This text is a reflection of the live performance lecture by Marcel Cobussen (text) & Caeso (sound) as performed on October 8, 2022 at Het Concreet during the studio symposium 'Noise as a compositional tool'.
Pictures by Seye Cadmus
… Please listen for a while to the current silence, to the silence of the space you are in now, to your own silence …
Of course we all know that silence doesn’t exist. The world is never silent and even the tiniest sounds can disrupt and interrupt. In other words, even silence can become noise.
Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler was known for interrupting his performances if he heard noises coming from the audience. Pianist-composer Frederic Rzewski refused to start a performance because of the noise of the air-conditioning system.
In short, noise doesn’t have to be loud.
Noise doesn’t have to be loud. But can noise be silent? What actually is difference between noise and silence. Cage’s 4’33 – implicitly – poses questions such as: How silent is noise? Can silence be noise? How silent should noise be before it stops being noise? Can noise be inaudible? 4’33 makes us aware of fact that real silence – silence considered as the absence of sound – doesn’t exist: we’re always surrounded by sounds.
Silence and noise coincide when they are considered as the unintended sounds that accompany every musical composition. Silence and noise coincide when you compare various versions of 4’33. It is remarkable how many different “silent noises” can be heard.
Just as silence can be noisy, noise can be silent, that is, inaudible. For human beings the most dangerous frequency is at 7 Hz, the median alpha-rhythm frequency of the brain. This is also the resonant frequency of the body’s organs. At high volumes, infrasounds, inaudible to our ears, can affect the human central nervous system, causing disorientation, anxiety, panic, bowel spasms, nausea, vomiting, and eventually organ rupture. In other words, through “silent noise”, we may even cross the threshold between life and death.
The title of this text is Paranoise. Para noise. Para, according to the Oxford Dictionary, means beside, beyond, or subsidiary to. But it also means wrong, irregular, harmful, and unfavorable. Hence, para as a prefix suspends: it defies identity. And it gives it a negative instantiation.
“Para” is a double antithetical prefix signifying at once proximity and distance; similarity and difference; interiority and exteriority; something simultaneously on this side of a boundary, threshold, or margin, and also beyond it. Para designates equivalence in status but also being secondary, submissive, as of guest to host, or slave to master.
For example, paralogy – para logos – means beside, aside from, or beyond reason. In the same way, paranoise refers here, in this text, through these words, to operating beside or next to so many other sounds audible at this very moment.
“Para” uncovers the darker and more threatening anteriorities of the word following this prefix. Paranoise almost sounds like paranoid: not a mental but a sonic derangement. Or it sounds like paranausea: noise as the ability to – almost – make you feel sick or annoyed.
I am not fond of definitions; they suggest clarity, uniformity, generality, and often even a kind of eternal value. Defining enhances and takes as its point of departure the idea that a clear separation is possible between inside and outside, between inclusion and exclusion: noise is the other of music and silence is one such utterance. But what about noise music? What about the so-called “non-harmonious sounds”, often equated with noise, that are always already a part of any music? What about the so-called “extra-musical sounds” which have been integrated into music compositions for more than a century already? Of course it is not my aim to claim that all noise is music (or silence); what I do claim, however, is that the borders between music, noise, and silence are porous and that a clear separation cannot be made on the basis of intrinsic characteristics of the “sounds themselves.” In short, I am less interested in what noise is than in what it does, how it works. And as such I need to make a separation between, on the one hand, thoughts about noise coming from sound studies, the music world, (music) philosophy, sound art, and/or musicology, and, on the other hand, experiences and opinions from people who are not active within these fields. PARASONIC In his famous book Noise: The Political Economy of Music from 1977, the French thinker Jacques Attali presents noise as a productive force. According to Attali (1985 : 35), “each network pushes its organization to the extreme, to the point where it creates the internal conditions for its own rupture, its own noises. What is noise to the old order, is harmony to the new: Monteverdi and Bach created noise for the polyphonic order. Webern for the tonal order. La Monte Young for the serial order.” Negatively interpreted, one could say that Attali introduces noise as a metaphor for disruption, for disruption in general, not necessarily or directly connected to sound. A more positive interpretation is that, for Attali, noise is a motor of progress and development. Noise is needed to break or to overcome a certain status quo; it is necessary, and even (historically) inevitable. At an extreme level, noise can be lethal; exposure to an excessive amount of dBs may stop vital functions of the brain or the body. So, in fact, every sound can become noise, for example, when it is too loud, qualified as unwanted, when evoking negative reactions, or when obscuring acoustic information. But this emphasizes only the negative aspects of noise. Noise is also the symbol that offers hope for new meanings to be created, new orders to be established, new systems to be developed, before new noises – either coming from the inside or from the outside – disrupt these meanings, orders, and systems again.
