To enrich means to add, not to substitute or to abolish.
—Luigi Russolo, The Enharmonic Bow
“Noise,” as an idea, a subject, a field, an instrument, came upon the scene with a power and swiftness that transformed all of science and our views of the nature of matter. At birth, it solved the major issue of its time, perhaps, the greatest idea of all time—the existence of atoms.
– Richard Feynman
There are sounds and they are of various kinds. Yet, noise has its own secret history, one connected to the 20th Century and its birth in the avante-garde of Italian Futurism. Luciano Chessa tells us in his Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult that Luigi Russolo (1885– 1947)— painter, composer, builder of musical instruments, and a member of the Italian futurist movement from its inception— represents a crucial moment in the evolution of twentieth-century musical aesthetics. He is generally considered the father of the first systematic poetics of noise and by some even the creator of the synthesizer, and his influence on the likes of Edgar Varèse, Pierre Schaeffer, and John Cage is well documented.1
As Luigi would tell us in his essay Art of Noises: “Ancient life was all silence. In the nineteenth century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men. For many centuries life went by in silence, or at most in muted tones. The strongest noises which interrupted this silence were not intense or prolonged or varied. If we overlook such exceptional movements as earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, avalanches and waterfalls, nature is silent” (see Art of Noise).
Luigi would strike up the call of all modernisms to return to the streets, to enter the life of the dissonant matrix out of which all life emanates, to as Henry Miller so aptly put it:
To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama, movement. It means above all dream. A harmony of irrelevant facts which gives to your wandering a metaphysical certitude. In the street you learn what human beings really are; otherwise, or afterwards, you invent them. What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature. Nothing of what is called “adventure” ever approaches the flavor of the street. It doesn’t matter whether you fly to the Pole, whether you sit on the floor of the ocean with a pad in your hand, whether you pull up nine cities one after the other, or whether, like Kurtz, you sail up the river and go mad. No matter how exciting, how intolerable the situation, there are always exits, always ameliorations, comforts, compensations, newspapers, religions. But once there was none of this. Once you were free, wild, murderous….
– Henry Miller – Black Spring
Luigi himself would express it poignantly in his manifesto: “…let us cross a great modern capital with our ears more alert than our eyes, and we will get enjoyment from distinguishing the eddying of water, air and gas in metal pipes, the grumbling of noises that breathe and pulse with indisputable animality, the palpitation of valves, the coming and going of pistons, the howl of mechanical saws, the jolting of a tram on its rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of curtains and flags. We enjoy creating mental orchestrations of the crashing down of metal shop blinds, slamming doors, the hubbub and shuffling of crowds, the variety of din, from stations, railways, iron foundries, spinning mills, printing works, electric power stations and underground railways.” This sense of the vibrancy of things, of the machinic presence of irritation and disruption, of noise as a source not of fear and disgust, but rather as the singular power of life churning away in the midst of our modern industrial world, the world of capitalism was at the heart of this strange turn toward noise. This was the moment just before the great engines of war would crash down over Europe bringing a new noise: a noise full of dread and defeat and death. This would be the regressive noise of fascism leading back into the dark primitive romanticism of terror and blood.
