Features | Jericho

Jericho / I :: Unwanted Sound

By Joel Elliott | 26 July 2011

This is the first entry of a monthly column which tracks my research, isolated thoughts, and diversions towards a documentary of the same name. Jericho was the sight of the biblical siege of the Caananites, when Joshua had his army march around the city walls blowing trumpets until they fell. The column/documentary will explore the limits of noise and extreme sound. And possibly silence.


There’s something utopian about Garret Keizer’s The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book About Noise. To find meaning in noise is to listen to what noise tries to cancel out. It’s difficult to talk about noise without wrestling with it, simultaneously listening to it and attempting to listen beyond it. As much a political treatise on power, desire, and the compromises necessary to live in a sustainable world as an analysis of sound, Keizer studies noise the way archaeologists root through the garbage of past civilizations, looking for reflections of how we live and what we would rather not concentrate on.

Here, noise is defined not exclusively (or even primarily) as excessive sound, but unwanted sound: that which is physically or mentally invasive, outside of our control. At one point he calls it “repulsive sound,” since even if our minds want it, our bodies might not. It echoes an earlier observation he makes that “our noisiest inventions, after all, have the common aim of reducing the restrictions of time and space, which are also the conditions of living in a body.” It reminds me of the “noise” artist Daniel Menche, whose work is constantly trying to replicate ideas around the basic elements of a body—blood, skin, viscera. Interesting word, “visceral”: Jenny Hval’s recent tribute to oneiric journeys of the self is titled Viscera, which as a noun means the internal organs around the intestines, but as an adjective refers to intuition and instinct over intellect, reclaiming the body. I would use the word “visceral” to describe both of those artists as I would Big Black, Prurient, and Masayuki Takayanagi. I wouldn’t use the word to describe a leaf blower or a car alarm.

That’s probably self-evident: there’s noise and then music, that, for lack of a better word, we call “noise.” More vaguely, Keizer discusses “sound art,” which says “this dissonant composition that I’ve just played for you isn’t noise. What you live with everyday—that’s noise.” Fair enough—noise artists struggle through noise just like Keizer does in his book, they till it like soil and try to find the liminal point where meaning gets through. He makes the point that sound artists don’t force their noise on you, that we understand the parameters of the work going into it, in stark contrast to the unwanted, uncontrolled noise we hear everyday. Still, I doubt the Futurists—some of the first noise artists—would appreciate the strict division of art and life that Keizer admits that perspective necessitates, nor did they fail to embrace the incidental noises of industrialization and modern life: “we will sing the vibrant nightly fervor of arsenals and shipyards…planes whose propellers chatter in the wind.”

You could also say the complete breakdown of the distinction between art and life—or music and noise—has its logical outcome with Mussollini and fascism, if you want to follow the Futurists to their own end. And yet, Luigi Russolo’s “The Art of Noises” (1913)—the closest the group had to a concrete manifesto about music itself—reads like a prophesy of avant-garde and electronic composition that was still decades to come. Rather than merely celebrating industrial noises in and of themselves, Russolo wanted to draw on them, and the technology behind them, to “enlarge and enrich the world of sound,” to create a “complicated polyphony.” As a fan of experimental music, it’s hard to argue with that prescription, even if it’s couched in the usual Futurist rhetoric of obliterating “time and space.”

I agree with Keizer that the definition of noise is more ethical than aesthetic, and thus depends more on context than anything else, but that isn’t to say that those two definitions don’t often intersect. Later he discusses Coltrane’s ascent/descent into the avant-garde and the departure of long-time band members McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, who both dismissed his new direction as “noise.” Keizer riffs on the boundaries between two types of “jamming” (the book is full of these double-entendres and linguistic play—noise, it seems, is nothing if not a battlefield for post-structural meaning): improvisation/collective creation, on the one hand, interference on the other.