Often, noise is not absolute, not measurable in dBs but dependent upon and relative to specific situations, contexts, relations. Noise isn’t necessarily a property of sound anymore.
A parasite is any organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered in a different organism while contributing little to the survival of its host. A parasite is also a person who habitually takes advantage of the generosity of others without making any useful return. Aside from these biological and social descriptions, parasite also means noise in French, the static in a system, or the interference in a channel.
Closely resembling the parasite is the virus. The genetic pattern of the virus is coded in such way that it is able to enter a host cell and violently reprogram all the genetic material in that cell.
Noise parasitizes. It feeds itself on existing situations and organizations. However, it also makes possible the creation of something new. Disregarded and passed by, these existing situations and organizations are the source of new ones. Through noise. Noise is a threshold. Noise represents ambiguity or disorientation. Noise questions, challenges, and disrupts a status quo in order to bring it to its limits, in order to establish something new.
Ask a random fan or expert of noise music for some connotations of noise. Probably they will answer something like: complexity, immersion, extremity.
Ask a random person on the street for some connotations of noise. Probably they will answer: too loud sounds, too many sounds, irritating sounds.
When confronted or working with people who are suffering from noise pollution, often on a daily basis, I became aware that the rather liberal view of noise as a positive force of transformation needs some nuance and modification, or has to be abandoned altogether. These people live in the vicinity of an airport, busy highways, rail yards, or long-term construction works; or they find themselves confronted with noisy neighbors or commercial activities in residential areas. That is, the sounds themselves can be irritating – very loud, high or shrill sounds, ultra-low frequencies, regular or, on the contrary, irregular sounds – or the circumstances – for example, loud sounds at night, in the early morning or in the weekend. In these cases, sounds are qualified as noise because they cause physical and/or mental problems, and have a negative influence on one’s health and well-being.
So, although timbre, frequency, and decibels are certainly directly incurred to name and frame specific sounds as noisy, besides the mere volume or tone quality of sounds, other factors play an important role in perceiving or subsuming certain sounds under the denominator of noise: social temperaments, class background, or cultural desire also determine one’s judgment on being exposed to sound (Schwarz 2004: 52). Moreover, the social process between the person operating the sound source and those being exposed to the sound influences the latter’s evaluation of the sound: their annoyance increases once they feel that their exposure to sound is somehow unfair and cannot be controlled (Maris 2008: 108).
Parallax can be described as a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight.
