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JMM 2, Spring 2004, section 11
Commentary on Torben Sangild’s Støjens æstetik (The Aesthetics of Noise)
Sangild, T. Støjens Æstetik. Copenhagen: Multivers ApS 2003. 126 pp. ISBN: 87-7917-076-5.
How should we understand music that makes use of timbres and sounds, which in everyday discourse are considered noisy? How should we understand sound labeled as music, but which is composed out of what is ordinarily heard as unformed, unintended, and unpleasant, i.e., as non-music? As parts of musical contexts and as potential objects of aesthetic experience, these sounds become subject to aesthetic consideration, and not just physical-acoustical determination. The question then becomes one of investigating the aesthetics of noisy sounds. This would be one way of formulating the main issue dealt with in Torben Sangilds Støjens æstetik (The Aesthetics of Noise). Such a formulation is necessary, since the book itself does not clearly state what questions it is attempting to answer. On the one hand, title and introduction imply a general aesthetic study; on the other style analysis and history of the style of noise rock comprise dominant parts of the book. Elaborate considerations and general conclusions of a more philosophical kind, inspired by the stimulating object, are also to be found throughout it. This occasionally leads to confusions about what actually is intended. In this commentary, however, the book will be regarded as a general aesthetic study of noisy sounds in music, where key examples are supplied by what is known as noise rock.
Støjens æstetik is one of the most interesting and important books on music and meaning to appear in Denmark for years. Its title is thought provoking and makes the reader want to delve into the text. It has been the subject of a lot of reviews, in newspapers, in radio programs and in popular music magazines since its publication last winter. For this reason, the present commentary is an attempt to discuss the book as a general study of musical meaning production in noisy sounds and to take a closer look at the implications of its views on the ontology and epistemology of such sounds. These general views are mostly to be found in the less explicit presumptions of the book, on which this commentary will attempt to shed some light in the following.
The book consists of three main parts. A short section in which concepts are defined is followed by the first part on the history of noisy sounds in music. This then is followed by analyses of four distinct musical contexts, each implementing the style of noise rock. The third part concludes the book with general considerations about the aesthetics and ontology of noisy sounds together with a few remarks on more recent music into which noise is integrated as a predominant component.
The direct manner in which this work attempts to approach its object is very appealing and one of its considerable assets. Accordingly, the aesthetic issues are clearly demarcated from sociological, economical and historical pursuits. It is specified that the investigation will be dealing with its object as sensed. Issues of psychology and epistemology are not within the scope of the book, so sensation itself is not treated as an issue with its own attendant problems, but rather as a means to an end, to reach for the objectivity of the sensed object. Language is used as a further tool for providing objectivity, taking the non-conceptual, individually sensed into a sphere of linguistic collectivity. As mere collectivity, this objectivity might hence be said to be local, both temporally and culturally. What is being investigated are “phenomenological differences”, as experienced in different pieces of noisy music from a collective point of hearing. This implies a commitment to the object, a sensibility towards its objectivity. Hence the endeavor aims for what is labeled “objective sensibility”.
Thus, the sensitive approach is one major asset of the book. Another is the choice of noisy sounds as its object of investigation. Noisy sounds cannot be ignored as phenomena of music experience and means of expression, even if they have not been subject to much attention in research until recent years. Moreover, noisy sounds have the further advantage of being found in a multitude of genres and ages of music production, and are predominant phenomena in our audible world. This in itself demands an approach that inherently disregards any received historical, social or economical genre limits within music research. This is brought to bear on the selective, but unprejudiced, music history of noisy sounds in the second part. The combination of the sensitive approach and the choice of noisy sounds as the demanding object of investigation results in a handful of very insightful analyses. Since interpretation of noisy sounds is quite uncharted land, this kindles a freshness of outlook, invoking an array of different theoretical frameworks in the attempt to establish an aesthetics in this domain. Again, the topic of noisy sounds forces the investigation to transgress borders between otherwise separate research fields and methodologies.
