Friday, November 05, 2010

Signal, too.

In principle, I'm on the "side of the noises" (as Cage put it), but I'm not altogether certain that that is actually saying anything particularly significant or interesting anymore.  I remember being thrilled to read, in the pre-Sokal-discount days of Social Text, the first excerpts of Attali's Bruits to appear in translation.  Attali's use of the Breughel Battle between Carnival and Lent remains a brilliant metaphor, AFAIC, but when I finally put paws on the whole little book of Noise, it was serious disappointment time, as he really took things no further than the equally deterministic schemes of either Weber or Adorno.  And, more critically, he seemed not to have anything particularly deep to say about how music is actually put together.*  (A more useful, it seems to me, treatment of the topic of noise, and largely because its discussion is not exclusively or even primarily about musical noise, is in Bart Kosko's Noise.)   An identification of one's own musicking with and/or as noise has some fashion currency now, particular among those using electronics (the more analog, hacked, and bent, the better) but also (as this thoughtful review of the recent anthology Noise & Capitalism, points out) among the so-called "free" improvisors (note that both areas of activity represent traditions with considerable vintage.)  Cage's "side of the noises" was a parallel/echo/extension of the "emancipation of the dissonance"; music history took sides decisively for both in the ultra-modern music which apex-ed in the early 1930s (Cowell, Varese, Antheil, Crawford, Wm. Russell, Brant, Ornstein, etc. in the US with similar cohorts elsewhere)  only to make an equally decisive u-turn away from noise and towards consonance in the strongly statist — whether left, right, authoritarian or consensual — era which followed and continued through the second world war. This shift, from noise to notnoise, from dissonance to consonance, was in the form of moves along a spectrum, stylistic shifts which still recognized the accumulated increase in variety of each spectrum.  And if you think about this, even casually, these processes have always marked music history — hunting horns, martial trumpets and drums, and tower trombone choirs once represented alien invasions of concerted music, noisy additions to the orchestra by members of guilds (foresters, soldiers, civil/religious servants) whose membership had not yet merged with the local musicians' union, and all of the audio special effects requisite to the opera stage were added to the back-of-the-pit toy box of the timpanist/proto-percussionist, a job category that only the last century universally regarded as the work of proper musicians; likewise, the category of the consonant gradually overtook that of the dissonant, embracing ever-denser harmonic configurations (in itself, a move along the spectrum towards noise)  as the distinction became one of formal context rather than abstract category. So now, having experienced all of that opening of the spectra of the acoustically possible, doesn't describing oneself as on the side of the noises or of the dissonances have more the tenor of a consumer choice than an authentically oppositional stance?  What is noisy or dissonant, any more, of a music made solely of noises or dissonances? 

* This is not unusual.  In my student days, and particularly in my Santa Cruz days,  "theory", as used in the humanities was all the rage, from structuralism forward, and I read as much as I could, especially when it seemed that something useful or relevant to music was supposed to be present.  Although I don't regret the reading (Debord, of course, the Deleuze of The Logic of Sense, too; I'll always have a soft spot for Barthes's Empire of Signs and Levi-Strauss was simply a pleasure to read) , as a working musician, I was usually disappointed, as the musical content was inevitably superficial.  The appropriation of musical forms in Levi-Strauss's analysis of myths, for example, should be enough to send anyone running ASAP to read their Tovey to see that there is a profound, accurate, and relevant tradition for writing about musical form and structure that has more to offer theory in other disciplines than they may have offer music. 


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