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Acid Seven: Noise Detour

Seeing as the next ambient column will cover nonhuman music, I think it’s necessary to introduce a partial antithesis: noise. The essence of nonhuman music, or field recordings of "nonhuman musicians," is that there is little to no human input involved in its production. For Jean C. Roché, this meant recording something as close to an observation of nature as possible -- think indigenous birds or locust songs; each of these constitute a sonic atmosphere that is a "direct" reproduction of nature.

Noise, on the other hand, typically obfuscates nature -- or what is natural or desirable in music. It is instead abrasive, dissonant, or indeterminate. For Luigi Russolo, an Italian futurist considered the first noise composer, this was itself a natural movement. He believed that as music became more complicated, it inevitably became more dissonant, tending towards what he called noise-sound. Moreover, he thought that the radical restructuring of human life caused by the Industrial Revolution extended to the sonic. He felt that the exposure to the sounds of machinery offered a way forward -- that these dissonances could be used to further the "progress" of music. From his Art of Noise manifesto:

“In antiquity, life was nothing but silence. Noise was really not born before the 19th century, with the advent of machinery. Today noise reigns supreme over human sensibility [...] The ear of an eighteenth century man never could have withstood the discordant intensity of some of the chords produced by our orchestras (whose performers are three times as numerous); on the other hand our ears rejoice in it, for they are attuned to modern life, rich in all sorts of noises.”

In an interesting passage, he writes that our ears desire increasingly complex acoustic sensations. We are “fed up” with the small circle of possibilities offered us by the rules of music, or the laws of tonality, and so we need to escape from this restrictive circle. He contends that we grow tired of traditional music because it refuses to leave tradition behind, asserting, “we get infinitely more pleasure imagining combinations of the sounds of trolleys, autos and other vehicles, and loud crowds, than listening once more, for instance, to the heroic or pastoral symphonies.” In order to realize this combinatory potential, he decided to make his own instruments based on a simple scheme:

The result was the creation of the intonarumori (Italian for "noise makers"). These were acoustic instruments that were played by a hand crank. Their internal makeup varied, and many had a lever on the top to adjust the tension of strings inside. Each instrument was amplified by a drum and protruding metal horn. What Russolo had essentially created was the first analogue synthesizer -- one that looks like a giant fucked up phonograph.

I wrote that noise was only the partial antithesis to nonhuman music (or field recording) because more modern iterations of noise typically work within the loose parameters of another genre: noise rock, noise jazz, etc. (That, and none of these classifications are ever quite right; the genre of a record is determined, more or less, by the records that surround it sonically). Field recordings often find their way into noise pieces, and the intonarumori themselves are seen as a sort of emulation of an environment. In both field recording and noise proper, I find that my listening habits are altered in the same way as with ambient; passively or actively listening, my ears search for patterns, melodies, or familiarity to no avail. There is a strange comfort in the disorientation.

With noise rock, there is typically a drawn-out song structure beneath the noise. Les Rallizes Dénudés come to mind -- distorted guitar feedback ripping through a consistent bass line, sometimes for over ten minutes. That this band in particular has only ever recorded demos and bootleg live recordings works in their favor: Tape distortion on top of guitar distortion. These variables produce something like... It always tempts me to make non-musical object comparisons: soldering guitar pickups to a cheese grater, or, say, throwing a speaker playing the Velvet Underground’s "White Light/White Heat" into a woodchipper on the lowest setting. (Ha ha). In the thick of the accelerating feedback, I’m always listening for that pattern, fluctuating between the song’s rock roots and its burning leaves. At its most dissonant, when the bass line is completely obfuscated, my attention turns to the morphing tone and texture -- what physical objects the noise conjures. It’s a different listening experience in this sense because in many ways it is more familiar than foreign. It’s certainly less shocking than an entirely new instrument with foreign sonorous qualities, but there is still that abrasion and dissonance that defies tradition.

Suffice it to say there is a lot of noise on display in Kansas City. Moments of textural tunnel vision are a common occurrence listening to new Killus recordings, for instance. She harnesses the same sort of overpowering distortion as Dénudés, but to the end of shredding electronic music. In the same way, all of the elements of a "source" genre are there, accompanied in equal volume by the shadow of its feedback. The result is a loud, dissonant, and haunting offering that somehow also makes you want to dance, but in a fucked up kind of way.

With respect to the sort of environmental noise discussed in the first half, I’m drawn to the latest offering from Remst8, "Chrysalism v2," which blends field and synthetic recording in a symphonic wash. He harnesses the natural tension of the outbreak of a heavy rain alongside swelling synthesizers, variously churned through with white noise and indeterminate sounds. Tonal dissonance is used in moderation, and melts away like the calming of the storm -- a sound collage that moves from cavernous to transcendent in a slow yet unpredictable movement. The union of the recorded environment to its musical accompaniment ensures one is never too far from the other.

Return to Shuttlecock on the seventh day of each month for a transmission from Patrick’s ongoing journey into the experimental and genreless music of Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter.

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