Category Archives: writing

Some thoughts on the state of music blogging

This post was originally going to veer into a discussion of a particular group of songs that I thought were worth talking about, but ended up developing into something completely different and I think that it works better as a stand alone piece. These are some of the things that I have been thinking about lately, perhaps spurred by my frustration with music blogs in general. I have read so many negative reviews (which are pointless for all involved) as well as many very poorly written reviews and other pieces about music that attempt to cover up the author’s lack of musical knowledge through convoluted verbiage. There are specific things that I could cite, and I will do so at a later time, but for right now I think that I am just going to let this stand as is and get back to the actual music tomorrow.

 

There are pretty much only two ways to get my attention music-wise. Despite sounding like the completely opposing ideas of beauty and aggression, I think that the best way to wrap these things up together would be under the umbrella of “visceral.” Something that is quiet can be visceral, though it seems people typically use the word to refer to something that is unusually aggressive, or overbearing in general. But really it’s about feeling something either way.

Leave cerebral music to those that don’t know any better; leave it to those that can’t figure out how to say anything other than “look how smart we are and how complicated our songs are.” Even early Genesis, the most proggy of the prog, had some deep emotion running through a lot of their songs (though not all of them, I mean they did write an entire song about a giant hogweed after all.

But, the point is, and I do have a point, is that when I hear a song I almost instantly know whether I am going to like it or not. I’m not saying that I make snap judgements that are completely biased one way or the other, but I have listened to enough music to be able to tell when something is not going to have anything to offer me. At a certain point you just have to figure out how to do it and how to do it fast. Better that than sit through something for an hour just because you feel like you have to. A lot of times I can tell just from the ambiance around the first second or two of a song, especially if there are some drumstick clicks to count off. It’s easy to hear if something is going to be overproduced from that sound alone. If something is overproduced, and by that I mean surgically recorded, hermetically protected from any environmental sounds, then I am almost positive that I am going to have no interest in listening to it no matter how good the “song” is. Because, and bands need to figure this out, there is a lot more to writing a good song than the chord progression and the melody. As soon as you think about those things too much you are sunk.

Recording something in a deadened studio is like telling someone that you love them for the first time via text. There’s no emotion. The music needs to express something, and not through the use of overwrought bad teenage poetry. Make a connection, a real human connection. That is what music is all about.

And maybe this all sounds too heavy handed, and maybe you haven’t even read this far down, but if I get another email from another band that is trying way too hard, well, I don’t know what I am going to do. I can tell you what I am not going to do though, I am not going to pollute the rest of the internet with it. A lot of filtering happens, and I’m not ashamed of it.

There’s actually another thing that I am not going to do, and that is spend an evening writing about how much a specific album is terrible, detailing the ways in which it is. Sure, I could do that (and there are plenty of sites that do) but what would be the point? Throwing stones is easy. It’s easy because it takes very little knowledge and makes the writer sound like they know a whole lot more than they actually do. Why not just say nothing? Listen to as much of the song or album as you need to make a decision on whether or not it is worth listening to and if it is then you should happily share it with everyone. On the other hand, if you just can’t get through the song or the album, simply stop playing it and don’t listen to it anymore. That’s what everyone should do. Why waste your time and the time of others?

In Memoriam Sonic Youth: Part IV. “Sister”

Sonic Youth - "Sister"
Sonic Youth – “Sister”

 

This one is epic. I mean, I love all the albums that came before Sister, but I feel like this is the beginning of something really great. I mean, I think you all know what is going to come after this album. Now, I know that “Evol” is really great too, and I do love “Bad Moon Rising,” and even more so “Confusion is Sex,” but “Sister” is one of the albums that has been getting constant plays on my stereo since I first heard it.

There are so many classic SY tracks on this one that’s it’s hard to know where I should begin, so I guess that I should just start at the beginning of the album and work through it from there. And this album has a great album opener with “Schizophrenia.” I specifically remember coming to “Sister” around the same time that I first picked up a guitar and started bashing away at it, trying to learn every song that I could, which usually just meant me playing every note every second and trying to listen for when they matched what was coming through the stereo and then trying to memorize what I was doing so that I could maybe, possibly, replicate that at a later point.