Keizer hints that he’s a big Coltrane fan, although he never decides which kind of “jamming” his late-period music represents. Jamming as interference—or what he calls, in political terms, “repudiation”—happens both with those who “make” the noise and those who try to drown it out, like the crowds at Newport Folk Festival in 1965 who jeered and clapped out of sync with Dylan to try to throw him off. These days, the border between the two meanings seems even blurrier: when critics say Mars Volta’s music is “jammy” they mean they make music that is self-involved, that ignores its audience. But I’d also like to think good improvisational music involves as much listening as it demands of its audience, and that Coltrane could hear things that perhaps Tyner and Jones could not.

In this view, Coltrane, as well as noise/avant-garde musicians who carried on his legacy, seem like part of the tide of modern life rather than moving against the grain. Is noise music’s relationship to noise like Plato’s pharmakon, which as Derrida pointed out means both the poison and the antidote? In an interesting footnote in Keizer’s book where he discusses the cross-cultural prejudices often inherent in declaring certain kinds of music “noise,” he quotes Emily Thompson, who noted that early responses to jazz saw it as both “uncivilized” and a “noisy echo of modern civilization.” This is part of the necessary contradictions under which racism in early 20th century America thrived: African-Americans obviously lacked civilization, but it was the noisy urban centres of America and their high concentration of immigrants that corrupted ideas of a “purer,” more pastoral nation. Still, the contradiction exists even in less racially-charged scenarios: Coltrane saw himself reaching into the whirlwind of creation, his bandmates saw him as reaching into something new and unknown, a place they didn’t understand and had no wish to follow him into.

It’s always been like this: “noise” is the shock of the new whether it’s Little Richard or a car alarm. In Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, a composer not-so-secretly modeled on Schoenberg flies into syphilitic madness, with the devil’s reassurance that he will “strike up the march of the future.” But today, the riots that greeted the music of both Schoenberg and Stravinsky in the theatres of fin-de-siècle Paris, as well as the angry folkies at Newport, seem quaint, a kind of noise we rarely hear anymore. Since Altamont, music-related riots have been almost exclusively nihilistic; they happen with the right mix of loud music, heat, adrenaline, alcohol, and testosterone. This is the height of noise, as something undifferentiated and deleterious. At Woodstock 1999, a resolute if unintentional fuck-you from our generation to the ’60s, Rage Against the Machine’s burning of the American flag was met with rape and petty vandalism. The Paris crowds may have been fickle and divided, the Newport crowds may have been reactionary and exclusive, but at least it seemed like they were reacting to the music itself.

There may be something liberating about our uncanny ability to tune out certain sounds, or at least something adaptive, but noise seems to thrive, paradoxically, on our desire to ignore it. As any book on noise must, Keizer acknowledges John Cage’s famous quote in the opening to his essay collection Silence: “Wherever we are, what he hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” With this pithy remark, Cage frustrates the idea that certain things are inherently “noisy,” but also reenforces the idea that noise has a lot to do with control—actively listening is, in a sense, transforming sound. But certain sounds resist being paid attention to. I live in the heart of Toronto’s Little Italy, and without the zoning restrictions of some Toronto neighbourhoods, it becomes one of the loudest parts of the city during the summer when every other address on College St. has a patio attached to it. At night I hear conversations audible enough to keep me awake, but which collectively form an unintelligible blur of voices. “Actively” listening to them only produces frustration, like a scrambled signal.

Keizer rejects the idea that noise is entirely meaningless, citing it as indicative of a breakdown in community. I would say that noise contains the threat of meaninglessness, whatever the reason for its perception as noise. We find meaning in patterns and variation, whether through bodily expressions, sounds, or language, and when anything is perceived as noise these patterns begin to dissolve. I find those patterns in Ascension (1965), Coltrane’s late masterpiece (and the one that seems to have driven away McCoy and Tyner). Listen to Freddie Hubbard’s trumpet solo around 15:40 of the second take: all of the sudden the album reverts back to soulful post-bop, which has the effect of a breath of air after being submerged under water for a long period of time. I’ve heard the criticism that a lot of solos on Ascension sound like they’re about to run out of steam, but that seems like part of the point, playing with the constant threat of collapse. The promise of albums like these is to save noise from nihilism: it ventures towards chaos, looks down into it, but never falls.