Intro from Pierce Engineer: I often find myself wondering why I even participate in "music" because everything can often just end up sounding the same. It's learning the rules and then tweaking their boundaries that becomes the fun of any art. It's more than just experience, it's spacial awareness, which gives way to the ability to utilize noise into something new. To me, noise is a derivative function of a space, the context in a recording. Sometimes you can utilize the context or you can take it away by redefining the context as a useful element. Here pATCHES takes us on journey of self exploration. How do people view noise? How do you harness your own creative energy to be used alongside the art of noise?
On an otherwise unremarkable late-night shift at my college library job, a music student returned a book that would change the way I thought about sound and music forever. It was a copy of Luigi Russolo’s The Art of Noise, a 1914 futurist manifesto challenging the notion of what music is and should be in the changing, industrial world of the 20th century. I was intrigued, having just made my start in bedroom producing, and I gobbled down the text quickly. Its ideas made a strong impression and have guided my thoughts about music and production in the years since. In this manifesto-on-a-manifesto I’ll discuss what I learned from Russolo's essay in the hopes of sharing my most important inspiration.
Familiar vs. Unfamiliar
Musicians are all too familiar with the struggle of holding a general audience’s attention, even at a live concert. Unless they are already inclined to listen, it seems those in attendance can be moved only to apathy, heads bowed to their phones or turned toward friends in a chat with only an occasional glance or nod in acknowledgement of the stage. What’s behind the general disinterest in music? Russolo offers some ideas:
“Everyone will acknowledge that all musical sound carries with it a development of sensations that are already familiar and exhausted, and which predispose the listener to boredom in spite of all the efforts of innovating composers.”
When a typical audience hears a piano, for example, it can be categorized, boxed, and therefore dismissed. Familiar, it becomes relegated to the background as they spend the concert in conversation or lost in unrelated thoughts. It is like learning about the founding of the United States for the sixth time in school – no matter how the teacher approaches it, among the students all but the history buffs will feel exhausted by the retelling of the same story. I push for the use of new sounds because simply by dint of their novelty a listener listens to the music. Their ear is perked to the unrecognized and their attention is captured in an effort of discernment.
Now, the familiar sounds Russolo referred to were the violins and orchestral instruments of his era but what he says is just as applicable today to the guitars and drums that have been made a staple of popular and independent music alike. Why has this become the case? In 1962, Decca records famously passed on the Beatles because, as they put it to the band’s manager, “guitar music is on the way out, Mr. Epstein.” The story has become a source of ridicule and a common example of bad decision-making but I think we can only laugh at this with hindsight. Guitar music probably was a passing fad in pop but for the Beatles. It’s hard to underestimate the impact this group had, and maybe without them there would be another in their place – after all, a lot has been made about parallel development and multiple discovery.
But the point is we’re still dealing with the iconographic fallout from this era when it was imprinted upon our collective consciousness that a “band” consists of a singer, a guitar, a bass, and a drum kit. When we form ensembles based on this expectation, as we have for decades now, we end up with a very similar sonic palette and mountains of indistinguishable, forgettable music. Even in electronic genres, there’s a tendency to assign the roles of a prototypical rock group to similar instruments – we must have a kick/snare/high hat beating out the same tired patterns, we must have a synth laying down a chord progression in lieu of a rhythm guitar, we must include a lead line.
Sure, there’s something to be said for nuance in artistry - of honing one’s craft on a particular instrument or in a particular genre - but this subtlety is lost upon a general audience. You have to ask yourself – who are you making music for? If the details you slave over are lost on the listener, what have they accomplished? If guitarists are only making music for guitarists, they communicate in a language of influence that only they can appreciate. The same can be said even for synthesizers – ushered in with the promise of infinite possibilities of timbre, we hear the same super-saw and filter sweeps again and again – the fact that a “creamier” filter was used is ultimately rather unimportant. We have to recognize that we are ourselves specialists; we wouldn't be playing & producing music if we weren't. Along with this ultra-perception, however, comes a loss of perspective.
The Evocative Power of Noise
I don’t propose we do away with traditional instrumentation – I only mean to say we should be more aware of the baggage our sounds carry and be more deliberate about what associations we attach to our productions. When you record an acoustic guitar, for example, you call upon a specific and storied legacy of Woodie Guthrie’s and Bob Dylan’s that may or may not be match the message of your piece. An electric guitar, depending on its tone, will often recall the rock legends of the 60’s or 70’s but there seems to be little consideration made if the nostalgia is appropriate for a contemporary conversation.
