Book Review: Paul Hegarty – “Noise/Music: A History”

Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty
Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty

One of the most complex and confounding questions for fans of music, and for musicians in general is also the most basic and deceptively simple question either could ask: “What is music?” The question extrapolates from Duchamp’s similar challenge presented to artists.

At a very basic level music is whatever one decides to call music. Found sounds can be (and are) considered as music. Electronic sounds are music. Any sound at all is music. Though, understandably, this may not be everyone’s view. One could go even further and say that music isn’t merely sound, but it is more specifically organized sound. So if one makes that distinction then one must be able to account for the organization behind what one considers music.

To that end Paul Hegarty’s probing philosophical exploration of the genre of noise music provides a thorough consideration of this very question. Not only does he consider the way in which noise music may be, and is, organized; he goes into detail about the implications of these organizations and how even the very word organization” needs to be questioned.

The book opens by exploring music with similar considerations as one would consider Arte Povera. As such it is explained that music would “stray far from the accepted, proper, artistic materials and conventions.” (pg. 27) In the 2nd chapter Hegarty introduces Derrida and Bataille into the conversation, taking a look at the philosophical implications behind the creation of different, or rather different, forms of music.

He begins with the birth of electronic music, in the late 1940’s by composers Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry, and how their “found sounds” were recorded and reproduced and then manipulated. The musical material became these fixed sounds that were then manipulated, and the world of music could never again be the same. While I was reading this section of the book what came to my mind was that incorporating found sound into music could maybe be compared to using the sound of a room in today’s recording techniques, in addition to, of course, the continuation of the tradition of the manipulation of found sounds.

The parallels between Schaeffer and Henry’s experiments with that of the questions that were implied by Cage’s 4’33” can be seen, and the answer to some of those questions are answered through the creation of noise as music. Music moves outside the world of sterility where “noise” of any kind is absolutely prohibited (Classical and Romantic era compositions have score indications, but nowhere is anything else supposed to be added to the music. People throw a fit when conductors do something as seemingly minimal as taking a piece at a slightly different tempo, or ignoring phrase markings. The perceived structure of the entire piece depends upon the correlation between the notes, the rhythms and the tempi, anything added or taken away threatens that very structure) to the real world where the incorporation of “noise” makes music more real, or at least more of the world in which it was created.

Creating noise as music sets out to discover the limits and nature of music itself, but not only that, it seeks to find what it is that holds it together. What can be added, and what can be taken away from a composition before that composition becomes another piece entirely? According to Hegarty, “Schaeffer wanted to expand the realm of music, and bring in sounds that were musical, even if not matching the expectations of being specific notes.”

“Music had become obsessed with form, Schaeffer argues, whereas rel interest could only come from material…paying attention to the stuff of music – sounds as themselves – would reconcile material and form ‘as a new immanent body’…this new music would still need organization” (pg. 33)

These considerations of form and structure continue throughout the book. Add to those consideration also that of motivation and conception. Adding Adorno and Deluze to his philosophical battalion Hegarty moves from electronic music to Throbbing Gristle and antagonization as noise, social disorder as noise, actual feedback (in the music of Derek Bailey) as noise and music. He talks about the birth of Punk as social noise, “punk precursors like MC5 reintroduced aggression and transgression, both in lyrical content and musical form…tired of extended solos and hippie culture that those elements came out of.” (pg. 68) He continues, “It is not enough to simply reject the long form, it is far more effective to wreck the purpose of it through the form itself.” (pg. 69)

The fact that anti-music is made through music is an interesting concept that sets up the remainder of Hegarty’s book. This is not not music. This is (if you’ll pardon me) not not not music. And progressive rock bands like King Crimson and Yes are reacting against that very reaction. He compares the motivations of King Crimson to Bataille where as Yes is more Hegelian, and therefore opposite of King Crimson. These inter-genre dissonances can be seen as another form of noise. He states that Yes’s (annoying, pretentiously and impossibly long) “Tales from Topographic Oceans” is noisy both lyrically and conceptually. If a philosophical quandary in the form of lyrics goes on for 75 minutes and nobody is able to make any sense of it, or relate to it….

The chapters continue to probe at the real core issue here, which has now gone from “what is music” to “what is noise and what can noise be?” He brings up ineptitude, ie if a music can only be created by musicians then what is a musician? If someone creates music then they are a musician, you can’t have one without the other. He also considers industrial music, the beat poets and their influence on music (hello Sonic Youth and the entirety of the early 80s downtown rock scene), power (“noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message”) Japan’s noise scene, and an entire chapter on Merzbow.

Hegarty approaches his topic both chronologically and in order of increasing complication because as time goes on art is reacting to itself faster and faster with each reaction creating sub-genre’s and therefore further expansions of music. His book is both philosophically challenging and highly readable. One does not need to be a music theorist nor a philosopher in order to follow the logic set down in this book. I would highly recommend that any fan of outsider music, experimental music and of course noise music, pick this book up and give it a thorough read and consideration. It is fairly popular and might even be found at your local library.


Purchase – It’s rather expensive as a hardcover, but paperback versions can be found for as little as $18 through certified Amazon outlets.