Well, when I tried to learn how to play “Schizophrenia” I found that my usual strategy really wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t figure out why none of open string major or minor chords that I knew weren’t fitting any of the sounds that were coming out of my stereo. I mean, I think I played every chord up there on that poster of 24 or so chords. I even tried the ones with the number 7 next to them, those are the weird jazz chords, right? At least that was what I was thinking at the time. Anyway, all that I remember from trying to figure out the song was that I thought it was in the key of B. Now that I’m much older I know that, yes, there is a B in that chord, but I would have to sit down to the piano to figure out what the other pitches are, because lo and behold, I was not aware, at the age of 12 or 13 or whatever, that one could tune the guitar to anything other than EADGBE.

Oh, Sonic Youth. You have taught me so many things. And maybe this is the point of discover, or attempted discovery that has set me on the path that I am still on today. I’m still the same person, trying to figure out what is going on in all of the things that he hears. I’m still forever sitting at a piano trying to pick apart tone clusters and writing them out.

But, “Schizophrenia” into “(I got a) Catholic Block”? Don’t even try to pretend that that isn’t one hell of a way to open an album. Things are pulled back a little for Kim’s entrance, with “Beauty Lies in the Eye,” a song that has always reminded me of Evol. It just captures a very similar atmosphere as Evol. There is something creepy about the cavernous sound of the percussion and the aimlessly strummed guitar in the background combined with Kim’s half spoken half breathily sung vocal.

Stereo Sanctity

Oh, but “Stereo Sanctity.” How that song will forever remain as my answer to “Oh, you’ve never heard Sonic Youth before?” It will always end up on any mixtape that I make for anyone that needs an introduction to the band. I can play this song on repeat for a day and not even get sick of it ever. The way that it opens with just a cloud of noise and then Lee coming in with his own wall of distortion a 1/2 step above Thurston and not resolving it, or even trying, and the way that you can hear Thurston laugh a little bit about it if you listen closely. The dynamic of the band is perfect throughout this song. I still can’t even describe what it is that is happening in the chorus of the song. The guitar sounds so wobbily, like it is going to fall apart at any moment. It’s as if the song is hanging on by a thread throughout, but somehow they manage to keep it together, at least until the exact midpoint of the song where everything starts to go haywire.

The classic tracks keep coming with “Tuff Gnarl.” One song after another is memorable, but “Tuff Gnarl” finally gives us a song that is immediately recognizable upon the first few notes. That one’s also got the noisy breakdown that sounds like the beginnings of what we’ll get to hear on “Eric’s Trip” or “Total Trash” coming up on “Daydream Nation.”

Tuff Gnarl

The constant back and forth between Thurston and Lee’s straight ahead tunes, where it sounds like they are literally fighting their guitars off their bodies, against Kim’s moodier, sometimes somber material that comes out of “Evol,” creates a good pacing throughout. But, I remember sort of skipping past those slower tunes when I was listening to the album for the first few years. I’d skip right to “Hot Wire My Hearth,” then fast-forward through “Cotton Crown” so that I could get straight to “White Cross” and “Master-Dik.”

If I was ever in doubt about how much I loved Sonic Youth when I was a kid, this was the album that solidified it. Song after song after song of just everything that Sonic Youth has to offer. As a kid I was completely unaware of the social context in which these songs were produced, or what time (I guess I had a little bit of a clue, but I don’t remember thinking of it too much) they were made. The point is, now that I think about it, this album is pretty close to timeless. There really isn’t anything about the sound of the album that screams 1987.

Next up, “Daydream Nation.” I’m going to have to prepare myself for this one. I have a feeling it will be quite long. Wouldn’t be surprised if I have to split that one into 2 posts.

Until then…

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Branca’s 3rd Symphony

Glenn Branca - "Symphony No. 3"
Glenn Branca – “Symphony No. 3”

Sure, I understand that if I really wanted to make the proper reference to the book I would have used Branca’s 9th symphony, but after listening to it I can honestly say that I don’t enjoy the work at all.

