The Noise Arts

The Delta Brainwave Society is a Divers Noise Arts Collective. But what, you may ask, are the noise arts?

Noise arts is a catchall term. If it is produced with the mindset or noise art, it is. This, naturally, cannot be the only designator of what makes an art ‘noise’. Indeed not. Intention would never be so solely magnified. Noise arts can only, however, be provisionally defined. They are the aspects of the arts that highlight the gaps, the breakages, the ruptures, the limitations, the failures. They are the strange stranger, the heretic that can never be orthodoxicized. They are the fringe. Sometimes for the delight of the fringe and sometimes because they have been pushed away by everyone and everything else and it simply where they find themselves. “No one ever plans to sleep out in the gutter / Sometimes that’s just the most comfortable place.”

Perhaps, when it comes down to it, the simplest way to phrase it is this:

Life is a noise art.

We are culturally programmed to narrativise. Most of us see ourselves as some version of the protagonist of our own story. We want to find the meaning written into cultural products (novels, movies, pop songs) in our day to day. It is never really there. Life is too erratic, unplanned, unpredictable, chaotic in its normalcy for that. Life is too alive. This is where the desire to claim a divine (but unknowable but I’m still certain it exists even though all evidence is to the contrary) plan comes from. There is no plan, divine or otherwise. 

But in embracing the noise of life, in making art of it, we gain a fair measure of understand and a potential level of control. 

Don’t Panic. 

The human life is the art. It is an extended aesthetic project (often unknowing & unwitting). But acceptance of the noise and art of living leads into the further noise arts. If one’s life is embraced as noise, so to one’s music, speech, writing, film&video, etc. 

This is art as the expression of living as noise. There is no meaning save living as noise. The art is an extension of the life. The life is an extension of the primal chaos. 

without listening.

There is no sound, no noise, no silence, even, without listening.

Paul Hegarty closes his excellent work Noise/Music (a direct heir of Attali) with a chapter headed with the above quote. This is, unfortunately, a stance on sound studies that I cannot agree with. The tree falling in the forest does not need me or any other listening subject to fall. To make the claim that the sound pressure levels or the vibrations created by said fall must be somehow null and void because no actor was on scene to ‘listen’ is beyond what I am willing to claim. There has been (and continues to be) debate in philosophy about correlationalsim (cf. Meillassoux) and about what might exist or fail to exist or fail to be recognized as existing outside of the human subject to think it existence. Noise theory seems to have skirted the edges of much of this theorizing, ignored because noise is, at root, the ignored, the suppressed, the excluded.

But despite Hegarty’s correlationalist stance, much can be made of his work:

What exactly noise is, or what it should do, alters through history, and this means that any account of noise is a history of disruptions and disturbances.

Disruption and disturbance are inherently political terms. They can be used to multiple ends and can, indeed, be ends in themselves.

As well as this disruptive element, noise must also be thought of as constantly failing – failing to stay noise, as it becomes familiar, or acceptable practice.

The failure to stay noise, as well, remains a constant issue in noise theory. Stemming from Attali’s judgments of noise as a moving target as the avant garde that forces the political, noise always fails to be itself. It disrupts until that disruption is normalized, it offends until the offense becomes commonplace, one man’s noise becomes his kid’s music. Certainly the question of annoyance echoes regularly in the failure of noise to stay noise (how long is it annoying, is it still noise so long as one remains annoyed?). But that seems a secondary issue to the role of noise in motion (constant vibration, unable to be pinned down).

But what Hegarty keeps circling back to is the listener. Noise demands a listener. Noise is nothing, noise does not and cannot exist without listening.

First, even in this model, noise needs a listener – probably some sort of animal or a non-organic machine with hearing capacities (both can be classified as ‘hearing machines’), in the vicinity of the noise so that the soundwaves can be heard. The sound then has to be perceived as dangerous to the functioning of the hearing machine. Without these two moments, we might have a sound, but we do not have noise.

If noise is to be defined relationally this quote remains valid. If the human subject is the whole of knowledge, if there is no knowledge or thought beyond the thinking and knowing subject, then clearly this is the whole of knowable noise. But I would venture further. The philosophers of OOO and speculative realism have tread this ground before me (with much better reasoning and citation) so I’ll not go too deep into the theory. But the fact remains that the world exists beyond the capacity of the human subject. Sound withdraws, noise withdraws, those objects that emit or cause to emit sound and noise withdraw. And the human subject itself withdraws. We cannot fully know the object. Nor it us or other objects. But I do not want to make the claim that sound is only noise in relation to an offended subject. That sound itself might not exist as such without a listening subject. Sound pressure waves are things. Noise is a thing. Noise is an object. And it withdraws.

