Noise Music, Dissolution, and Disunity with the Divine
A Theory of Disorder in Music
San Francisco de Borja y el moribundo impenitente. Francisco Goya, 1788. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
In his 1967 textbook Fundamentals of Musical Composition, Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg (whom the Nazi Party labeled as a producer of entartete muzik, or degenerate music, due to his Jewish heritage and atonal compositions) wrote: “Intelligibility in music seems to be impossible without repetition. While repetition without variation can easily produce monotony, juxtaposition of distantly related elements can easily degenerate into nonsense…”
In other words, the ideal melody, rhythm, harmonic progression or any other musical element is at its most listener-friendly when it is somewhere between repetition and variation. The classic clave rhythm of Cuban music seems off-kilter and unsatisfying, but cycled through over and over in a piece it becomes infectious. The most bizarre jazz solo is still often confined to the key of an underlying backing harmony, which jazz musicians have tried to push past since the genre’s inception. Even Ornette Coleman, who aspired to atonal free improvisation, still systematized his philosophy and gave it the name of Harmolodics. With this tension of perfect order and total randomness in mind, we can approach a definition of the extremes of order and disorder.
A perfectly orderly musical composition would be something like a single note sustained for the entirety of a piece, just above the same note played only in quarter notes in the entirety of the piece, because the latter would complexify it by introducing the element of silence. On the other end of the complexity spectrum would be white noise, which is a signal of all frequencies across the sonic spectrum played randomly. Each moment of white noise is unrelated to the other, and it may seem that both ends of the spectrum should have nothing to do with each other.
And yet, human perception experiences both a sustained drone of one note and a random sequence of frequencies played incredibly rapidly as one large, oppressive mass of sound. And as time goes on, the vanguards of a given genre or music scene tend towards one or both of these extremes.
On one end of the spectrum, consider the history of rock. Rhythm and blues was sped up to create rock and roll, which was sped up, stripped down and made much louder to create punk, which in turn was combined with metal and sped up even more to create the new genre of grindcore. Bands such as Napalm Death focused on guttural, unintelligible vocals, blast beats and one or two riffs played as quickly as possible.
In the world of jazz, musicians grew tired of the restrictions of danceable pop music and pushed themselves to improvise with ever-increasing speed and melodic and harmonic complexity. Thus, bebop was born, and got so fast and off-kilter that Miles Davis felt the need to slow things down in his 1959 record Kind of Blue. Free jazz musicians attempted to break out of these conventions even further, arguably starting with the release of John Coltrane’s 1966 album Ascension. The movement towards total disorder likely found its apotheosis in Painkiller’s 1991 album Guts of a Virgin, which syncretize John Zorn’s free jazz saxophone with blast beats and incomprehensibly fast riffs distorted beyond belief.
On the other end of the spectrum, as metal became increasingly associated with speed and aggression, doom metal bands such as Sleep slowed things to a crawl and soaked sustained, meditative riffs in fuzz. Seattle band Earth innovated drone metal out of this, out of which sunn O))) arose to assault the listener with the sublime brutality of its riffs. It’s not quite noise, and I’m not trying to suggest that any kind of drone is necessarily a subgenre of noise. I am, however, pointing out the aesthetic connection between the two; one achieves a monolithic wall of sound with extreme speed and the other with extreme slowness.
One can even compress down this historical tendency towards noise into a single piece: Steve Reich’s Come Out begins with two samples of the same short phrase, “come out to show them”, on tape loops of different lengths. Soon, the samples get wildly out of sync and the piece transforms into an unintelligible mass that hardly resembles human speech. Or take William Basinski’s 2002 album Disintegration Loops, wherein a short phrase slowly disintegrates more and more as the tape loop itself physically deteriorates due to its degraded quality. Order in music is an illusion maintained by constant human intervention, like Isaac Newton’s God that intervened occasionally to correct an otherwise perfectly functioning clockwork universe. Humanness is often equated with error and contrasted with the perfection of technology, but in both these pieces, imperfections in the technology compound over time to create something a human would have long intervened in and corrected if they so desired. All music-making technology breaks down, or more accurately, all music breaks free of its technological medium.
With this in mind, I propose the following: noise music is the embrace of the irrational, confused, and meaningless in music through complexity and disorder pushed to near-maximum limits.
So far we have discussed the tendency of some genres of music to embrace extremities of time, loudness, and intelligibility as well as pieces that shift from clarity to noise, but we haven’t discussed actual examples of noise music. The best way to explain noise is to simply play some noise.
Japanese artist Merzbow, aka Masami Akita, is probably the most famous and popular noise musician alive today, and his 1996 album Pulse Demon is the gateway album for many noise fans. Textures of abstract, sonic sandpaper swirl in and out above the surface of static and scratch the eardrums of the listener. This is no soft, ambient noise– there is real physicality here.
But seasoned noise fans are likely annoyed that he is the first one I mentioned, and for good reason. My tastes tend towards power electronics, and for that I would recommend checking out Ramleh’s Hole in the Heart, Prurient’s Frozen Niagara Falls (although the dude is kind of a Nazi) and Hunting Lodge’s Will. I also really enjoyed Alberich’s NATO - uniformen. The Japanese noise scene as a whole routinely produces excellent bands, and I’m particularly attached to many of the Japanese noisecore bands of the late 80s and early 90s, which you can read about here. For the purposes of understanding my argument, only listening to a few parts of Pulse Demon are necessary.
Although noise almost by definition rejects conventional musical elements, the best noise artists, in my opinion, still understand that they are arranging a series of sounds with distinct sonic characteristics. Some artists such as Vomir deliberately present a singular wall of noise that doesn’t evolve. The best noise musicians are like painters– they deal with textures and shades, and some may endlessly mix and rearrange the sequence of these sonic landscapes. This is not unlike Mark Rothko’s abstract paintings, which appear simple from afar but were actually painstakingly crafted with very precise mixtures of color.