I don’t want to specifically talk about Branca’s symphonies exactly. I just wanted to move away from the seemingly non-stop album reviews. They are tedious to read and possibly more tedious for me to write. I’m becoming more and more selective with regard to actual album reviews. I have my favorite bands, and I get some (ie. very little) good stuff via email, but from the beginning I have mentioned that I wanted to start to write something that went deeper than just a review. I’m not comfortable with the purpose of writing if it is just to sell something. That’s what I feel like when I am writing an album review sometimes, I feel like I am just trying to sell music, and I don’t think that the main purpose (or any purpose, for that matter) of a writer, or an artist, is to sell anything.

I began to touch upon things that I have been thinking about in a few of my more recent posts, regarding abstraction in music, temporality in music in my post about Autechre, a topic so seldom discussed in music regardless of genre. There was also the Glenn Gould connection post from a few weeks ago, but  there have been other things I’ve been considering.

Perhaps Branca is, in fact, a good jumping off point for a discussion of the manipulation of temporality in music. When listening to his symphonies one must, in some ways, throw away everything that they think they know about listening to a piece of music and start over. And there are a lot of pieces of music that require just that.

My next few posts are going to attempt to tackle a few interesting cases of different ways that musicians play with the listener’s perception of time. These manipulations will happen in a variety of different ways, and to different ends. Some of the songs that I am going to be discussing will be taken from things that I have already talked about a little bit on the blog, while others will be taken from familiar bands looked at in different ways.

Temporality, and its use in music, is maybe the most fascinating element of organized sound, and the hardest to describe without getting all metaphysical. I think that I have noted in a few posts about how temporality is suspended in minimalist music, where the incessant repetitions create a void of sorts for the listener, allowing them to focus in on the sound between the sound; the creation of aural illusions where the listener is hearing something that perhaps isn’t written into the score. That is what I would consider a meditative disposal of time, more like a contradiction if you think about it. Minimalism subverts time by making it the most surface level characteristic of the music. The same rhythm, repeating over and over and over and over and over again ends up not being tedious, but rather creates a new kind of silence where the mind starts to filter out what is happening on the surface. One can hear resonance, and the collection of overtones and pure timbre.

I can’t help but think back to the time that I drove up to Toronto in 2005 or so, to catch a performance by the University of Toronto percussion ensemble. There was a performance of Cage’s 4’33”, and Varese’s “Ionisation.” Those pieces, though great, didn’t leave a mark on me as profoundly as did the piece that had just started when I walked in.

As I stood there in the entranceway to the concert hall a performance of James Tenney’s    “Having Never Written a Note for Percussion” had just begun. I can’t do justice to the piece by trying to describe what the experience was like, though I will try.

And that’s part of the thing, is that this is a piece that is so simple in concept that capturing it in a recording could not possibly do it justice. The listener is an integral part of the piece. Imagine the slowest, most gradual crescendo that you could ever experience being played out on a single tam-tam (if I could venture a guess, it was being performed on a 40″ instrument) from a performer that was not visible. The only thing that could be seen was the front of the instrument, while the performer must have been kneeling behind it, and with soft mallets (and therefore no sounding attack) they gently built up the amplitude.

That’s it. The piece is simply an incredibly lengthy crescendo that is followed by an equally lengthy diminuendo. But being there you feel like you are standing inside the sound. For the first second that I walked into the room I could remember the break between the “silence” that I was experiencing just outside the door to the hall and the sound that I was now in the middle of while standing at the back of that hall. As I stood there that memory of the divide slowly faded and all that my mind could focus on was what was happening right there in front of me, and all around me. Time had stopped. In that time I could focus on every single little pitch and overtone that was created. The sound enveloped everything in the room, so present as to seemingly take a physical form. Now, the sound was not loud enough to make anyone recoil in pain, it was just in the room with us, creating a presence.