That which is so attractive in these bold attempts also results in some flaws. It is admirable to by-pass traditional epistemological, psychological, economical, sociological, and historical issues, in order to get to a direct aesthetic investigation. To choose an object, which is so predominant in music experience, but seems only marginally touched upon in music research, is likewise of great value. But bypassing in this case also means disregard for some important issues concerning method and selection of object. In part, this causes the investigation to abandon its introductory attention towards the object, and, in part, narrows the scope of the endeavor considerably.
The implicit methodology of the book has some affinities with phenomenology, an approach to which allusions sometimes are made. Hence, any metaphysical dualism is shunned, searching neither for sensation, nor for the object in itself, but for the phenomenon as it presents itself: Not from the point of a particular viewer, but how it potentially would present itself for anyone. The investigation, however, departs from a stricter phenomenology in dealing with the concept ‘noise’.
A definition of the concept is of course necessary, and ‘noise’ is determined in a number of ways: etymologically, acoustically/physically, communicatively, and experientially/“subjectively”. These attempts demonstrate the marked disparity in the usage of this concept. ‘Noise’ on the one hand designates unpleasant, meaningless and frightening sounds or communicative disturbances – a negative phenomenon as opposed to pleasant, meaningful music. It is, on the other hand, also a name for a clearly determined neutral object within acoustics that might even be felt pleasant. As the latter, ‘noise’ designates sound being shaped by only a few characteristics (or none at all); it is composed of unformed sounds, hard to distinguish and difficult to name. We can also imagine a formally pure noise, which is fully undifferentiated and without any shape, only negatively conceivable.
This disparity discloses a very strong tension between the different uses of the concept, a tension, which to a large extent becomes the momentum that moves the investigation forward. This is due to an implicit presumption that the disparate uses designate sides of the same core phenomenon - that ‘noise’ has a unified semantics. ‘Noise’ is in all cases regarded as a negative concept, but there is a strong dynamic in the movement from conceptual negativity (‘noise’ designating the (nearly) non-conceivable, the undifferentiated, the unformed) to phenomenal negativity, either as designating something out of reach to human cognition, or even as a subversive or psychologically regressive phenomenon. And ‘noise’ in this sense stands in a very tense dialectic relation to its positive opposites - the still, formed, conceivable, etc. When assumed to pertain to the same object or group of objects, unified under one name, these properties result in a considerable internal as well as external tension.
The aforementioned negative properties of ‘noise’ suit the examples of the very interesting in-depth analyses well, all done within the style of noise rock. But when extended to cover other styles (e.g. the different sorts of electronica touched upon at the end of the book), or to form a general aesthetics of noisy sounds, this development of the characteristics of ‘noise’ seems less fitting. This is particularly clear in the third part of “Reflections on the Aesthetics of Noise” (“Refleksioner over støjens æstetik”), which deals with the negativity and elusiveness of noise. This basic characteristic is given a comprehensive treatment by means of different well-known theoretical frameworks. Noise is preliminarily characterized as a “phenomenological residuum” – something that cannot be given a clear meaning, but which has to be determined as amorphous and inconceivable.
A parallel is then drawn with the well-known aesthetic category of the Sublime. But noisy sounds in musical contexts, in contrast to the Sublime, are always “tamed” in some sense (being delimited at least temporally and often also restricted to parts of the frequency spectrum), and can only “point metonymically at” sublime noise - the unlimited an undifferentiated itself. Hence, a twofold concept of ‘noise’ is introduced: Musically relevant noisy sounds in their “tamed” forms that can be conceived of and recognized as distinct sounds, and pure noise characterized by complete negativity. The negativity of the latter implies the transcendence of pure noise, beyond the reach of human concepts and cognition.
The thought of noise as residual suggests the need for a psychological vocabulary as well. The psychogenetic framework of abjection is introduced to ground the dynamic relation between noise and music. Where music is identified/identifiable and formed, (pure) noise lacks both characteristics. Abjection, describing the genesis of the subject, is here associated with the coming-to-be of formed, identifiable music out of a primitive, non-delimited all-encompassing state. The subject – and, by analogy, music - striving for identity, takes an all-negative attitude against this background totality, which it has to reject as such to mark differences: what is cast away is without identity, is inconceivable, is a threat against the newly identified subject, hence terrifying, etc. As the abjectal, noise is hence experienced as something inconceivable, terrifying, identity threatening, etc. The analogy is interpreted both ways: the listener can experience a temporary dissolution of his own stable identity through noisy sounds, resulting in experiences of collective consciousness to various degrees. Noisy sounds, however, are “tamed” once again and offer a limited experience, “pointing at” pure noise.