Although the scholarly and artistic approach to noise seems quite far removed from the way noise is perceived and valued by people who are unwantedly exposed to it, what seems to unite the two is that, in both cases, noise is experienced and described as that which deviates from the norm, from standards, from certain regulations, from normality. Nevertheless, it may be challenge how to bring artistic and everyday ideas on noise together. One of the major challenges I face is how I can bring these two rather different ideas on noise together. How can I use artistic, aesthetic, philosophical, and even ethical approaches to noise to improve concrete problems with the perception of sounds in, for example, urban spaces; to improve people’s sonic environment; to ask from policy makers, urban planners, city governments, architects, and many others to pay attention to the sonic design of a space, indoors or outdoors, urban or rural, public or private? So far, two strategies have proven to be helpful for me. First, what I think that many people can learn from sound artists is to listen: to listen to their sonic environment, to listen to everyday sounds, to listen to sounds which are sometimes all too easily disqualified as noise – to listen attentively and without prejudices. Through sound art, through noise music, people might relate differently to all kinds of sound, more consciously and more cautiously. As Brandon LaBelle claims, listening “moves beyond the surface appearance of things” (LaBelle 2019: 520). Second, although it might not immediately help people who are burdened by unbearable sounds, be they loud or otherwise intolerable, we should remember that, compared to the soundscapes of a century or more ago, we do live in relative quiet, and this is most likely to increase in the decades to come. Although there seems to be evidence that working in a more tranquil environment might certainly help to increase our overall health and well-being, the social aspect should not be forgotten. Some deviating, even loud sounds every now and then cannot be avoided and can perhaps even contribute to a more heterogeneous – and therefore interesting – sonic environment.
Noise rejects paralysis, regarded as the inability to move. Also metaphorically. Noise takes place. It is not a noun, but a verb: to noise. Someone or something is noising. Noise happens between subject and object, between subject and subject, between object and object. Hence, noise is neither subjective, depending on personal taste or feeling, nor is it an objective characteristic of sound. Noise affects and can be affected. Think Spinoza’s noising.
Noise is ethical. We could regard noise as a materialization of a being-with, a being-with which signifies connectivity and separation at the same time. Think Nancy’s noising.
Noise is not by definition connected to sound. Noise is the resonating force of the in-between. Biotic and abiotic beings exist in this in-between, in a sonic atmosphere that can be noisy – or even better: that can noise. As such, noise is social, political, economic, ethical, spiritual, and so on. Noise creates distance, but also proximity. Noise excludes, but also includes. Noise is loud, but can also be silent. Noise creates affects and prevents affecting. Noise impedes meditation, but simultaneously makes meditation possible. Noise takes place against one's will, but can also be actively sought. Noise usurps space and control, but can also make any appropriation impossible.
Putin noises, but so did Gandhi. Football hooligans noise, but so do Gyoto monks. Men noise, but so do women. White heterosexuals noise, but so do black homosexuals. Intelligence services noise, but so does Extinction Rebellion. Policy-makers noise, but so do artists. Capitalism noises, but so does art.
Noise is ambivalent and undecidable, and because it is ambivalent and undecidable it is interesting and requires our permanent attention.
“Each network pushes its organization to the extreme, to the point where it creates the internal conditions for its own rupture” (Attali 1985 : 35). Here, Attali presents noise as relative to a situation; noise has no absolute qualities, but as a transformative force it is dependent upon already existing circumstances. This is echoed by Douglas Kahn, who writes that, “we know they are noises in the first place because they exist where they shouldn’t or they don’t make sense where they should” (Kahn 1999: 21). Both Attali and Kahn emphasize the contextual nature of noise: noise, one could say, is sound out of place.
A logical consequence of this way of thinking is that sounds do not have to be noisy, that is loud, in themselves; they can simply become qualified as noise if they occur in places where they are not supposed to be. This “being-out-of-place” refers then to the occurrence of certain amounts of disorder, instability, the undermining of dominant organizations, and disharmony. PARAHUMAN NOISE 1 Perhaps it is time to disconnect noise from human perception. Can an object, a non-living entity be affected by noise? “I love the sound of breaking glass,” Nick Lowe once sang. Windows or glasses can be destroyed by certain frequencies. Think of some famous commercials in the 1970s starring jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald and the Memorex cassettes: just like Ella, the cassette seemed to be able to break a tumbler. Thinking noise, we should consider objects affecting other objects through sounding. One possible effect is acoustic levitation, the ability of sound to counteract the effects of gravity. This needs about 160 dB – quite noisy according to human standards. PARAHUMAN NOISE 2 In Intra-species communication between animals, sounds are used to warn group members of potential danger, such as an approaching predator, or to coordinate a group that is foraging or hunting together. However, whales, for example, are restricted in their communication because of human interventions on seas and oceans. And birds have to change pitches because certain frequency spectrums are being occupied by human activities. This also prohibits their contact with birds from the same species but living in another territory. In Inter-species communication, communication take places between different species, sometimes in a way that is mutually beneficial, sometimes in a way that mainly benefits the producer of the sound.
