not worth being looked at or listened to,
the use of it is inexhaustible.

How relative this seems to noise art! In the Tao Te Ching, a constant theme is that of simplicity; giving up conceits, ego, drive, form, wisdom, and ultimately returning to the Tao.

Within the rush of incomprehensibility presented in noise art, I think listeners can also find many of these concepts. In the best noise art, there is a fundamental absurdity encountered by listeners who attempt to mentally encompass all that is occurring. Either through volume, complexity, chaos (or all three!) noise art erodes our senses– it leaves listeners realizing that they are really only able to track portions of the total sound, and quite possibly, none at all. It is within the eventual release of our attempt to understand, and the acceptance of our own inabilities that the real power of noise art is understood.

To rephrase– listeners get more out of noise by not trying to “get” more out of noise. Neat, huh?



2 Responses to “Noise and the Tao Te Ching”

  1. Alex Says:

    NOISE AND ART!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Noise FeSTL 2007! « Startling Moniker Says:

    […] is the most paradoxical of all listening forms– defined as “unwanted,” yet actively sought out by an […]

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