Above is Luigi with his Intonarumori which were a family of musical instruments he invented in 1913. They were acoustic noise generators that permitted to create and control in dynamic and pitch several different types of noises. Each instrument was made of a wooden parallelepiped sound box with a carton or metal speaker on its front side. The performer turned a crank or pressed an electric button to produce the sound whose pitch was controlled by means of a lever on top of the box. The lever could be moved over a scale in tones, semitones and the intermediate gradations within a range of more than an octave. Inside the box there were a wooden or metal wheel (whose shape or diameter varied depending on the model) that make a catgut or metal string vibrate. The tension of the string is modified by means of the lever allowing glissandos or specific notes. At one end of the string there is a drumhead that transmits vibrations to the speaker. There were 27 varieties of intonarumori with different names according to the sound produced: howling, thunder, crackling, crumpling, exploding, gurgling, buzzing, hissing and so on. (see Valerio Saggini Intonarumori)
We know that in 1914 he caused a riot after presenting his program using these multifarious instruments. The program comprised four “networks of noises” with the following titles:
- Awakening of a City
- Meeting of cars and aeroplanes
- Dining on the terrace of the Casino and
- Skirmish in the oasis
Luigi had high hopes for reintroducing the sensual element of everyday life into peoples lives through music, and especially through the dissonance and interruptions of noise. As he stated in the final sections of his famous manifesto:
Every manifestation of our life is accompanied by noise. The noise, therefore, is familiar to our ear, and has the power to conjure up life itself. Sound, alien to our life, always musical and a thing unto itself, an occasional but unnecessary element, has become to our ears what an overfamiliar face is to our eyes. Noise, however, reaching us in a confused and irregular way from the irregular confusion of our life, never entirely reveals itself to us, and keeps innumerable surprises in reserve. We are therefore certain that by selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure.
– Luigi Russolo – Art of Noise
OUT OF NOISE: Futurism And Its Progeny
Franz Kafka admiring ironically the painting by Delaunay, Homage to Belriot, expressed this futurist ensemble with its singular and powerful image of the aeroplane and its caged rider, saying, “One can see his erect upper body above the wings; his legs extend deep down into the machine of which they have become part. The setting sun … shines on the floating wings.” He goes on to ask: “What is happening? Up there, 20 metres above the earth, a man is imprisoned in a wooden cage and defends himself against a freely chosen invisible danger. We, however, stand below, wholly caught up in a trance and watch this man.”2
This notion of being entranced, of being caught up in a trance would become central to both futurism and its hypertrance descendants from those like Eric Satie who would use what he termed found sound, on to the latest worlds of that began with such musicians a Lou Reed‘s double LP Metal Machine Music (1975); and, onward to the nine nights of noise music called Noise Fest that was organized by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth in the NYC art space White Columns in June 1981 followed by the Speed Trials noise rock series organized by Live Skull members in May 1983; as wells as, the first postmodern wave of industrial noise music appearing with Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and NON (aka Boyd Rice); and, on to the portmanteau Japanoise, with perhaps the best known being Merzbow (pseudonym for the Japanese noise artist Masami Akita who himself was inspired by the Dada artist Kurt Schwitters‘s Merz art project of psychological collage); and, even, the ambient, microsound, or glitchdigital scene described by Kim Cascone as the “aesthetic of failure”3. One could add much more to this lineup of experimental music and sound cascades of noise culture, etc.
This is just a sampling of a world-wide scene that has even entered such notable additions as the Detroit techno scene – a type of techno music that generally includes the first techno productions by Detroit-based artists during the 1980s and early 1990s. Detroit techno artists include Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson. A distinguishing trait of Detroit techno is the use of analog synthesizers and early drum machines, particularly the Roland TR-909, or, in later releases, the use of digital emulation to create the characteristic sounds of those machines.
But underlying all these variations is a the notion of noise itself. What is noise? Maybe a better question is – What does noise do? How does it enter our lives, what impacts does it have, how has noise shaped us since the advent of our hyper-technological society, and what repercussions has it had on our cultural and political worlds? In my own quest to understand the roots of fascism, and of its continuing impact on ideology across the planet through its various and secretive initiatives within the fabric of our global neo-liberal statist or global governance agendas, I’ve begun, along with my friend, Edmund Berger – Deterritorial Investigations Unit, both art and music as tools of the avant-garde of these many eras have impacted our lives even if we are not fully aware of that fact. The subtle enchainments of command and control that permeate our own surveillance society had their roots in this Era of Noise.
Deleuze and Guattari in their Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia would tells us that the “territorial machine is … the first form of socius, the machine of primitive inscription, the “megamachine” that covers a social field” (141). They would show us how the very underpinnings of history and society form the social machine that “fashions a memory without which there would be no synergy of man and his (technical) machines” (ibid. 141). For them capitalism was the final megamachine, the “semiautonomous organization of technical production the tends to appropriate memory and reproduction, and thereby modifies the forms of the exploitation of man” (ibid. 141).
