A Look Inside Paul Hegarty's Noise/Music

A Look Inside Paul Hegarty’s Noise/Music

Two chapters of Paul Hegarty’s book Noise/Music, a socio-musicological examination of the ever-changing threshold of tolerance between music and noise in a wide variety of musical genres during the 20th century, are featured along with a discussion about the book between Hegarty and Frank J. Oteri.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.

Paul Hegarty
Photo by Alex Rose

Frank J. Oteri: Some people have been confused, annoyed, and/or disappointed that your book is not actually a history of so-called “noise music” but is rather about a history that is much larger: the ever-changing threshold of tolerance between music and noise; hence, I suppose, the title, Noise/Music. Is that a fair assessment of what the book is ultimately about?

Paul Hegarty: That’s a pretty fair assessment of what it’s about, and the issues that choice creates. It would have been possible to do a book which had “industrial” and post-1980s noise as its sole focus, and to do that more historically, but as far as I could see there were three reasons not to do this: historical or descriptive accounts are out there for a great deal of experimental music, and I would have had to repeat arguments presented very well by Douglas Kahn in Noise Water Meat, or replicate David Keenan [England’s Hidden Reverse: A Secret History of the Esoteric Underground], or various texts about Japanese music. Secondly, the opposite problem came up in discussions, talks, and encounters at the two noise/theory/noise events organized by Andy McGettigan and Ray Brassier in London 3-4 years ago: i.e. why does everyone go on about the same “extreme” material, isn’t there something you could say about rock, techno etc.? Thirdly, I like cultural theory and whilst maybe it does something very similar to what we think of as a noise genre, once we get beyond a too-easily categorized set of musicians or styles, the same effects, at different moments in history were visible—so could there be a theoretical approach that could look at all of that without flattening it? The only constant in the book is the idea has to be about a judgment, has to be oddness, threat, unfamiliarity, and whatever other synonyms I resorted to, but after that, pretty much each chapter has a theoretical approach driven by the type of musical approach under consideration.

FJO: To specifically reference so-called “noise music” briefly, the context you give for the Japanese development of a “noise music” genre is as a natural development and extension of hybridization which dates back to the emergence of an openness to an extremely wide range of neo-Western musicking in contemporary Japanese society. But I wonder if perhaps it might go back even further into the core of traditional Japanese musical values. Sometimes in traditional Japanese music the audible sound of the breath seems as important as the tone, or equally, the sound of the plectrum scraping against a shamisen is as significant a gesture as the tone produced by such scraping. In Western classical music, such sounds would have traditionally been avoided and, in fact, would have been considered noise. Could that have been an influence as well?

PH: For once, I had to take the opinions of Japanese experimental musicians seriously, as the view seemed very consistent, and also because I would be on thin ground in terms of reading meaning into Japanese musics not heavily inflected in or by Western musics: this being that traditional music was so locked in to particular social patterns of music-making—who, why, when, and for what all being heavily structured, that largely this is not seen by them as being a significant connection, except unconsciously, perhaps. In addition, the psychedelic or free jazz odd music in late 1960s, early 1970s Japan would have been strongly against any conservative or conformist elements of their society. In terms of what sounds count as music, I wouldn’t know enough ethnomusicologically on this, but intuitively, it seems to me that the kind of acceptance or even encouragement of those “peripheral” sounds would not be specific to Japan, but more something outside of a particular moment in Western art music (say late 17th to early 20th centuries), and that not all noises are good noises. Lastly, if they are accepted parts of the music-making strategy, then who are they noisy to? We would have to find the moment when convention accepted such sounds…. Despite all that hedging, there is something to be said about the Japaneseness of Japanese noise, and I am not qualified to do it. I liked David Toop’s take on being a Western listener of avant-garde music, and setting himself adrift in culture as much as music, but once we get into anthropologizing, a million problems come up about being other to the culture you’re studying, and immersion isn’t a way round that, as then you’re too involved….

FJO: Early in the book you point out the almost symbiotic relationship between noise and music, how their historical definitions are very much wrapped up in their opposition to one another, e.g. everything that isn’t music is ipso facto noise, and therefore vice versa. But of course the proverbial line in the sand between the two categories is not fixed and at this point is ultimately subjective, yet somehow still always there. Even Cage, whose anti-jazz and anti-rock statements are well known, did not embrace all possible sound. Is such an embrace of all sound possible?

PH: This is something that could be come back to over and over and produce different answers; the “vice versa” bit isn’t quite the case, though. For music, all that is not musical in accepted terms (however widely defined) is noise. The opposite doesn’t work, as without musicality, the idea of noise would not occur. A painful effect in the ear and brain would just be like toothache. Also: subjective? To some extent, but anyone’s subjectivity has been molded by schooling, social position, moment in which they live, etc., etc. We fondly believe our experiences make us all different, but that is only a net result of the sheer volume of things that construct us as individuals. On any individual thing, I think, there is a drift to consensus. So, some awful pop song might be noise to the avant-gardist, particularly if played loud in a store, but for a large part of the population it is acceptable to the point of not even hearing it; and many people share your idea that it is awful. Stanley Fish wrote that you do not have culture, culture has you.

Who wants to embrace all sound? People do—that’s why sound art seems to work for a surprising number of gallery visitors. I just wonder if it’s even radical to attempt it. The nice thing is that if you managed it somehow, the entire sound world would flatten out, as you would have given up all judgment, all sense of what was going on. If we’re thinking about incorporating all sounds into something like music, that’s different, and what is a noise today is a genre some other time. This is not a problem, it’s an inevitable and curious feature of assimilating music at an individual or social level.

FJO: The music/noise dichotomy gets really interesting when you apply it to pre-modern attitudes about “unmusical” sounds, perhaps most pointedly in pre-20th century European descriptions of non-Western music. On a very fundamental level, isn’t noise merely that which someone is unable to process (for whatever reason: aesthetic, cultural, intellectual) as music?

PH: I agree that noise is that which cannot be completely processed, but it is very much part of the business of processing, even in terms of micro-judgments about preferring one piece of music over another, so perhaps this processing is a fundamental part of what music is, when you think of music as being the experience of having a certain amount of time being structured by sound. The incapacity to process a particular piece, or noise of machinery, say, is an enabling failure which allows a restricted but safer understanding of the world, like compressed digital music. This is something to be attacked or challenged by an endless sequence of noise making, continually varying over time (of a piece, and over historical time). I think the judgment that someone else’s music is unmusical is the interesting first stage to ethnomusicology, in that it posits a position where all can be processed by the analyst—only the final judgment is different. The sense, in the 18th and 19th centuries, of some music being closer to nature is also not something entirely negative, and if you “deconstruct” it, it is what lies behind a growing sense that music has to be considered beyond something to do with taste, or a manifestation of divine creativity mirrored in musicians. Certainly there were European explorer/proto-colonist types who recognized music when they encountered it and worried more about its possible demonic inspiration (e.g. the early 17th-century French explorer of Canada, Samuel de Champlain, or the late 18th-century Louis-Antoine Bougainville).

FJO: The intellectual construct of noise as unwanted other can apply to many other things besides music, a point you effectively make when you reference Fluxus and the late Dick Higgins’s use of the term intermedia. But for some reason, visual “noise” is much more easily assimilated than aural noise, although admittedly, an unpleasant odor, which is olfactory “noise” by extension if you will, is probably even more unwanted than its sonic counterpart. Is it possible to parse the way we sense something from our reaction to it?

PH: This is a bigger question than I have an answer for, especially as I’m wary of neuroscientific arguments about brain function determining perception, e.g. colored patterns on pictures of brains. Zygmunt Bauman has argued that Western modernity is fundamentally about excluding things we physically perceive but can’t always process—like sound and smell. That’s not a bad argument, I feel—so rather than being something physical, it is historical. Also, the less we sense something, the less we are going to react to it either negatively or positively: so the proliferation of “the visual” creates an acceptance and a decreasing capacity to stand back from it. Writers on postmodernism have long asserted this, but more interestingly the same occurs with sound, as McLuhan predicted: the omnipresence of music means that many no longer hear it either as noise or music, likewise other aural noises in what people like to call the real world.

FJO: One of the essays that has shaped the way I listen to music is William Brooks’s “On Being Tasteless.” You bring up a similar aesthetic approach in your discussion of bad music in your analysis of the rise of punk rock, i.e. the sometimes desired inept performances, laziness, contempt for audiences, etc. But if you accept noise as music, can there be bad music?

PH: This would be the closest we could get to having a subjective assessment, i.e. whatever common cultural contexts you share with someone, a particular piece of music could elicit a “No, that is just rubbish” from one, and not the other, so in that sense, there’s a whole other terrain of thinking about this music that this question opens up. But the simple answer has to be yes: at a theoretical level, because noise is always some sort of judgment, even if you knowingly buy a noise CD, from a noise rack in a store, with an anticipation based not on shock or distaste but on particular expectations, even if these can be thwarted…. If noise is a judgment, then you cannot lose the sense of judgment of music/sound/noise/etc. without losing noise altogether. On a personal level, there are many things that are just rubbish, whether they involve noise or not. One reader of Noise/Music misunderstood my use of Yes’s double concept album Tales From Topographic Oceans as an attempt to recuperate all possible terrible music, whereas I wanted to think about how this particular record acquired noisiness the more it was judged, and that in any case, maybe it was doing something noisy. Whether inept music can be described as bad after making the judgment you’re asking about is tougher. In what sense is it meaningful to think of an untalented cover band in a pub as being noise? Laziness is curious too. I have seen shockingly lazy performances by groups that maybe readers would have liked to hear about in a noise context, but that doesn’t strike me as defying expectations. Look at The Fall: they would defy expectation by playing a concert like The Cure do, all the hits, some favorite album tracks, over three hours, and professionally. So, between all of that, my way out is that it might be hard to make an unassailable theoretical position on this, but some music, some performances, are just shit.

FJO: Earlier, in your analysis of rock, you posit that rock’s “noise” aesthetic consists of its refusal to value music according to assumed “timeless standards” which I think is a very strong argument, but it makes me wonder if you think that noise could ever be non-confrontational. Indeed there is such a thing as ambient noise. Could there ever be a time when the music of someone like, say, Merzbow could be heard as easy listening?

PH: Yes. It’s tempting to stop there. Merzbow listened to very quietly, at home, and after the initial listening, is soothing, it’s like falling asleep to rain or the radio, but I imagine that Merzbow or some other power electronics is too fragmented to be fully assimilated. Then, you have to go and assimilate the next, probably very different, Merzbow recording. I found that a lot of metal-based ambience, even at very loud volume, is a very unthreatening listen, as you can settle into it. That’s not to say I don’t like it, but it backs up the idea that it is not volume that makes something noisy.

FJO: By the way, your chapters on Japan and Merzbow were actually the ones that excited me most as a reader to go out and track this stuff down to listen to, which is ironic in a way since what you write about this music isn’t always necessarily an endorsement. But the end of the chapter on Merzbow seems to be missing (p.165)? What is it?

PH: Well, it’s mostly pretty positive, especially on Merzbow—but like all artists that are prolific, there are quality control issues (to return to an earlier idea in a different way, how can you tell what good noise is?), and some are just less interesting than others. In Merzbow’s case, this is when he first starts to use digital equipment, when a little goes a long way, shall we say, but he’s soon over that. The end of the chapter is the end of the chapter: just as each chapter tries to work out a different theoretical position, so some of them at least try a little bit of performative reference—i.e. doing something a bit like the music—in this case, a sudden end, disrupting the flow. This is signaled by the stub of the sentence that is there, which doesn’t scan properly. The punk chapter is much more journalistic and direct than others. The rock chapter has a “solo” in the form of a bit on Deleuze, etc. I’d like to muster Julian Cope’s level of endorsement (which is not to say he doesn’t judge) in Japrocksampler, but clearly I’ve been mired in theory stuff too long.

FJO: The bio on the back of the book talks about your own musical involvement in noise bands such as Safe and Working with Children. How does the music you play fit into the trajectory that you describe in the book?

PH: This is going to be boring: like a lot of proper performers, I imagine that what I do comes from nowhere, has never been done, etc. On the other hand, we know full well that we are quite generic, and make noise music because we like noise music, rather than with a theoretical or political mission. Safe is basically a power electronics, “Merzbow meets Nurse With Wound” thing, based on field recordings. Some of these get processed, messed up, etc., but only when taken together do they work as something like noise, even if it’s all from detritus. Working With Children (2002-2005) was more based on organic sounds (i.e. no processing, ambient version of ’80s “industrial.” I think the label (dotdotdotmusic) is more connected, as it combines independent business involvement with aesthetics, and we feature talks and papers I’ve done there for that reason. Thanks for asking.

  • READ Chapter 8, “Power”, from Noise/Music by Paul Hegarty.
  • READ Chapter 13, “Listening”, from Noise/Music by Paul Hegarty.