Listeners have existing associations with most common instruments because they have so much past experience with them. Noises are not immune to this phenomenon – sounds we have heard throughout our lives have a special transportative power when we hear them. Russolo has much to say on the subject:
“Noise accompanies every manifestation of our life. The noise, therefore, is familiar to our ear, and has the power to conjure up life itself. On the other hand, sound, foreign to life, always a musical, outside thing, an occasional element, has come to strike our ears no more than an overly familiar face does our eye.”
If we’re writing a song about leaving town on the next train, why not incorporate the sounds of the station? Why are we content to set the scene with lyrics only when we can conjure up a setting so vividly as with noise? Imagine a filmmaker, who primarily trades in the sense of sight, deciding not to use imagery; instead, the settings & actors of the film’s scenes are described only with text on a blank screen! Nonsense! I'm not saying we should overwhelm all our productions with field recordings of bird chirps and howling wind; I only suggest that if we wish to transport our listener let’s use all the powers at our disposal. We already accept tools like echo and reverb to place music in a space – why not add specific character and detail to the soundscape? In the vacuum of notation and instrumentation, a small suggestion of life goes a long way.
A natural reaction might be that the use of noise is limited and distracting. Like any other compositional process, incorporating noises into a piece cannot be done randomly. Special care must be taken to creatively balance the evocative power and inherent musical properties of noises. Russolo agrees:
“Although the characteristic of noise is to brutally bring us back to life, the art of noises must not be limited to a mere imitative reproduction. The art of noises will extract its main emotive power from the special acoustic pleasure that the inspired artist will obtain in combining noises.“
The true potential of noise is obvious when their frequency content is understood. Timbre is determined by harmonics and noises are rich with unique & chaotic frequencies. It is like expanding the assortment of paints for an artist's use - they arrive jumbled and disorganized but represent an increase in options for assembling pallets. Just the same, wonderful & unusual harmonics exist in noises that need only be picked out & extracted. Therefore, to truly tap their sonic usefulness, we must have means of organization. This is not lost in The Art of Noise:
“We want to score and regulate harmonically and rhythmically these most varied noises. Not that we want to destroy the movements and irregular vibrations (of tempo and intensity) of these noises! We wish simply to fix the degree or pitch of the predominant vibration, as noise differs from other sound in its irregular and confuse vibrations.”
Russolo is practically begging for the modern digital audio workstation. Today, software like Ableton Live makes it easier to manipulate sounds than he could have dreamed in 1914. He could never have imagined the technologic achievement of decoupling pitch and time from recording audio, or the array of effects and beat-matching tools that computers have put at our disposal. Perhaps more so, he could not have imagined what waste we have put them to.
I incorporate noise into my productions all the time – it’s fun, challenging, and the results are always interesting. Recently, I incorporated a jackhammer I recorded on a visit to Seattle into a beat and I think it provides a good example of some of what I’ve been talking about. When I browsed through my sample library, the jackhammer seemed to have the visceral qualities I was looking for. It wouldn’t have been right to just toss the audio into my track, however. After many manipulations, syncing the hammer’s rhythm to my tempo, raising its pitch, adding distortion, and opening up a filter I fit it into the track. The result is both rhythmically satisfying and sonically impactful.
Russolo recognizes noise as a bridge the fundamental disconnect between music (as can be described by notation on paper) and the sound of the world around us. He calls music “a fantastic world superimposed upon reality, an inviolable and sacred world.” The drawback to the elevation of music is artificiality – while beautiful, the sophisticated level of organization of sound just doesn’t exist naturally. It is a human construction. Thus Russolo proposes layering the real world back in, grounding and giving context to music through the use of noise. Without this, there is little new we can say with our compositions:
“All of us have liked and enjoyed the harmonies of the great masters. For years, Beethoven and Wagner have deliciously shaken our hearts. Now we are fed up with them. This is why we get infinitely more pleasure imagining combinations of the sounds of trolleys, autos and other vehicles, and loud crowds, than listening once more, for instance, to the heroic or pastoral symphonies.”
Melodic possibilities have been exhausted, chord progressions are spent. The natural evolution of music is in exploring novel timbres and experimenting in noise, something Russolo realized a century ago.
You can read a translation of Russell's original The Art of Noise here: http://www.artype.de/Sammlung/pdf/russolo_noise.pdf