Edmund Berger in a recent post Sound Hacking: Further Reflections on Noise and Noncommunication outlines an alliance between noise and noncommunication that gives us a detailed understanding of the economic and political implications of this history. As he tells it when we consider the notion of noise as an “aesthetic mode aligned with moments bound up in the emergence or production of new subjective processes” we must consider two aspects: first, the questions of the vibrational infrastructure of the noise itself: how is the noise produced, with what intensity or solemnity, how audible is the noise, how is it directed, from what distance is the noise traveling, how does the architecture impact the noise, how do the bodies in the proximity of the noise, be it those catalyzing it or those receiving it, react?”; and, secondly, the “points of cultural expression, a tapestry woven from but not limited to lifestyles, politics of class and sexuality, experience, subjective environments, and degrees of accessibility” (see here). He explains in detail these aspects so I’ll not go into them here, but recommend the reader to take a moment and read his post. At one point he admits that maybe this opening out of the futurists toward the sacred and irrational should not be condemned but reinvestigated:
Instead of condemning the desire to explore the otherwordly as escapism, we may do well to approach rationality from the perspective of Henri Lefebvre, who saw this force as one that has withered away the capacity for experience and intensity. “The mysterious, the sacred and the diabolical, magic ritual, the mystical – at first these things were lived with intensity.” … For Lefebvre, like Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, the machine of industrial produced an enclosure around everyday life which detached the individual and the group from a lived experience of authenticity (what these individuals analyzed was attacked by the countercultures of their time, with the resurrection of the shamanic and the esoteric coexisting alongside the more directed political aspirations of civil rights, the anti-war movement, and the greater hopes for a different age). (here)
Michel Serres puts it, ‘we are surrounded by noise. And this noise it inextinguishable […] We are in the noises of the world, we cannot close our door to their reception’ (Serres, 2007, 126). For Serres, at least, noise comes before any meaningful system as its transcendental field, which is why noise can never be fully eliminated. In this perspective all living systems in their negentropy are temporary escapes from entropic noise, but escapes that are destined to failure by the laws of thermodynamics. In more aesthetic terms we might think of noise as ground, and meaning as figure, rising from the ground, but caught within its field in order to function . More basically, what any system necessarily excludes as noise are all the levels of organization above and below it that include its own conditions of possibility, hence the informational account of noise as a lack of organization being a state of fundamental distortion. Noise is indeed static or interference but not that of an unorganized chaos so much as patterns of organization alien to the norms of a specific system – that which Serres refers to as ‘the parasite’.4
As Cary Wolfe would describe it in his preface to Serres book The Parasite:
…“noise” (for the English reader) forms the third and unsuspected meaning of the French word parasite: 1. biological parasite ; 2. social parasite; 3. static or interference. As we know from classical information theory and its model of the signal-to-noise ratio, noise was typically regarded as simply the extraneous background against which a given message or signal was transmitted from a sender to receiver. For Serres, however, “as soon as we are two, we are already three or four.… In order to succeed, the dialogue needs an excluded third” [Genesis, 57); we may begin with “two interlocutors and the channel that attaches them to one another,” but “the parasite, nesting on the flow of the relation, is in third position” (53). For Serres, then— and here he joins a line of systems theorists that includes figures such as Gregory Bateson and, later, Niklas Luhmann— noise is productive and creative: “noise, through its presence and absence, the intermittence of the signal, produces the new system” (52). Or as Bateson puts it in the very last sentence of his seminal essay “Cybernetic Explanation” (1967): “All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints— is noise, the only possible source of new patterns.” 6 Luhmann helps clarify and develop the point in his major work, Social Systems (1984):
“The difference between meaning and world is formed for this process of the continual self-determination of meaning as the difference between order and perturbation, between information and noise. Both are, and both remain , necessary. The unity of the difference is and remains the basis for operation. This cannot be emphasized strongly enough. A preference for meaning over world, for order over perturbation , for information over noise is only a preference. It does not enable one to dispense with the contrary.”
