“With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world. With music is born power and its opposite: subversion. In noise can be read the codes of life, the relations among men. Clamor, Melody, Dissonance, Harmony; when it is fashioned by man with specific tools, when it invades man’s time, when it becomes sound, noise is the source of purpose and power, of the dream – Music.”
– Jaques Attali
Leading up to, and since Ride’s recent live gigs, I’ve been thinking about the noise thing – hence this essay/article, which is based both directly on my own experiences, and on the theoretical writings of French economist Jaques Attali.
Noise certainly has a wide area of influence. For some people noise is unwanted sound, yet others will actively seek it out. There is pure noise: Pink Noise, White Noise, Brown Noise, and Grey noise. Distortion, and guitar noise can be political, subversive and dangerous to some: yet noise can be used to uphold laws and protect intellectual property rights. The concept of noise and the active use of it can carry the power of censorship, and yet also of emancipation and expression. An audience experience of noise in a musical setting can be something akin to a communion with a universal purifying force, or noise can be used in a way that is sleazy, and dirty. In music production and communication networks noise can be the mistake, the error: the ‘ghost in the machine’, something to be eliminated, or it can be the communication itself. Scientists search for and try to study the noise of our expanding Universe, yet there is noise in our body we might never hear. Put simply, there is noise all around us, and our interpretation of it as sound, music, or noise, may just be the result of a subjective twist. In the course of the following blog post, I will get a chance to discuss two or three of the issues above, and will do so with reference to my own thoughts, and the writings of Jaques Attali, specifically in relation to the Ride song ‘Drive Blind’.
Noise: Part 1
Some Thoughts And Some More Jaques Attali…
Scientifically speaking, noise is a sound containing a complex mix of all frequencies simultaneously, which is produced by random vibrations of air particles. But the names of the colours of noise mentioned in the introduction above are given as analogies to the colour spectrum of light. So noise can be perceived in a visual sense too. There isn’t just noise; there are different colours, textures and hues: a whole spectrum of noise. Dr. Ir. Stéphane Pigeon made a website that describes the different types of pure noise, and you can experiment with the varying ‘colours’. It’s amazing how calming and close to the natural sound of waves, waterfalls and rivers you can get with ‘random vibrations of air particles’. Of all these noise colours, White Noise is the most famous, because in it all frequencies are as loud as each other in an equal flat signal. In other words: White Noise is everything in terms of sound frequencies, all at once, at the same intensity. While at a loud volume that might seem unpleasant to some, at lower volumes White Noise can also be used to help people get to sleep. So with noise there is the practical, and the political; the scary and the reassuring. The scientific, and the organic.
Yet noise can be associated with politics and violence, and the attacking of networks. What makes noise political is that noise so often gets the implication of being unpleasant, of being the ‘other’, the outsider, the unwanted. But then this can itself become a persona, a voice: a resurgence – from the underground. Noise can be associated with revolution. The idea that noise is the censored ‘other’ can fit many philosophical models. To take one musical example, it chimes in with the disenfranchised generation of Indie kids who questioned the sheen, order, and form of society circa 1980-1990. This was a generation fed by bands such as The Pastels, The Telescopes, The Jesus And Mary Chain, who used noise to shock, question, and unsettle society and musical assumptions. Often the Indie bands from this era were inspired by certain creative moves made by The Velvet Underground, who in the years 1966-1968 experimented with feedback and dissonance, and under the supervision of Andy Warhol brought together some aspects of ‘sound art’, with Pop music. This so called passive Indie generation would end up in direct contrast to, or simply barely recognising the later Britpop generation, who simply accepted the games of society; and actively sought to play along with, and live up to, its traditional ideas of success. In the 1990’s, instead of disappearing; the ‘sheen’, the order, and the forms, so challenged by underground Indie bands were to be re-instated and revered and put beyond questioning in the Britpop era, with the idea of something being ‘classic’ being deemed as representing the highest art form. The word classic also means ‘standard’, ‘typical’, ‘traditional’. Creatively, the effect was quite stifling. So when in 1988 the band Public Enemy asked to ‘Bring The Noise’, it was in effect a political reference to empower the ‘other’, the outsider, and to encourage the necessary political violence of change.
