The trouble is that noises are never just sounds and the sounds they mask are never just sounds: they are also ideas of noise.
So begins a series of meetings, approaches, interactions with texts, with noise, paranoia, truth, control, and authority. As I work my way through these texts towards my exams and dissertation, I will be working through associations, links, commonalities, and synchronicities. Noises, one might say, that cannot help but signify (when played loud enough).
Douglas Kahn lays out in his introduction to Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts a definition of sound that is rather broad and encompassing:
By sound I mean sounds, voices, and aurality – all that might fall within or touch on auditive phenomena, whether this involves actual sonic or auditive events or ideas about sound or listening; sounds actually heard or heard in myth, idea, or implication; sounds heard by everyone or imagined by one person alone; or sounds as they fuse with the sensorium as a whole.
This argument has a certain hollow ring to it (if one might be permitted to play with it, or strike it forcefully with a mallet). It seems constructed, as introductions often are, to tie together disparate elements of a text that would not be otherwise unified, to project into the text a clarity that the text itself lacks. To wit, Kahn’s text is long and sprawling. To what end do the questions of water and meat add to the question of noise? To what end are William Burroughs’ writing on the word virus and Artaud’s screams connected to noise? To noise as the suppressed, the outside, the unwanted, the meaningless that maintains meaning? Why are imagined sounds and ideas of sound treated as part of Kahn’s definition when, despite the length of the text, actual sonic events and practices are not fully explored? It is not that the connections are not there or the associations lack meaning and import, but there is a question of focus, of scope. There are limitations, but if one wants to philosophize with an amp@11 one must begin where one can.
Noises haunt. For Douglas Kahn, noises haunt the arts as they are suppressed, sought, elevated, silenced, and imagined. There is, indeed, a spectral reality to noise, a shifting hauntology, an absent presence that once found, once remarked upon signifies and thus fails to be noise after all.
it is only what is made of noise, of the history of noise, that must explain itself in the face of the possibility that there is no such thing as noise.
But what then is noise?
The existence of noise implies a mutable world through an unruly intrusion of an other, an other that attracts difference, heterogeneity, and productive confusion; moreover, it implies a genesis of mutability itself.
But what then is noise?
This repeated question is not meant to diminish Kahn’s work. For he does, indeed, offer several working definitions of noise. It is meant, rather, to highlight that definitions of noise are always working definitions, contextual, situational, limited.
So the definition of noise might be regarded as of far less importance that what can be done with noise, how noise might be used to challenge norms, regimes, power structures (those that would impose a definition and enforce an exclusion).
Thus, the grinding sound of power relations are heard here in the way noises contain the other, in both senses of the word.
Though the rhetoric of emancipation is an easy trap.
Subvert the Norms! Noise for Everyone! Democracy is Noisy!
The statements are true in the way that slogan are always true and never falsifiable. Can noise be emancipatory? Certainly. Is it inherently? Not in the least (c.f. the LRAD).
Kahn is aware of this and goes to great lengths to point out the subversion of emancipatory rhetoric in one of the Great Saints of Noise: John Cage.
When he hears individual affect or social situation as an exercise in reduction, it is just as easy to hear their complexity. When he hears music everywhere, other phenomena go unheard. When he celebrates noise, he also promulgates noise abatement. When he speaks of silence, he also speaks of silencing.
Noise is a tool. Noise is a metaphor. For Kahn, it is a means of understanding a certain period of avant garde art that he seems particularly taken with (his water and meat metaphors are less developed though still focused on a particular subset of the arts). Kahn does however challenge several sacred cows (making fine steaks), give a detailed (if sprawling) overview of the possibility of noise and silence, and serves as an important introduction to the theory of noises and Noise Theory.
all quotes from:
Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001. Print.
Composed while listening to KTL, IV.