This is exactly what Serres has in mind when he asserts in The Parasite that “systems work because they do not work. Nonfunctioning remains essential for functioning.” Given the basic informational and communicational paradigm of “two stations and a channel,” messages are exchanged, and “if the relation succeeds, if it is perfect, optimum, and immediate; it disappears as a relation. If it is there, if it exists, that means that it failed.” Thus, he continues, “Relation is nonrelation,” and if the channel that carries the message “disappears into immediacy,” then “there would be no spaces of transformation anywhere.” In this context his apparently paradoxical assertion that “the real is not rational” makes perfect sense (79).5
This opening out to the Real was at the heart of the later Lacan, who as Zizek tells us the “paradox of the Lacanian real is then that it is an entity which, although it doesn’t exist (in the sense of “really existing,” taking place in reality), has a series of properties. It exercises a certain structural causality; it can produce a series of effects in the symbolic reality of subjects” … He goes on to say:
If we define the real as such a paradoxical, chimerical entity which, although it doesn’t exist, has a series of properties and can produce a series of effects, it becomes clear that the real par excellence is jouissance: jouissance doesn’t exist; it is impossible, but it produces a lot of traumatic effects. And this paradoxical nature of jouissance offers us also a clue to explain the fundamental paradox which unfailingly attests the presence of the real: the fact of the prohibition of something which is already in itself impossible. (see The Lacanian Real: Television).
Zizek in another context in his book Less Than Nothing will describe how the noise of an interruption, and irritable recognition of its affects upon the mind causes a certain clarity of mind to develop:
…as soon as I talk to my sister— who is sitting and working behind me— about this matter, I realize what hours of hard thinking have not been able to make clear to me. It isn’t as if she was telling me in any direct sense. … But since I have some vague thoughts that are in some way connected with what I am looking for, then once I have embarked on the formulation of the thought it is as if the need to lead what has been begun to some conclusion transforms my hazy imaginations into complete clarity in such a way that my insight is completed together with my rambling sentence. I mix in inarticulate noises, I draw out my sentence connectives, I use appositions where they are not strictly necessary and I use other rhetorical tricks that will draw out speech : in this way I gain the time to fabricate my idea in this workshop of reason. …
Nothing in all this is more useful than some movement on the part of my sister, a movement indicating that she intends to interrupt me. For my strained mind becomes even more excited by the need to defend this inherent right to speak against attack from the outside. The mind’s abilities grow like those of a great general who is faced with a very difficult situation.6
This movement of interruption, the irritable expectation or influx of noise in the environment engenders an excitation in the brain, that engenders the very thought in its crystalline form that he was seeking through those many harmonious struggles through certain texts and thoughts. This notion that noise can engender order, bring a sense of clarity to thought and reason, force the mind to defend itself against this secret intruder, or parasite (Serres), seems an accurate portrayal of the shock of the Real that Lacan spoke of.
Greg Hainge will offer us an ontology of noise which “is immersive because there is nothing outside of it and because it is in everything”.7 Indeed, noise is not only multi-medial , arising in many different kinds of forms and media, engaging many different senses, sensations, responses and affects, it is medial insofar as it is always in-between, produced in the passing into actuality of everything, both animate and inanimate – a false dichotomy in any case as has been suggested. Noise, this is to say, is the trace of the virtual out of which all expressive forms come to be, the mark of an ontology which is necessarily relational:
If noise inhabits everything because everything is in actuality formed out of noise, then what noise ultimately points us to is the relational ontology according to which the world comes to pass, the way in which there is nothing that falls outside of the event, of the realm of process, of an existence formed only through the heterogeneous assemblages of different forms of expression which inescapably and incessantly contract the virtual into the actual.- (Hainge, ibid. KL -396)
This notion of expression rather than description brings us to the notion of an ontology of process as against an ontology of substance and objects, the sense that it is out of the Void in Zizek’s sense that things, entities, objects (the phenomenal realm) come to be. Yet, as he tells us “there need not be a split between the operations of noise as a philosophical concept and its manifestations in expression, that it is not necessary to separate out the ontological from the phenomenological” (Hainge, KL 578). Finally, he states:
Noise, then, makes us attend to how things come to exist, how they come to stand or be (sistere) outside of themselves (ex-). Noise, then, is fundamentally about ontology, and in order to sketch an operational taxonomy of noise, it is only fitting that each of the categories to be used should also address how things come to exist (-sistere). Let me then suggest the following:
- Noise resists – not (necessarily) politically but materially because it reconfigures matter in expression, conduction and conjugation.