The piece built up so slowly that the idea of past, present and future were irrelevant. There were no more points of reference. Time had effectively ceased to exist. And that is something that is very difficult to get through on a recording.

I think that in this way Branca’s symphony (several of them, but I’m thinking of the 3rd specifically right now) and Tenney’s piece have a lot in common. They are contradictions of simplicity and complexity, of loud and quiet, something and nothing, all at the same time. Branca’s wall of microtones, as well as Tenney’s, find similar ways to grab hold of the most illusive element of music, and that is the manipulation of temporality. They grab a hold of it and turn the entire piece into the exploration of that one impossible thing.

 

In Memoriam Sonic Youth: Part III. “Evol”

Sonic Youth - "Evol"
Sonic Youth – “Evol”

Enter Steve Shelley. Classic lineup now in place. Sonic Youth shows, on “Evol,” that they are interested in writing more orthodox melodies, but they are still not interested in sounding any different. That scary quality that I mentioned with “Confusion is Sex” remains on this album, and I think that it is somewhat amplified on this album.

I hate talking about or even mentioning things about music that are so subjective (re: feelings, images, other personal things that can’t be backed up with facts) but I think that is the reason that I started writing about all the Sonic Youth albums in the first place. My experience with this album was on cassette, and I remember I was in 8th grade listening to this tape on my GPX tape deck with really terrible speakers. The player was sitting on my desk and I was ostensibly “doing homework” (I still remember: it was a project for Italian) but what I was really doing was staring at the tape as it went from one side of the cassette to the other. Over and over and over again.

Tom Violence

Opening with “Tom Violence” starts the album on a perfect note. Thurston is coming into his own as a song writer. In my mind this starts the chain of epic Sonic Youth classics that grows to include “Expressway to yr. Skull (or Madonna, Sean and Me, whatever you want to call it), “Schizophrenia,” “Teenage Riot,” “Silver Rocket,” “Dirty Boots,” and on and on. It’s not so much just T-money either, the rest of the band is starting to find their own voices as well. Lee settles into his role as the SY poet laureate with “In the Kingdom #19” with his spoken word over top of what sounds like SY’s first attempt at a film score. The instruments on that track are not just pushed back in the mix, but they seem to have a gate, or a compressor on them that prevents anything from really breaking through the surface. They are clearly background, diegesis to Lee’s non.

“Death to our Friends” brings slack stringed peculiarity back to the fore in a densely layered track that points to Daydream Nation in the way that the lines combine, and the way that the background noise takes shape. The band’s sonic palette is growing and this album finds them toying a lot more with ambience. If I’m not mistaken this was around the time that they scored the film “Made in U.S.A” a poorly received film that was produced in 1987, the year after “Evol” was released. DGC also re-released the soundtrack as a tape, which of course I heard. All that I remember about it, though, is that two of the song titles are “Mackin’ for Doober,” and “Tuck and Dar.” I don’t know why I remember some of the stuff that I do, but I just do.

Death To Our Friends

For all of the ways that “Bad Moon Rising” was creepy, or unnerving, “Evol” is and more. The structures are tighter. Nothing bleeds into anything, there is no attempt to make an entire album side sound like a suite, but that doesn’t mean that the songs don’t sound like they go together. There’s a little bit more light on this album, so to speak.

For all the difficulty that I had getting into “Bad Moon Rising” I think I had a bit more of a hard time getting into “Evol.” At that time I kept comparing it to “Sister,” which I had been listening to a lot more at the same time. I think that I was focusing a little too much on things like the ending of “Madonna, Sean and Me” when the song just descends into a cloud of reverberation and feedback. What happened to the awesome song? Why did it just disappear like that? Is the chorus going to come back? These were the things that I care about around the time when I first heard “Evol.”

Thankfully I’ve grown up and learned to appreciate this album for the important step in the evolution of Sonic Youth that it is. Only 3 years after “Confusion is Sex” and they are lightyears away from that debut. Next in the series is “Sister,” placing us deep into the territory of “classic” Sonic Youth.