As Attali writes: “For despite the death it contains, noise carries order within itself; it carries new information.” This new information might contain unexpected insights. Take for example the middle ‘noise’ section of the Ride song ‘Drive Blind’. When I catch a glimpse of the audience during this section, I might occasionally see someone in the front row, with arms open, face lifted to the skies, eyes closed, smiling. I know they get it, and I know they are getting it – some kind of communion with a universal, vibrational force. There are good reasons for this, which I’ll come to later. But firstly to put it in context: noise for me especially in guitar music represents abandon, and nihilism; it can be an explosive expression of frustration, anger, and pain, yet it can be a supernova of emotional and aspirational power all at the same time… Noise can express disdain with the world, whilst making you more present, active, and potent in it. As noise trashes what is already there, it is asking for something better: something ideal and absolute, but something real. In the song ‘I Hate Rock ’n Roll’ by The Jesus And Mary Chain, at 1’ 35’’ William Reid’s guitar solo is backed with what I would call noise… great noise: sheets of noise, one bar after another. Have a listen – loud. Some talk about experiencing the void, but this is music to drive off a cliff to… Oblivion and Nirvana become interchangeable. And the noise answers everything in the song: the anger, the hatred, the frustration, the pointlessness of it all – probably more than the words and the chord progressions do. The noise effect is also a way of trashing the song itself and the music industry in a way that no clever verbal swipe ever could manage. I once played out this song at the end of a DJ set in a club – just to see what would happen. It cleared the floor (of course it did!) but there was one guy at the front…arms reaching out, face turned upward, smiling and shaking his fists jubilantly at the sky during William’s ‘solo’… he gets it.
So why is this? Why is noise so powerful to those tuned to its ‘voice’? One theory is that it simply communicates on a different level to music and spoken word – hence opening up new creative possibilities. As Attali writes:
“But noise does in fact create a meaning: …because the very absence of meaning in pure noise or in the meaningless repetition of a message, by unchanneling auditory sensations, frees the listener’s imagination. The absence of meaning is in this case the presence of all meanings, absolute ambiguity, a construction outside meaning. The presence of noise makes sense, makes meaning. It makes possible the creation of a new order on another level of organization, of a new code in another network.”
Perhaps when you listen to the noise part of ‘Drive Blind’ or ‘You Make Me Realise’ or William Reid’s guitar solo in ‘I Hate Rock and Roll’, you’re experiencing not only a higher plane, but life through an alternative network…
Another thing with noise is that it is almost completely abstract. Coming from an Art College background, for me this equates strongly with expressionism, and artistic freedom. In a world of recorded popular music based on accepted form, and formula, where colouring only ‘in the spaces’ and not outside the lines is what people have to do: the random particles of noise can be extremely invigorating. Live, when we play the noise part of ‘Drive Blind’ we as a band are finally free from any Pop music constraints. In all purchased music today, even the most ‘punk’ of acts, it is easy to see what Jaques Attali describes as being “…a disguise for the monologue of power”.. and that: “The artist was born, at the same time his work went on sale”. There are hidden power relations in every act of buying music. Yet it’s contradiction, noise, is more than a simple rebellion or protest, or a voicing of the ‘other’, it is the sound of power itself, made audible, visible in all its spectra, not hidden. It challenges you. When we play the noise part of ‘Drive Blind’ we detach ourselves from having to impress with lyric, melody, or fashionable beats…There are no words, hooks, melodies or even a beat; but live, it remains Ride’s most powerful and authentic statement. The noise part of ‘Drive Blind’ is the most we will ever say about anything, because it says everything.
Being abstract, the noise event will always be different, and it will cause different reactions or create different meanings at different times, and in different locations. I’ve given a handful of reasons here why this may be true. Acoustics can come in to play to shape the colour spectrum of your noise circumstance; and as the technology of speaker systems, amplifiers, and mixing desks improves making the encounter of live sound (and noise) more Three-Dimensional (perhaps even more meaningful), they too shape your experience. One recent uploader to YouTube of the ‘Drive Blind’ noise event called their clip ‘A Little Slice of Heaven’, while another called it ‘Apocalypse’… After our first gig in Oxford for over twenty years, some of the most excited reactions from friends were in relation to the noise we played, rather than the music! Noise can be described as a sound containing a complex mix of all frequencies simultaneously, which is produced by random vibrations of air particles. Or sometimes it can be the answer to everything…