- Noise subsists – insofar as it relates the event to the field from which expression is drawn and thus subtends all being.
- Noise coexists – as its ontology is only relational and does not come into being by itself but only as the by-product of expression.
- Noise persists – because it cannot be reconfigured or recontained, cannot become thetic as it passes into expression, but remains indelibly noise.
- Noise obsists – since it is fundamentally anathema to stasis and thus opposes all illusions of fixity, pulling form beyond itself through expression and bringing about the collapse of meaning.
– Hainge: (Kindle Locations 585-597)
In his conclusion he tells us that if “we cannot talk about noise as though it is a thing with a core, definable essence, we can nonetheless talk about what it does, about its operations , and attempt to find in the multifarious sites, subjects, objects, texts, expressions and channels in which it arises some commonality or shared principles that allow us to talk about it in terms of an ontology” (Hainge, KL 5944).
Yet, there is the politics of noise as well, of a movement, of a transgressive marshalling toward change that process thinking brings to the table. As Stephen Mallinder will remind us in the introduction to Alexander Reed’s Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music:
The inspiration of Dada offered a guidebook of how to go about deconstructing a world that did not adequately represent the one we actually inhabited. Suitably driven by Duchamp, Tzara, and other past pugnacious artists, this was a sincere if somewhat naïve attempt to tear up the plans and devise new strategies. Process meant the rejection of traditional methods and instrumentation. The recording studio became the most valuable writing tool; tape machines, effected voices, “treated” instruments, tape loops, and drum machines. Song structures and linear arrangements were abandoned; the logocentric norm of most contemporary music was dismissed for a sonic democracy. The music was intended to be primal, visceral, and provocative. Noise, for us a Sheffield birthright, was the most effective tool in the box. Although most at the time were unaware of many of the readings into the inherent political and social power of noise, it was clearly a language of subversion. Noise defied order and control . It was a musical taboo. Sonic belligerence. 8
This notion of a resistance to the command and control systems that seek to enslave us in a global system of power and knowledge, a biopolitical structure of governance and law that uses the Infotainment Industrial Complex to hook us into its reality matrix, its illusionary world of ideological jouissance scrambling the codes that have allowed us to fall into apathy and indifference. Noise brings us out of sleep, makes us irritable, induces a sense of belligerence and defiance, a militant and aggressive assertion of our power to remain free and collective, productive of solidarity and global justice. As Deniz Peters explains, “The hopes of this modernist aesthetic were on the machine, not only on the noise machines make, but, just as importantly, on the mechanistic production of sound; that is, the hopes were tied to the image of the generation of sound using a perfectly suited, untiring and infallible body. …”9 Maybe Henry Miller had it right all along when he said that we’d need to distinguish where the noise comes from and not go daffy just because you hear an explosion under your ass.10 In his text Genre is Obsolete, Ray Brassier points out that the commodification of experience now takes place not only at the ideological level but at the neurophysiological level.11 Noise pervades us like those impossible entities and processes dark matter/dark energy. It interrupts our harmonious lives, our walk-about sleep world of capital, it makes us irritable, and wakes us from our lethargically desperate lives and forces us to acknowledge aspects of our affective relations that have for so long been repressed and silenced by the zombie consumerism of the free market socius. As Brassier puts it:
Much contemporary critical theory of a vaguely marxisant bent is compromised by conceptual anachronisms whose untruth in the current social context is every bit as politically debilitating as that of the reactionary cultural forms it purports to unmask. Just as ‘noise’ is neither more nor less inherently subversive than any other commodifiable musical genre, so the categories invoked in order to decipher its political potency cannot be construed as inherently ‘critical’ while they remain fatally freighted with neo-romantic clichés about the transformative power of aesthetic experience. … Technology is now an invasive component of agency. Neurotechnologies, including cognitive enhancers such as modafinil, brain fingerprinting, neural lie-detectors, and nascent brain-computer interfaces, are giving rise to phenotechnologies which will eventually usher in the literal manufacturing of consciousness in a way that promises to redraw existing boundaries between personal and collective experience and recast not only extant categories of personal and collective identity, but also those of personal and collective agency. The commodification of experience is not a metaphor played out at the level of ideology and combatable with ideological means, but a concrete neurophysiological reality which can only be confronted with neurobiological resources. (Brassier, 69)