Noise is negative: it is unwanted, other, not something ordered. It is negatively defined – i.e. by what it is not (not acceptable sound, not music, not valid, not a message or a meaning), but it is also a negativity.

Noise is not just volume, but the spread, dissemination and dispersal of its non-message.

All quotes from:

Hegarty, Paul. Noise/Music: A History. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.

On Attali’s Noise.

Nothing essential happens in the absence of noise.

Jacques Attali is a seminal figure in noise. Nearly as prominent as John Cage and Luigi Russolo. Perhaps that is the issue.

Attali focuses his research on music and political economy. Likely, I will be drawing heavily from his work and the work of those he has influenced. But for him, noise also remains relational. Noise is everywhere, it is essential:

Today, it is unavoidable, as if, in a world now devoid of meaning, a background noise were increasingly necessary to give people a sense of security.

and arguments have been made that we can no longer abide the quiet, the silence of life without constantly blaring mp3s. But Attali never gets to what noise is as such.

For Attali:

With noise is born disorder and its opposite: the world.


To make noise is to interrupt a transmission, to disconnect, to kill. It is a simulacrum of murder.


Noise, then, does not exist in itself, but only in relation to the system within which it is inscribed: emitter, transmitter, receiver.

And this remains the issue. For Attali, noise is a moving target. Noise is whatever it needs to be to disturb and disrupt the status quo. It is that music that is ahead of the curve and presaging the to-come of politics. But inevitably it will itself become passé, it will be brought into the fold, become meaningful and commonplace, and thus cease to be noise as some newer more aggressive/transgressive form takes its place in the cycle.


Attali makes an early foray into the noise as violence and physically dangerous milieu:

In its biological reality, noise is a source of pain. Beyond a certain limit, it becomes an immaterial weapon of death. The ear, which transforms sound signals into electric impulses addressed to the brain, can be damaged, and even destroyed, when the frequency of a sound exceeds 20,000 hertz, or when its intensity exceeds 80 decibels. Diminished intellectual capacity, accelerated respiration and heartbeat, hypertension, slowed digestion, neurosis, altered diction: these are the consequences of excessive sound in the environment.


Since it is a threat of death, noise is a concern of power; when power founds its legitimacy on the fear it inspires, on its capacity to create social order, on its univocal monopoly of violence, it monopolizes noise.

But even then noise cannot remain fixed for him. Cannot remain an as such or an in itself. Cannot be defined without a human subject to be in pain, a human subject to be threatened with death, a human subject to be empowered or disempowered. This logic is often reduced to the simplistic noise abatement campaigns and annoyance rather than elevated to philosophical and ontological realms. Perhaps that is an elitist claim, diminishing the value of grassroots anti-noise campaigning for the quiet comforts of the ivory tower (btw, anyone know directions to that place and is there like a special key or handshake to get in?) where one can listen to Merzbow album after album in peace. And perhaps, at a level it is. But anti-noise campaigns that are about annoyance rather than more generally about exploitation and alienation are off the mark as well. And a broader understanding of noise and its transformative and emancipative powers, regardless of the idleness necessary to think such thoughts, is not wasted nor apolitical.




All quotes from:

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985. Print.

endlessly repeating silence: John Cage shouldn’t do his own PR

It’s a waste of time to trouble oneself with words, noises.

It involved a stay in Florida an at night, looking for help, a walk through land infested with rattlesnakes.

John Cage likes to repeat himself. Have you heard the story about the anechoic chamber? Want to hear it again? How about the I-Ching? It’s a book from China (so you know its good). Zen is Japanese and the East is east.

Perhaps there is no reason to be so harsh. Cage was notable in introducing Zen to America. Anachronistic accusations would be untoward.

Perhaps after all there is no message. In that case one is saved the trouble of having to reply.

It is not a question of denying the influence of John Cage on music, on sound, on noise, on the experimental (do we know what that is?). But can we question he reliance upon “chance”? Did his heavily formatted lectures on something, nothing, pauses matter? Do they still matter when printed in a 50th anniversary copy of the text where it is just white space to be filled with margin notes (physical ink noise)? What of the spontaneous? Or does that risk reliance on the “man of genius”?

I was reading John Cage, Silence one day but then I realized that I could stop.

If  anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep.

I went to sleep.

There is not enough of nothing in it.

Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. After studying Zen you can still climb them.

(discontinuity has the effect of divorcing sounds from the burden of psychological intentions).

I had a student ask me what type of music I listened to. I responded, “noise.” He misunderstood me.


If  anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep.

I went to sleep.

but plenty of old shoes

I had another student ask me what type of music I listened to. I responded, “noise.” She also misunderstood me.