The integration of such elements is further described via an actualization of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Dionysian noise-elements give the listener a glimpse of the “raw pain” of an undifferentiated original condition. Although taken from a different, historically earlier context, this dichotomy fits the preceding psychogenetic analogy very well.
Surprisingly, another turn is then taken and a social-hermeneutic interpretation of ‘noise’ is also given. Noise is also seen as a condition of our societal life-world; the overwhelming amount of information that makes it so hard to sort out anything important and makes silence, as well as individual manageable units of information, an exception. This viewpoint adds a further negativity to the concept: Noise is also a societal evil. Such views on noise, however, rest on the premise that controllable, formed and conceivable pieces of information as well as music, perceived in an ordered environment, e.g. in a condition of surrounding silence, would make the unpleasantness and suffering disappear. Stressed consciousness could not despair if it did not have an idea of a different, clearly delimited environment to long for.
This last view goes against the grain of the psychogenetic analogies, but conforms to the noise rock analyses to a great extent. In these, noise rock is also seen as mirroring an evil societal state, in which the inhabitants are suffering from information overflow. Noise rock hence unveils our painful being in an aesthetically pleasant way – not just the pain of establishing individual identity, but also the pain of living in our present world. If the dystopian view of the current human condition and its inherent longing for ordered or silent surroundings is to be understood against a backdrop characterized by the preceding reflections, it must be understood in terms of a formal dictum that ‘pure noise equals pure silence’.
The formal explications of ‘noise’ make for exciting reading. But they slide away from the sensitive approach, which was intended at the outset. The reflections deal instead with the development of a concept of noise with extraordinary formal properties. These formal properties, however, are not shared by the phenomena, leading to a remarkable twofold ontology: noisy sounds on one hand and pure noise on the other - and the “pointing” relation in-between. The question that remains is whether this twofold strategy is necessitated by anything else than a fascination with the image of a pure noise. Having stated the characteristics of the latter, it is unclear why it should be of any relevance to an investigation dealing with noisy sounds as sensed.
What holds the formal explication together is an implicit presumption that the properties of ‘noise’ somehow are unified or bear on the same core phenomenon. This is presumed already in the preliminary definition of concepts, leaving the unity of the concept of noise unquestioned during the course of the following analyses. In general, these reflections mirror the presumption of this tense unity by evolving a dialectics, which can bridge opposing characteristics. To stay attentive to the phenomenon of noisy sounds would here demand an analytical step backwards from the heading ‘noise’, reconsidering the relation between phenomenon and concept.
The extraordinary formal characteristics of ‘noise’ lead attention away from less speculative approaches. It is stated that noise has the property of transgressing the capabilities of human consciousness. This leads to the simple assumption, that noisy sounds attain their meaning by an overcharging of consciousness, forcing the central nervous system to project form into the formless. This is a very interesting assumption, but as it is merely derived from formal concept analyses, it remains an assumption, even if spectacular. In the light of research in auditory cognition in recent years, it is somewhat remarkable that the investigation neither takes any scientific studies into account, nor departs from the formal viewpoint on consciousness. It could be expected, that scientific approaches to noise cognition could yield results that would positively differentiate, deepen, and explicate the meanings of noisy sounds beyond formally negative descriptions.
Støjens Æstetik succeeds in bringing noisy sounds into the scope of interesting and stimulating aesthetic considerations. Its analyses of noise rock are very thorough and worth reading for anyone with an interest in this particular style. The general approach is enlightening, even if it falls short of doing the job for which it was intended, and to some extent leads the investigation astray. These shortcomings demonstrate both the importance of and the bright prospects for a phenomenology of meaning production in noisy sounds, as well as a scientific study of noise cognition. As such it directs our attention towards fields of research, which are up for grabs within the music-and-meaning research community. This is praiseworthy in itself.
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