Drongos are tropical songbirds that can often be found in the vicinity of meerkats. The drongo can warn a group of meerkats of a nearby predator by making a specific call, and meerkats respond by fleeing to cover. During the dry season, when food is scarce, drongos sometimes produce a false alarm, in particular when the meerkats have just caught a prey. The meerkats flee and the drongo gets the prey. The drongo makes sure not to cry wolf too often, so that the meerkats cannot risk ignoring its alarm calls. In the end, both the drongo and meerkat benefit from one another, but the rewards are not equally split. (Halfwerk in Bull and Cobussen 2021: 75–76)
In short, sometimes the drongo produces noise to the meerkats – noise here regarded as false information.
Think electromagnetic waves that generate hisses, pops, whistles, and other noises produced by natural objects such as stars or other celestial bodies.
Think intermittent sounds caused by electromagnetic disturbances in the earth’s atmosphere.
Think solar storms, whose sounds can be picked up by certain highly sensitive antennas.
Think radio waves or “star noise” being identified as emissions from beyond the solar system.
Most of these sounds are perhaps not sounds in the strict sense of the word – another noise in the machine – but vibrations that can be made audible through sonification.
A model or pattern of excellence.
Does this relate to noise? To silence? To music? To how people relate to their environment by listening, by being listened to, by designing or not designing the spaces they inhabit and traverse?
Instead of reducing discourses on noise to a discourse on loudness, it might be necessary to expand the terminology and think of vibrations, frequencies, intensities, resonances, harmonies or disharmonies.
More important than trying to explore what noise is, is what noise does or can do. Noise affects the mind, the body, behavior, communication, wellbeing, acting, music-making, sleeping, stress, polit, econ, war, thinking, organization and so on. Noise affects both the biotic and abiotic components of a system – the living components (humans, animals, trees, etc. and their organizational structures) and non-living, chemical and physical components and processes.
Noise emerges from specific situations, events, histories, stories. It cannot be generalized or defined, framed. It escapes generalization, definitions, frames, and categorizations. Noise depends on concrete situations. That is, it doesn’t precede those situations but comes into existence in and through them. Noise not only disconnects, it connects as well, bringing agents together.
Noise depends on judgements. Noise is politically, socially, economically, ethically, historically, aesthetically determined and determining. Who decides? Who controls? Who defines? Who judges? Who excludes? Who is heard? Who is recognized? Who screams? Who suffers?
Marcel Cobussen studied jazz piano at the Conservatory of Rotterdam, and Art and Cultural Studies at Erasmus University Rotterdam (the Netherlands). He teaches Music Philosophy, Sound Studies, and Artistic Research at Leiden University (the Netherlands) and the Orpheus Institute Ghent (Belgium). He has been a supervisor and part-time researcher at Lund University and the Malmö Academy of Music (Sweden) from 2006 till 2011 and is co-founder of the Journal of Sonic Studies.
Caeso is a Brazilian musician and sound artist, exploring mediums such as acousmatic music, live electronics, free improvisation and also traditional written composition, besides building sound sculptures, videos and other multimedia artworks. Holds both a bachelor's and a master's degree in Music Composition, and is currently a docARTES PhD candidate (Orpheus Institute/Leiden University) on artistic research in Music with interest for the poetics of negativity and creative uses of DIY practices.
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