This is a lecture on composition which is indeterminate with respect to performance. That composition is necessarily experimental. An experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen. Being unforseen, this action is not concerned with its excuse. Like the land, like the air, it needs none. A performance of a composition which is indeterminate of its performance is necessarily unique. It cannot be repeated. When performed for a second time, the outcome is other than it was. Nothing therefore is accomplished by such a performance, since that performance cannot be grasped as an object in time. A recording of such a work has no more value than a postcard; it provides a knowledge of something that happened, whereas the action was a non-knowledge of something that has not yet happened.

I had a student ask me what type of music I listened to. I said, “stomp and holler.”

but the noise…

The final poem says, “Now that I’m enlightened, I’m just as miserable as ever.”

Thanks, Johnny. How about that muzak?

Tomorrow, with electronic music in our ears, we will hear freedom.

I went to sleep.



All quotes from:

Cage, John. Silence. 50th Anniversary Edition. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. Print.

Composed while listening to A Perfect Pain by Merzbow & Genesis P-Orridge.

In the space that remains, I would like to emphasize that I am not interested in the relationships between sounds and mushrooms any more than I am in those between sounds and other sounds.

Cash in the Cage’s Debut Drowns in Pretention

Cash in the Cage, Famous Johnnys ★★✩✩✩

Famous Johnnys, the debut effort from music theory dropouts Jacob Bernstein and Michael O’Brien (Cash in the Cage being their collective moniker) is so full of promise that it is despicable in how much it fails to deliver anything meaningful. The debut single “Folsom Prison 4’33”” is as pretentious as it sounds. Is it really an iPhone playing “Folsom Prison Blues” into a Green Bullet Mic with seemingly random insertions of Johnny Rotten screaming “ANARCHY” for just over four and a half minutes? Yes. Yes, it is that obvious and that simplistic. These are the titular “Famous Johnnys” and the artists are so pleased with the cleverness of their ‘subversive’ idea that they don’t even bother to consider the utterly pedestrian nature of such a recording in 2013. While the juxtaposition of John Denver, John Mayer, John Bonham’s “Moby Dick” drum solo, and clips of Jonathan Taylor Thomas from Home Improvement was novel and well orchestrated on the track “Hang Your Wonderland,” it is the unfortunate exception (likely due to the presence producer Madeline Montgomery – absent on the rest of the record). Sorry, kids, but these aren’t even worth the time to pirate.

Fretless Theory

Consider for a moment the fretless bass.
Naturally, by this I mean fretless electric bass guitar as nearly all upright basses are inherently fretless (I’ll get back to that).

What might be gained from an understanding of the fretless as a tool to think theory with? Because I argue for play against structure, one might consider the inherent increase in play with the fretless, the ability to play notes between the standard Western chromatics. There are, of course, other benefits to the metaphor. One could look to the increased use of the fretless in jazz and experimental musics and thus the improvisation and unique sound and thus propose a move towards improvisational theory. One could note the increased difficulty in playing a fretless, in playing a fretless in tune, in tune with a band, with other players. Everyone needs to play the same between in order to be playing the same song, after all. Or do we no longer need to be playing the same song while we play in the same room?

I also would mark the concpetualization of frets as disciplinary boundaries. Markers of what is an acceptable note. How one must play in order to be playing music. Perhaps we extend the metaphor to breaking? Consider then the upright bass, so long the standard, and compare the looser disciplinary structures of antiquity. Metaphysics: the book Aristotle wrote after Physics and couldn’t think of a better title for than After Physics.

This does not even get into the question of postproduction manipulation of the soundwaves…

And yet as my colleague Nick Ware put it: “Analyzing a game as if it were a film is like fixing a car as if it were a horse.”

Jean Baudrillard stretches a science metaphor in Impossible Exchange:

The uncertainty principle, which states that it is impossible to calculate the speed of a particle and its position simultaneously, is not confined to physics. It applies also to the impossibility of evaluating both reality and the meaning of an event as it appears in the information media, the impossibility of distinguishing causes and effects in a particular complex process – of distinguishing the terrorist from the hostage (in the Stockholm syndrome), the virus from the cell (in viral pathology).This is just as impossible as isolating subject from object in experiments in subatomic physics.

Of course, now there is this bit of recent research out of Canada.

The principle has bedeviled quantum physicists for nearly a century, until recently, when researchers at the University of Toronto demonstrated the ability to directly measure the disturbance and confirm that Heisenberg was too pessimistic.

What does that say about the metaphor? The limits of metaphor? Is a metaphor about uncertainty more uncertain when the science behind the original metaphor becomes uncertain? Might as well just admit we need to bracket language too while we’re at it. Insist upon the tautology: “I mean what I mean until I don’t. And then I mean something else. Trust me.” and go about our business. Communication breakdown. It’s always the same.

I’d rather just play. Amps to 11, Nigel.

or, Jaco meet Jacques: