Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
Henry T. Blanke
Bring the Noise: The Pleasures of Musical Cacaphony
What does someone mean when they say of some music that it sounds like noise. Usually, it just means that they especially don’t like it. Like the way folk purists reacted when Dylan plugged in or to this day how usually older white people (and some blacks) hate on hip hop. But there is another sense of noise in music that refers to a piece without a discernable melody as well as being dissonant, distorted, dense and (often, but not necessarily) loud. This is stuff which disorients, challenges and is packed with sheer sonic overload. But if the listener can adjust, engage and open themselves, and if they have ears at all receptive to it, there is great pleasure to be found in “noise music.” Music which has too much repetition can be boring, but too little provides the hearer little to make sense of or enjoy. The best noise music strikes the right balance between these poles and its challenges can be rewarding, even mind expanding. It can open up new sonic vistas and new ways of hearing.
When I was 16 I got seriously onto jazz and came across John Coltrane in my reading. So I went to my local record shop and came home with Live at the Village Vanguard Again. As an introduction to his music, I could not have made a worse choice as this was from his last phase. There was no regular melody, harmony or rhythm but there was something about the power of these artist’s expression, the sheer feeling of catharsis which excited me. I had never heard anything like it or even knew something like it existed. By the time I reached college I was deep into jazz from bebop to post-bop to the modal innovations of Miles and middle period Coltrane. But beyond this I was delving into the avant garde explorations of Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman’s collective improvisation for double quartet Free Jazz, Albert Ayler and then the musicians associated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (whose moto was Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future). And of course, the master architect of magnificent noise constructions, Cecil Taylor.
I don’t really know why this stuff had such an impact on me (at a time when the hippest young tastes gravitated to Weather Report or the Mahavishnu Orchestra) but it had something to do with my growing obsessions with radical politics and mystical religion. But now I was reading (or trying to read) Joyce, Beckett, Burroughs, Pound and Ginsberg. I was going to weekly campus screening of experimental cinema and checking out radical anthropology, neo-Marxist dialectical theory and tantric scholarship. Growing up in the middle class suburbs in no way prepared me for this challenging work, but it was the music which opened me up to alternative worldviews and expressions.
Then around 1980 I went to a free double bill concert in Central Park. I was already familiar with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, but had never heard of Sonic Youth. For me rock was Beatles, Stones, Who and Clash. And I dug the dark and gritty Velvet Underground (especially the noisy John Cale driven songs). But Sonic Youth was different and much more intriguing than the simple punk of the Ramones. Here was not pretentious art rock, but rock as art in terms of attitude (punk disaffection) and sound. Sonic Youth embraced many of the most interesting artistic currents of the late 1970s and early 80s downtown scene and produced a rock guitar sound that was fresh and original. That day the air above Central Park resonated with the shimmering overtones of Thurston Moore’s and Lee Ranaldo’s idiosyncratically tuned guitars played very loud. If you want to know what New York’s Lower East Side felt like when I moved there in 1982, listen to Daydream Nation.
At that same time I frequented the Village Vanguard for jazz and saw noise maestro and genius Cecil Taylor many times. At first I was overwhelmed by the physicality of his playing and his manic energy. The music bulldozed me and left me limp. But slowly I came to respond to Taylor’s wave-like rhythms, his percussive and utterly original way with the piano and to his architectonic sense of form. Sometimes as an encore, he would play germs of his pieces, slowed down and spare and the lyrical beauty of his ideas, beneath the apocalyptic dense cascades of sound, would reveal themselves.
Taylor’s approach to noise is of the constructivist type where there is an arching, if highly complex, organic design. A good example of his music with a band is Unit Structures. This is similar to the work that came out of Chicago’s AACM in the 1960s and 70s such as Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrahms and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. They were rooted in the jazz tradition but drew from 20th century experimental classical music. By the 80s many of these cats had gravitated east to the noise mecca. And if you were involved in the loft scene then you could hear another major variant of the noise jazz aesthetic in downtown venues which served as alternative spaces for music which did not stand a chance and prayer of being heard in the mainstream clubs (the Vanguard for Taylor and a few others was an exception). This was the jazz expressionism inspired by Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Albert Ayler and others, music of unbridled emotion and cathartic intensity. The problem was that not all of these later guys had mastered their instruments so too often their playing expressed little more than energy and spiritual pretension.
Just as New York was the noise capital of North America, so was Darmstadt for Germany and the rest of Europe. The courses and festivals there formed an incubator for cutting edge experimentation in the Euro classical tradition. Led by Stockhausen these composers mainly rejected the rigidities and coldness of Schoenberg’s twelve tone serialist methods for free atonal expressions often employing electronics. And now, with trembling hand, allow me to point you to my favorite of these contemporary noise radicals, Iannis Xenakis, and in particular to one of his monumental masterpieces, La Legende d’Er.
This is a large-scale electro-acoustic piece which for me evokes the evolution of a supernova from a tentative beginning of piercing shrill tones, then pulsations, to some kind of morphing organism comprised of warped glissandi, densely textured clusters and thunderous, pounding percussion. The intrepid listener finds himself absorbed into this uncharted, cosmic sound universe. This music goes through violent and convoluted permutations before dying away with bird-like peeps into the black hole from which it merged. Though composed through stochastic mathematical procedures, Xenakis’s music is some of the most visceral of the 20th century.
We respond naturally to consonant harmony and regular rhythmic pulsation. To find pleasure in noise requires a willed rejection of the natural, an intentional self-alienation (“Strange to Themselves,” says Cecil Taylor) which opens us to a larger sound world and to a desire for the possible. This music calls upon distortion, disorientation and violence in the service of a more expansive affirmation than even that afforded by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or Armstrong’s variations on “Sweetheart’s on Parade.” It is perhaps even more earthy and immanent than Louis and not in tune with European classical’s yearning for divine transcendence. It is a decidedly non-Judeo-Christian music and no wonder that Coltrane transmitted his conceptions to his bands orally as did Taylor supplemented by his own cryptic notations. Noise music in its jazz form does not a involve a culture of the Book, but a deep non-Western oral transmission. And the notated scores of the European avant garde include instructions to play “with swing,” “with extreme violence”or for percussionists to wear safety goggles.
We are all cosmopolitans now (like it or not) and the more radical among us may engage deep noise soundscapes, past, present and future, as a rejection and escape from the current closed system of neo-liberal commodified art and culture. Reject the natural, listen to impossible sounds, open heretofore unknown vistas of expression and flourish. Say no to the overriding imperative to smile, be happy and sing cheerful tunes in our Grand Hotel Abyss. The music described above reflects the horrors of late capitalism right up to the moment and can open the way to utopian imaginings.
Post scriptum: At this moment I want to hear music that sound like a knife stab in Trump’s heart.