The Shaggs – “It’s Halloween”

The Shaggs - "It's Halloween"
The Shaggs – “It’s Halloween”


I figured that this would be an appropriate thing to post today. It’s one of those things that I coincidentally rediscover every year, and every year that I come back to it I love it more and more.

The story of The Shaggs is easy to find online, as are the quotes from Frank Zappa, who said they were “better than the Beatles” (he’s right) and Kurt Cobain also gave them praise in saying that “they were the real thing.” The completely unique sound of this group remains mystifying to this day.

The other reason that I find this song, and this group, particularly interesting today is because of a “discussion” in which I was involved today (bordering on heated argument), wherein people were laughing at, while at the same time not paying attention to, some music that was being played. The piece was Pierre Boulez’s “Structures I,” a notoriously difficult work from both the performer’s and listener’s standpoint. Boulez’s music is highly organized, with every element of the composition brought to fruition through a complex series of operations, and it is unlike anything else in its exploration of sound, simultaneity, timbre, and form.

Pulling off a performance of the piece requires the pianists to test the limits of their concentration. And listening to the piece requires a great deal from the audience; they must be willing to accept the sounds as they come to them, accept those sounds as music and to ask themselves what they think about the piece. They need to think about the piece, and not how the piece was conceived. If they come to the work with a closed mind, having already decided that they are not going to like the piece, or (worse yet) if they leave the piece and decide that it was “bad” without even giving it so much as a second thought, well, either one of those results from, in my opinion, a lack of willingness to understand the music, or a lack of willingness to want to come to an understanding of the music. Basically, it comes from a place of willful ignorance. Everyone is entitled to not like something, but that dislike should be based on something significant, not just that “it sounds bad.” Don’t even get me started on that one.

Now, I by no means am trying to compare the music of The Shaggs to that of Pierre Boulez. We’re talking about two completely different things there. But I think that the point stands: that some people are going to hear the idiosyncratic rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic elements of The Shaggs’ music and they are going to be immediately turned off, or (more likely) they are going to mock it for all of the elements that make the music great. Most likely the people that dismiss this music are going to then turn to someone that does accept this music with an open mind and deride them as “snobs” or “hipsters” for their apparent contrarian view.

Yes, the music of The Shaggs is unlike anything else out there, but in my mind that is something to be praised. This album just turned 44, and has outlasted so many of its contemporaries that have since faded into obscurity. Meanwhile 4 girls that were completely outside of the music industry at large made such an impact with their music that we are still talking about it, and more importantly listening to it, all these years later.

Dot Wiggin, guitarist and singer of The Shaggs, has just released (October 28th), her first solo album with the Dot Wiggin Band called “Ready! Get! Go!” You can buy the album here, and check out a new songs here.

In Memoriam Sonic Youth: Part II. “Bad Moon Rising”

Sonic Youth - "Bad Moon Rising"
Sonic Youth – “Bad Moon Rising”

I always thought that this album was a strange way, of sorts, to follow up something like “Confusion is Sex.” But I think where that album captured the live energy of the band, this one captures them in the studio conceiving of an actual “album” album.

The fact that all of the songs blend together the way that they do is no mistake, it was a way for the band to make smoother transitions between songs when they were performed live. This was all in a bid to do away with 5 minute tuning sessions in between songs, as they didn’t have an arsenal of guitars on hand at this point in their careers, so these transitions were created to allow Lee or Thurston a few seconds to tune for the next song. The result of this is an album that is linked, obviously, harmonically and melodically as well as in timbre and mood.

I know that it sounds cheesy or stupid or whatever to foist the extramusical jargon onto an album, but I’m going to do it anyway. This album has always felt like Autumn to me. Yes, of course the cover has a lot to do with it, but there is a coldness on this album that isn’t on their debut full-length. The songs are languid, they wander (not in a bad way, by any means), the band is not afraid to have some cleaner guitar sounds. You can definitely hear them moving towards the songs on “Evol” and “Sister” a lot, especially on a track like “I Love Her All The Time,” a song that starts off innocently enough with Thurston floating out the lyrics with some percussion and bass backdrop underneath minimal guitar sounds, strings bent and echoing off into the distance. It isn’t very long before they are off and running into a wall of noise and (I assume) drumstick-wedged-under-guitar-strings type maneuvers.