And with this, we can finally move on from discussing noise music in itself and consider theories about its meaning. For that, we can take a page from media theorist and philosopher Eugene Thacker, most well-known for his In the Dust of This Planet series which heavily influenced True Detective creator and writer Nick Pizzolatto. In particular, we will take up his suggestion that we draw out media theories from the work of Renaissance demonology scholar Armando Magi, as explored in one of his posts for the website Mute.
In the work of theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Maggi explains, angels are mediators between God and humanity. This is further evidenced by the ultimate origin of their name in English, the Greek word angelos, which itself is a translation of the Hebrew word mal’akh, both of which simply mean “messenger”. The archangel Gabriel, for example, tells Mary of her divine conception in Luke, although the angels are often deliberately esoteric in their signs according to Aquinas.
Their role is also not unlike the Greek daimon, intermediary spirits that control aspects of nature such as the movement of birds or stars, thus allowing those knowledgeable in augury and astrology respectively to interpret messages from the gods or predict future events based on observed patterns.
Angels also serve to guard the boundaries between the human and the divine, such as the fiery sword-wielding cherub that blocks entrance to the Garden of Eden.
In the ancient Greek world, where the human relationship with the divine was based on direct benefits received in exchange for honor and sacrifices, some manner of being between divine and human was an absolute necessity. This is no different than in the theology of medieval and Renaissance Christianity, wherein angels connect humanity with a God that must be both ineffable and accessible.
In music, then, the angelic is analogously the orderly, unifying side of the spectrum. It represents the perfection of communication. It is a medium of pure clarity, with no crackles in the signal alerting the technician to a faulty wire. Demons, on the other hand, are evil tricksters that disrupt unity with the divine with falsehoods, confusion, and noise.
Satan is the Father of Lies. God does not permit him the power to directly coerce any human being… unless, of course, they listen to his deceptions and invite him in. Hollywood exorcists warn us that nothing a possessed person says is to be trusted, as the demon is only trying to trick the likely distraught loved ones of the victim. It’s probably good advice, if actual demonologists are to be believed. As 16th century Inquisitor Sylvestro Mazzolini da Prierio wrote, demons intercept the divine messages of angels and either modify them to deceive, or block them altogether: “In short, the mediation of demons is that of hyper-communication (babbling, nonsense, speaking in tongues), the unspeakable body (convulsions, vomiting, self-mutilation), or silence (melancholy, catatonic states). Demons do mediate, but in a negative or contradictory way,” Thacker writes.
Parallels from the earlier mentioned history of grindcore and bebop are even mirrored in some religious traditions and philosophies. In Kabbalah, all things were one with God before individuation tore us asunder. The German pessimist philosopher Philip Mainländer similarly theorized that all things were once together in a metaphysical singularity, which he allegorically equated with God, and that all things have been moving towards absolute disunity since creation. Disorder, however, is not always evil.
Depending on the religious tradition, dissolution creates transcendence as much as its opposite. The disintegration of the ego is a necessity for unity with the divine in almost every mystical tradition across cultures, from the Dionysian mysteries (whose deity was literally torn apart and sewn together again) to Christian and Buddhist mysticism. Brain scans of praying nuns and meditating Buddhists show that areas of the brain associated with individuation, the sense of a distinction between self and environment, can be turned off, thus giving a feeling of unity with the universe or God. The metaphysical theories of any tradition are not captured by this phenomena of course, but it does go a long way towards explaining the ubiquity of similar concepts from disparate cultures around the world.
Even nonsense itself has a sort of magical power. Many of the spells of the Papyri Graecae Magicae, a collection of Graeco-Egyptian papyrus texts dating from 100 BCE to 400 CE, call for the use of voces magicae, or the magical names of the gods. An invisibility spell illustrates this point:
“Take Fat or an Eye of a Nightowl and a Ball of Dung rolled by a Beetle and Oil of an Unripe Olive and grind them all together until smooth, and smear your Whole Body with it and say to Helios: ‘I adjure You by Your Great Name, BORKE' PHOIOUR IO' ZIZIA APARXEOUCH THYTHE LAILAM AAAAAA IIIII OOOO IEO' IEO' IEO' IEO' IEO'IEO' IEO' NAUNAX AI AI AEO' AEO' E'AO'!’ And moisten It and say in addition: ‘Make me Invisible, Lord Helios, AEO' O'AE' EIE' E'AO', in the Presence of Any Man until Sunset, IO' IO' O' PHRIXRIZO' EO'A!’”
In reality, these are nonsense words with no correspondence to any language. It seems that religious traditions– Christian or otherwise– in the so-called Western world ascribe some manner of magical inhuman power to nonsense, whether it be the language of malevolent demons or the names of the deities and spirits one can call upon to grant the power of invisibility.
Indeed, there is a strange power in noise. It represents a deterritorialization of thought, breaking beyond conceptual limitations on human behavior and knowledge new ways of thinking, or even non-knowledge. Imagine noise as something other than mere flourishes on a Jimi Hendix solo. The gain knob on an overdrive pedal is cranked to its maximum position, and the clear tones of a guitar or synthesizer are subsumed by imperfections– a music of limits, in other words. The fences of prisons are guarded by barbed wire, and the edges of sonification are guarded by eardrum-damaging decibel levels and headache-inducing shrieks of feedback. Noise music challenges the sign on the gate that reads “PRIVATE PROPERTY - ENTRY FORBIDDEN”. The wise know that the other side of the gate has no sign at all. We encounter the same blockages of knowledge at the limits of human perception and experience, beyond which is darkness, ignorance, disorder, and noise.
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