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the history of noise in music

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The first composer to consciously operate with noise as music was the Italian futurist Luigi Russolo, writing the manifesto “The Art of Noise” in 1913. He constructed the so-called “intonarumori” (noise intonators) and composed a few works for these machines. They were quite primitive, each instrument making a single sound when turning a handle, and the music still had a residue of the mimetic, illustrative function. But the idea of allowing all sounds to be music was a crucial turning point.

Edgar Varèse and John Cage both started from that point. For Varèse, the important thing was to expand the possibilities of music within the tradition of an autonomous artwork, i.e. including new sounds, formerly rendered non-musical, now without their illustrative effect. He tried to emancipate noise from its function, abstracting it as purely aesthetic in works like Ionisation (1931), where he used sirens because of their glissando possibilities rather than alluding to an emergency. By shifting the focus from the notes to the sound, by seeing music as layered, organized sound rather than melodic-harmonic development and by experimenting with electronic instruments, Varèse is the probably most important pioneer of electronic music.

John Cage had similar visions, developing from an expansion of musical sounds in his invention of the prepared piano to the postwar philosophy that all music is just sound, and hence that all sound is music. He wanted to open our ears to all the sounds that surround us, emancipating all noises.

After the Second World War musique concrète evolved in France, using tape technology to make music of found sounds. Pioneers were Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. Pure electronic music was made possible by the mid-fifties, centered around the Cologne studio with composers like Gottfried Michael König, Karlheinz Stockhausen and György Ligeti. The inclusion of electronic noise and a distinction between various noise qualities was an integral part of this period.

Noise in rock music is centered on two effects, both connected to the electric guitar and developed in the sixties: feedback and distortion. Feedback is the back-coupling of the sound when the small pick-ups on the guitar react to the sound from the amplifier, i.e. the sound they themselves transmit. Distortion is the fraying of the guitar sound originally produced by amplifier overload, now normally by pedals.

Jimi Hendrix constructed a whole catalogue of noise effects, using them with virtuosity in his blues-inspired rock compositions. Aesthetically, the influence on noise rock came from The Velvet Underground, with their minimal, lo-fi, sinister music and disillusioned texts.

The term “noise rock” (in Danish: støjrock) denotes a part of the post-punk scene rising from the ashes of punk in the late 70s. The use of guitar noise becomes a characteristic feature for a lot of bands, exploring its possibilities further. Post-punk is characterized by a certain preoccupation with the sinister, melancholy, pain, fear, death, excess, perversion – in short, what the philosopher Georges Bataille (1897-1962) has called “the heterogeneous”. This term denotes that which does not fit into the normal and rational in modern society, that which cannot be subjugated by the public utility or profit. One of the important ways to achieve this is by using noise. Noise rock is not a coherent style, but a loose term for quite different approaches to a noise aesthetic within a post-punk idiom.

Electronica uses noise in many different ways, sometimes so integrated that any distinction between noise and music is heavily blurred. Samples, drumloops, fast breakbeats, dub bass and of course all sorts of computer-generated sounds can be more or less noisy. An important trend is “glitch”, where errors are inflicted on CDs causing it to skip and get stuck.

The Aesthetics of Noise, Sangild, Torben
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Written by mudskipper01

October 8, 2009 at 10:21 PM

Posted in butter

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