In our age of neural implants and invasive technologies we may one day wake up and realize our reality is a commodity produced moment by moment by the engineering elite of some technocapitalist global order unless the noise can begin to break through the chinks in the metal cavities of our encased minds. As Brassier reminds us to “eradicate experience would be to begin to intervene in the sociological determination of neurobiology as well as in the neurobiological determination of culture. Here, the cognitive and cultural import of art cannot be separated from its formal and structural resources: the radicality of the latter must be concomitant with the radicality of the former” (Brassier, 70).
Luciano Floridi describes the notion of ontological friction which refers to the forces that oppose the information flow within (a region of) the infosphere, and hence (as a coefficient) to the amount of work and effort required for some kind of agent to obtain, filter and/ or block information (also, but not only) about other agents in a given environment, e.g. by establishing and maintaining channels of communication and by overcoming obstacles in the flow of information such as distance, noise, lack of resources (especially time, memory space and processing capacities), amount and complexity of the data to be processed, and so forth.12 He describes a new set of agents in society, the inforgs, as “informationally embodied organisms, entities made up of information” that exist in the infosphere. Inforgs are natural agents situated alongside artificial agents, existing as part of hybrid agency that is, for example, a family with digital devices such as digital cameras, cell phones, tablets, and laptops. In our time we’ve seen a slow shift toward an informational ontology rather than either materialist or idealist, or shall we say the merger of the two in a wider framework that includes them both in a new perspective. Noise will play its part in the transgressive movement of information as the radicalization of an oppositional politics that seeks to interrupt, disrupt, and irritate the technocapitalist state apparatuses and its global system of governance.
I’ll need to leave off now… hopefully will add a part two that will show some of the inner history of some of the bands from the different periods that have contributed to this new musical form. Music has become for many the greatest extension of popular resistance in our time. Hopefully we’ll be able to shed a little light on that in the future…
A book that someone just reminded me about by Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century appears to be a good overview of this whole modern and postmodern period of music, I haven’t read it yet but will over the coming weekend.
1. Chessa, Luciano. Luigi Russolo, Futurist: Noise, Visual Arts, and the Occult. (University of California Press, 2012)
2. Marjorie Perloff. The Futurist Moment. (University of Chicago Press, 1986)
3. Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”. Computer Music Journal 24, no. 4 (Winter 2002): pp. 12–18.
4. Hegarty, Paul; Goddard, Michael; Halligan, Benjamin (2012-05-31). Reverberations: The Philosophy, Aesthetics and Politics of Noise (p. 3). Continuum US. Kindle Edition.
5. Serres, Michel (2013-11-30). The Parasite (Posthumanities) (Kindle Locations 150-160). University of Minnesota Press. Kindle Edition.
6. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 12947-12949). Norton. Kindle Edition.
7. Hainge, Greg (2013-03-14). Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise (Kindle Locations 396-400). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
8. S. Alexander Reed, (2013-05-08). Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music . Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
9.Peters, Deniz. Introduction. Bodily Expression in Electronic Music. Eds. Deniz Peters, Gerhard Eckel, and Andreas Dorschel. New York: Routledge, 2012. 1– 16.
10. Miller, Henry (2012-03-03). Tropic of Cancer (p. 143). . Kindle Edition.
11. Ray Brassier. Genre is Obsolete Multitudes, No. 28, Spring 2007
12. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 232). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.