Noise

“The best thing about radio is that people were born without earlids. You can’t close your ears to it.” – Tony Schwartz, Sound Archivist/Designer

There were several things that came to mind going over the readings and brainstorming for the sound construction we’ll each soon be building. First, there was the notion of sound as a medium, where the texts are something other than speech or music, because those are “uttered” – to me, sound construction or design would be synonymous with composition – to once again use Frank Zappa as an example, he wrote:

“The composer’s job involves the decoration of fragments of time. Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.”

The only issue here is the suggested linear temporality of sound compositions – though we certainly experience them from “start to finish,” recordings are timeless, and we experience them in memory in whatever means we like. We’re also not concerned here with not merely decoration, but critical reflections of various issues, which can be done through music (and often is), but should by no means be limited to such things. An inspiration of Zappa was Edgard Varèse (mentioned in the Kahn & Whitehead reading, P 23) who was keen to explore what some would call “noise” as a legitimate element of composition:

[Ionisation] is built on a most sensitive handling and contrast of different kinds of percussive sounds. There are those indefinite in pitch, like the bass drum, snare drum, wood blocks, and cymbals; those of relatively definite musical pitch, such as the piano and chimes; those of continually moving pitch, like the sirens and ‘lion’s roar.’ It is an example of ‘spatial construction,’ building up to a great complexity of interlocking ‘planes’ of rhythm and timbre, and then relaxing the tension with the slowing of rhythm, the entrance of the chimes, and the enlargement of the ‘silences’ between sounds. There are suggestions of the characteristic sounds of modern city life. – Sidney Finklestein

In radio, those characteristic sounds emerge as what Stefan Themerson calls the “Noise of the Celestial Spheres,” natural noise before it was adapted for music. (P21/22). It makes me think of unidentified sounds, which is what I think I’ll be doing my own construction on, rather than noise pollution as I originally intended.

A great American example which could parallel the German radio art discussed by Kahn & Whitehead is that of Max Neuhaus‘s Radio Net, a “a massive, experimental audio symphony using processed sound from callers all around the nation,” conducted in 1977 (99%invisible did a segment on this awhile back).

During the broadcast, the sounds phoned into each city passed through its self-mixer and started looping. With each cross-country pass, each sound made another layer, overlapping itself at different pitches until it gradually died away. It was quite a beautiful Sunday afternoon – two hours over which ten thousand people found their way into the work and made sounds.

We usually define noise as any unwanted sound. But noise has its own purpose, and can embody a lot of different thing. And obviously, the moment you make some noise on purpose, it’s wanted by one person or another. So, the point is, noise can be really cool… if you’re willing to listen. After all, it’s not like you can close your earlids and stop hearing it.

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Categories: Reflective Posts

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