But the songs here are better shaped than the ones that appear on “Confusion is Sex.” Where they came up with one idea for each of those songs, this album finds them needing to come up with significantly more material and to find interesting ways to get into and out of those ideas. I think that this is maybe the most important album for Sonic Youth as a group of people developing a writing process. It finds a nice balance between free and fixed forms.

For me, I can’t remember when it was that I first heard this album, or where I was when I was listening to it. I think that that must mean that I came to it a bit later. I do remember, however, that upon hearing it I did not immediately get into it. I didn’t immediately “get” it. I was of the mind that “there’s nothing catchy on this one” (I’m hearing myself say that in a whiny voice. I’m sure that if I said that or though that that I would say or think it in a whiny voice). I wanted the action of “Inhuman” and the noise of “Confusion is Next.” Now that I’m (significantly) older I can truly appreciate how good this album actually is.

I think that one of the reasons that I found it difficult to get into this album initially is that I couldn’t figure out which songs were which. Because they all blended together I couldn’t figure out what part that I remembered came from what song. Obviously, that is all pretty meaningless to me now. Who cares where the songs begin and end? It’s best to listen to an album all the way through anyway.

The 2nd side of the album is broken up a little bit more and has some more experimental (that’s a relative term. So when saying that something that Sonic Youth is doing is “more experimental” is saying something). “Justice is Might” slowly comes together, pulling itself up and staggering into form, the lazy guitar and vocal pulled through time by Bob Bert’s solid, uptempo drumming. That one doesn’t hang around too long, and we still have some equally spacey tracks like “Echo Canyon” and “Satan is Boring.”

The star of the show, though, is “Death Valley ’69.” In my mind it’s their first “hit.” It’s really just a classic Sonic Youth song. Thurston and Lydia Lunch (who is from my hometown) lazily sing over top of each other while the band focuses their energy on maintaining a fantastic amount of tension for extended periods before all is lost in a scratchy howl from Lunch.

Fast-forwarding to now, 2013, I started thinking about what all of this meant from an analysis perspective, what with the linking of the songs and the guitar tunings as sort of symbolizing the modulations from track to track if we are to think of the first several songs as really parts of one larger song. I started doing some initial transcriptions of the opening, and taking a post-tonal approach to it just to see what is going on, if I can. What I am finding is that it isn’t as complex as it sounds, but it’s definitely weird. Weird is good. Weird gives me something to look into, a coil to unwind. The thing is is that I have so many things that I want to look at and that I have started or half-finished that I can’t take on any more extra projects. The sketches that I have down for this album though have all the notes that I need to pick up exactly where I left off whenever I am ready and able to pick it up again.

So, in short, this album went from being something that took me a long time to get into when I was (much) younger, to something that I still listen to today and realize that there is more to it than meets the ear. The next album, though, is when things really start to get good.

Music as Symbol and Abstraction

“My God! What has sound got to do with music!” – Charles Ives

If you have been reading this blog for the past couple months since I started it back up, you may have read the series of 3 posts that I did on the recent Merzbow album “Takahe Collage” (1 2 3). Those posts were a bit more analytical than they were philosophical in nature, but the two do tend to go hand in hand to a certain extent.

I’ve had some time to put together some more thoughts on the topic of music as abstraction, noise as music and how it relates to the thoughts and motivation of other artists of all types within that realm. I wrote this short paper for a presentation in a seminar on the history of 20th century music. I offer it below:

October 9, 2013

The main thing that I would like to discuss today, and I want to get a dialogue going on this, is the idea of what a group of musicians considers to be music and what they consider “noise.”

We’ve been looking at how the art world relates to the musical world, showing how the Rite of Spring’s choreography relates to cubism, and primitivism. We’ve talked about modernism and post-modernim, and I’d like to talk a little bit about abstract art, dadaism, music and noise.

