Thursday, 22 October 2009

Stravinsky, anyone?

13 Million Pure Tones…Choose One

Review of Noise/Music by Paul Hegarty (Continuum)

By Adam Green

A musicological head-squeezer that incorporates Hegelian aesthetics, John Cage’s 4’33” and the shock tactics of Throbbing Gristle, Noise/Music is a provocative historiography of noise’s contribution/damage to music. Commencing in 1913 from Luigi Russolo’s claim that noise becomes ‘triumphant’ in industrial society, Hegarty follows noise’s bizarre and befuddling path over the next nine decades through Stockhausen, the dawn of electronics, the Grateful Dead, Japanese noise music and Jimmy Edgar, revealing how artists have discovered, understood and sought noise and how noise - whether industrial roars, found sounds or manipulations of musical sounds - challenges our deepest assumptions about music.

With philosophical help from Foucault, Hegarty constructs a conception of noise as ‘a negativity’; that which evades control, mediation or definition and that is part of the ‘Other’ (that much-loved concept that gives sociologists something to live for). Noise enables a truly transgressive creativity, with noise artists challenging human agency and riling against the docile character of pleasing, ‘well-composed’ music. The aims of their pursuit are not just musically anarchic. By opposing musical rules and tradition, noise artists also subvert and question the socio-political status quo.

There is much to provoke and titillate, and it’s always a pleasure to see Kant and Coltrane share a page, though to enjoy reading this as much as Hegarty enjoyed writing it, you’d need to subscribe to the grandiose philosophical and political integrity he tries to erect around noise (via a lot of high-faluting, university Marxism). For instance, Hegarty equates the rejection of musical convention with a rejection of the socio-political status quo without fleshing out the relationship between the two. Musical convention seems to be lazily equated with power structures, leaving the rules of music themselves inadequately investigated (for instance there is little talk about the relationship between musical rules and the underlying logic of music itself).

Also dubious is the punk/feminist belief that skill is ‘a male attribute’ and therefore to be rejected through ineptitude, randomness and freedom. While delighting Gender Studies academics, many of whom would find sexual politics in a block of cheese, it is a disturbing example of the philistine underside to ‘noise music’ theory (and its myopia, as you couldn't get a more masculine musical form than punk). Dismissing skill on such fishy grounds implies a motivation that is more sociological than musical, and also represents a failure to understand that freedom is only meaningful relative to restrictions laid on by technical incompetence. Stravinsky would turn in his grave at the idea that you could have freedom without skill or design, and if he wasn’t such a bean-loving vegetarian Pythagoras would probably throw a few punches too. One is the other. In fact, music is music precisely because it isn’t random ‘free’ chaos.

These controversies are not Hegarty’s invention, of course, and as a study and historiography Noise/Music ably covers all bases, theories and protagonists (many of whom may surprise you). And on this level alone, the book is undoubtedly a success; a well-researched provocation that forces us to confront some of our deepest cherished beliefs about what music is and why we listen to it. But I couldn’t shirk the feeling that something essential is missing in noise music theory as a whole and that, through all the post-modern irony, intellectual fireworks and grandiose narrative, noise music theory’s cerebral over-exertions elbow out the human essentials of music; its communicative capacity and emotional resonance. An interest in these qualities may seem old fashioned, but so is harvesting grain in the autumn. Old wood isn’t always dead.