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.

[The following excerpt is reprinted from Noise/Music (Continuum Books, 2007), pp. 197-200; copyright © by Paul Hegarty. Used with permission of the author and the publisher.]



There is no sound, no noise, no silence, even, without listening. The range of audible sound is just that: ‘of audible sound’. Certain wavelengths register as sound to those who have evolved a capacity for it. But listening is more than physical, and is something often striven for by humans, but with difficulty. Cage wonders ‘if I did or somebody else did find a way to let a sound be itself, would everybody within earshot be able to listen to it? Why is it so difficult for so many people to listen? Why do they start talking when there is something to hear?’ (‘Composition as Process: Communication’, 48).1 Ever alert to listening as an inherent part of music and musicality, Cage raises several issues here, centring on the competence of those who would be listeners. People are easily distracted, have been socialized into this distraction, and prefer their assertions of presence over a more communal sound production and consumption. While we might question the didactic element here, once we take these queries further, they reveal a more philosophical question. Like Heidegger, Cage is presuming individuals to be lost in worldliness, the mundane, the living where existence is unreflective. Heidegger puts it like this: ‘Losing itself [Dasein] in the publicness and the idle talk of the “they”, it fails to hear [überhört] its own Self in the listening to the they-self’ (Being and Time, 315). For both, listening is what authentic being-in-the-world should be, because listening is not under your control, is largely undirected, and is capable of working over long distances, but this is made inauthentic in industrialized society, which, they would, I’m sure, both agree, imposes a blanket of noise that prevents listening. While Toop is not at all against this environment, he suggests that sound art establishes an other acoustic space, so that ‘when sound artists and improvisers focus on details that would once have seemed just a tiny part of a bigger whole, I believe they are entering the microscopic in order to counter a wider sense of fragmentation: too many signals making too much noise’ (Haunted Weather, 3). Crowded, industrial societies have added a further hum of piped music, muzak, so that an unwanted ambience seeps through listening. Many would say that this is noise, but bad noise, and if it is bad noise, it is because it controls, limits and ultimately pacifies and smoothes listening, no matter how aggressive or annoying it initially is. It is a tiresome and vacuous cliché to say that you cannot block sound like you can vision, as there are no earlids. For all its literal truth, it is too literal, as hearing does not occur in the ear alone, but throughout the body and in particular, the brain. The problem is in the division of human perception of sound into hearing and listening. Hearing is the simple perception of sound, listening the reflective conscious hearing. Even though on occasion the words can be used interchangeably, or the other way around (‘I hear you’ . . .), there is division into attentive perception and inattentive or unwilled perception, with the latter the lesser. Nancy offers a further distinction, with ‘e´ couter’ what happens before meaning is attributed, and ‘entendre’ (which is also ‘understand’) what comes after (À l’écoute, 19).2

Nancy asks what it means to listen properly’ (17), to engage listening without full understanding. Cage wanted the mind to be ‘free to enter into the act of listening, hearing each sound just as it is’ (‘Composition as Process: Changes’, 23).3 Both aspire to something between hearing and listening, which, oddly, is only available when listening is at its most intensive and conscious. This type of listening subject is in the process of creating a community with all that is around and whoever is around. For both Cage and Nancy, this listener is open to the world, the world filtering through him or her, such that an awareness of a connectivity that was always already there comes to the attention of that listener. For Cage, this is a revelation about an individual’s and humanity’s relation to the world, and for Nancy it is that too, but in deconstructed form, as openness goes all the way down, so that there is only ever openness constructing subjects in and around it (see À l’écoute, 44). This awareness, in Nancy, is not the end of a process but the beginning of a heightened sociality, as the subject recognizes shared openness (74–5, 82). Cage implies such sociality, as sounds are freed through new listening, ‘an attention to the activity of sounds’ (‘Experimental Music’, 10), and this implies an ‘ethics of listening’, writes LaBelle (Background Noise, 20). This listening may start with a challenge to music and hearing of same, but spreads and ‘initiates a conversation in which the musical and found sounds merge, making music a cultural paradigm beholden to sound and its situatedness’ (Background Noise, 21).

This new listening is not content to let music or other sound just unfold over or in time. The attention that loosens listening from a search for meaning restores extra capacity for situatedness, of listener and sound, such that space is formed, audibly. Nancy argues that the reconception of listening as ontological openness is about a spatiality that crosses in and out of listening body or subject (À l’écoute, 33). Cage is persistent in drawing attention to the act of listening itself, and its locatedness in both time and space. For Toop, we can intervene in as well as ‘observe’ our soundworld, and sound art offers this for any listener, in the form of a ‘walking through sound’, as for example, in Akio Suzuki’s directed walks (Haunted Weather, 112–13), or any hearing-oriented walk or movement. The locating reduces noise and turns it into a good experience (attentive listening can go the other way, as in Haunted Weather, 260). The individual is more in tune with their surroundings, and the society that makes and is made from them. Instead of ‘thrownness’ into the morass of urban living, in particular, we have imbued the soundworld with either meaning, or at least character that furthers our subjectivity against (but not antagonistically) that of the ‘other’ (the external soundworld, or what was the external soundworld).

While to a certain extent Cage finds more meaning resulting from listening (just not specific meanings) than Toop or Nancy, Oliveros takes listening as a life mission that is a sort of self-improvement, and ethical as a result: ‘everyone with healthy ears can hear, listening takes cultivation and evolves through one’s lifetime. Listening is noticing and directing attention and interpreting what is heard. Deep listening is exploring the relationship among any and all sound’ (www.deeplistening.org-dldef). Instead of meditating on sound, sound becomes the meditation itself (as it is with LaMonte Young), and at that point it can induce a listening which is not directed anymore, but stretched beyond the sound, giving a ‘resonance with being and inform[ing] the artist, art and audience in effortless harmony’ (ibid.). A similar claim could be made for sound art when it engages the listener with the process of sound production and listening itself (especially when in the form of a spatialized installation), but I think that as opposed to Oliveros’ single process, the tendency in sound installation would be that one sort of attention (to the sound) creates another (to the way it was made, or the way you are listening to it) and then another (attention stimulated, it moves to think about contexts).

There seems no doubt that listening is good, at least when we renew it as something that is not subjected to unwanted everyday noise. Listening can fix you, as in psychoanalysis or in more behavioural psychologizing—or more accurately, someone’s listening can fix someone else, but you too come to listen to yourself. Listening is an expression of concern, of care, and a society made transparent also wants to be transphonic. Where all claims to be on display, and in terms of simulation, it is, then too will everyone’s ‘voice be heard’. In among the search for a good listening lies the too-soft touch, the too-quiet voice of the ‘caring listener’, and Heidegger himself is no exception as through listening, any ‘I’ learns about ‘my’ own subjectivity and in so doing recognizes it in relation, as always related to everything and everyone else:

Listening to . . . is Dasein’s existential way of Being-open as Being-with for Others. Indeed, hearing constitutes the primary and authentic way in which Dasein is open for its ownmost potentiality-for-Being—as in hearing the voice of the friend whom every Dasein carries with it. Dasein hears, because it understands. [ . . . ] Being-with develops in listening to one another [Aufeinander-hören]. (Being and Time, 206)

This understanding occurs at a deep level of being which is both most authentic and furthest from overt consciousness, and ultimately is a separation from literal hearing, but Heidegger is keen to hold on to the actuality of a listening process, arguing that it ‘is constitutive for discourse’ (206)—and not just receipt of discourse. Listening then is to be revalued, resituated within what is now not a hierarchy, but a process and exchange between sound production and perception. But all this listening has only made things worse—as now hearing has an object, whether that is the world, listening, the subject, the community or the impossibility of not listening. ‘Letting sounds be themselves’ is still about the listener framing, locating, territorializing sounds, noise into sound, immanence into experience, absence of self into self-awarely absent self. What noise needs, and where noise is, however briefly, is a listening that is brought back to hearing through processes of rejection (as noise), confusion (through noise as change), excess (including of volume), wrongness or inappropriateness, failure (of noise, to be noise, to not be noise, to be music, not be sound, not be). Noise is where all this listening goes when it has had enough.

Curiously, Heidegger does not stop at his subject being the kind of open listener Nancy hopes for. Heidegger’s listening is more nuanced, and not restricted to a newly positive passivity of receptiveness (even though this passivity imagines itself as heroic action): The listening of the ‘Being-with’ mentioned above ‘can be done in several possible ways: following, going along with, and the privative modes of not-hearing, resisting, defying, and turning away’ (Being and Time, 206–7). We could imagine these latter four types as being resistance to noisy urban industrial life, but they seem to apply beyond that, and are themselves part of the constitutive listening of ‘authentic’ Being. There is as much listening, then, in refusal, as in unlistening. It is important to notice that these are not about fully autonomous individuals choosing how to listen, but situations where subject and other (the world, or others, or something like music, something like noise) are within listening. This is where another hearing takes place, a hearing of loss, of the loss of hearing, even, as loss, and where some sort of subject comes fleetingly into being outside of subjectivity through a sort of subjection, a subjection with no mission. Noise is listening as Foucaldian power—between rather than belonging to subjects, and the listening to something like noise music is the movement of the difference between noise and music as either constitutive power or Derridean difference, now a difference between listening and hearing, the noise and the noised listener. All of these keep crossing over into one another, opposites that rely on each other, mutual undoings, oscillating failures. Is this good? No, it is not proper, linear, meaningful. But not bad either, as noise transvalues listener and object, noise and music, hearing and listening, perception and its failure, performance and its failure, noise and its failure to be music, noise and its failure to be noise. And the transvaluation itself, only as if it could ever be. As if it really were noise, after or before, all.


1Cage, ‘Composition as Process: Communication’ in Silence, 41–52.

2 A further complication is that ‘écouter’ usually translates as ‘to listen’ and ‘entendre’ as ‘to hear’. The archaic ‘ouïr’ is closest to simple hearing, making a three-part system. The title of the book could be translated as ‘to listening’, or ‘listening to’/ ‘tuned in’.

3Cage, ‘Composition as Process: Changes’, in Silence, 18–34.

  • READ Chapter 8, “Power”, from Noise/Music by Paul Hegarty.
  • READ an interview with author Paul Hegarty.