First, I want to give you an idea of what I’m talking about with a painting by Jackson Pollack. We’ve probably all seen his paintings, and they have given way to many discussions of whether they are or are not art. Is something art just because the artist says it is? Or can anything be art? How about a painting or sculpture by a Dada artist that takes random materials found on the street and fastens them together with purposely no organization? Does that lack of organization become the organization? Or are we, like Taruskin says, finding organization where there isn’t any simply because we are looking for it? Is music music just because the composer says it is, or can any and all sound be music?

Jackson Pollack - "#3"
Jackson Pollack – “#3”

There are plenty of electronic sound collage pieces that are made from “found sound” that has been manipulated. Is that manipulation what takes something from just sound to actually being an artistic statement? And think back to the first time that you heard Schoenberg or Webern or John Cage, or put yourself in the shoes of someone that only listens to top 40 pop music hearing Webern’s Op. 20 for the first time. What do you think that person would have to say about that music? Would they say that it was just noise? Could noise be just a word that we use when we don’t understand something?

Let’s listen quickly to a few short examples:

Frank Martin: Quatre pièces brèves: III. Plainte

Suicide

Both guitars, right? But what does the timbre of Julian Bream’s guitar have to do with that of The Telescopes? They are both the same instrument, but the sound of guitar as we know it is an abstraction of what a guitar “really” sounds like. The sound of the guitar, when used in rock music, is merely a symbol. It doesn’t sound anything like a guitar. Instead the sound that is produced stands in for the sound of the guitar. It essentially is a wall of distortion. But, we have learned to accept that particular sound over time as being “a guitar.” Imagine if you were to play that Telescopes song for Andres Segovia, or Beethoven, or Bach. They would have NO IDEA what that sound was. We recognize it as such because we can picture in our head where the sound is coming from. We understand where it is coming from and we accept it. We understand so well that we don’t even think about it anymore.

Do we consider the sound of a distorted guitar from rock music to be noise? Or just noisier than what a “guitar” “should” sound like? And what should anything sound like?

What if we got even more abstract? Now onto Merzbow.
 
“Is not beauty in music too often confused with something which lets the ears lie back in an easy-chair?” – Charles Ives
 
Merzbow is Japanese musician and writer Masami Akita. Since 1979 he’s released over 350 recordings, 6 so far this year. Included in that output is the amazing 50 CD Merzbox. This is the track “Tendeko” from the 2nd album he released this year, “Takahe Collage.”

Tendeko

Can we accept this as music? I would say that this is basically, to me, just another degree of abstraction. Merzbow is manipulating the sounds that he is generating, there are different timbres involved, different ideas that are brought in and then go out through the course of the piece. However, is this closer in timbre to “pure noise” for you?

And what exactly is a good definition of noise? Does it have to do with sound? There’s a book by Paul Hegarty called “Noise/Music: A History” that discusses “noise” in all of its contexts. Noise as basically any confrontation against our expectations. It could be in the form of a reaction to norms, or noise as antagonism such as with the band Throbbing Gristle, taunting and angering their audience purposely. Noise as anything added to the music or that distracts one from the music. But what happens when the noise is the music? And we still haven’t solved the problem of what is and is not considered music. If this “noise,” in whatever form that it may be coming in, is part of the performance (and is it really possible to get rid of all noise? Hello, John Cage) then is it really noise at all?

I think of it this way: John Cage’s music is the sound of philosophy. It gives us something that is challenging, it gives us something that questions what it is that we believe about something that we thought that we had such a firm grasp on. This music is something that gets us thinking and it is something that is provocative and it is daring and controversial, but it is also an outlet for something for someone that wants to create something.

Isn’t music itself an abstraction of our words and our voices? And, if so, noise music is still music in just the same way. I think that as we evolve we continually create further  abstractions from where we started off, and eventually everyone catches up to that abstraction, and the definition of “noise” changes. Everything is a symbol for something else in music. Just think to the programmatic music of Strauss or Berlioz. Everything is symbol and everything is abstraction.