Sept/Oct/Nov 2007

Noise/Music: A History

Nicole Lanctot


An intertwined crash course in outsider music and cultural studies, Paul Hegarty’s dense new survey, Noise/Music: A History, traces noise music’s avant-garde and experimental roots—from Futurism, Fluxus, and musique concrète to 1970s progressive rock and punk—and examines its more recent incarnations. In his attempt to characterize “noise,” Hegarty (who, in addition to teaching philosophy and visual culture, plays in two noise outfits) admits that the concept doesn’t have a static definition; it can be designated only by context. Still, he asserts that the music “largely avoids song structure,” resists narrative, and is so jarring that it hinders thought. He also concludes that, paradoxically, as soon as it becomes “acceptable practice,” it ceases to be noise.

One noise-engaging genre is jazz, the subject of Hegarty’s most compelling chapter, in which he investigates Adorno’s infamous dismissal of the form in a 1936 essay. Rejecting popular music as a false expression of capitalism’s commodity fetishism, Adorno’s disquisition on jazz has proven divisive among scholars. Hegarty, however, offers a balanced approach: While Adorno’s criticism of the expanding “culture industry” is indispensable, it is necessary to look into the motivations for the philosopher’s rejection of the primarily black music—castigated, according to Hegarty, for not fitting “into the dialectic of western history.” Still, Hegarty sees evidence of Adorno’s appreciation for jazz improvisation in a 1961 essay, in which Adorno expressed hope for a forward-looking music “whose end cannot be foreseen in the course of production.” Hegarty also offers a fresh analysis of free jazz’s abstractions, tying the subgenre’s oscillation between form and content, its “attack on tonality,” and its “introduction of non-musical noises” to Bataille’s concept of the “formless.”

Contemporary Japanese noise music, clearly Hegarty’s passion, is the heart of this book. In parsing its styles (too numerous to cohere) and influences (surprisingly, not punk), Hegarty maintains that most of its bands play “at extreme volume,” though there are exceptions: Onkyo musicians, for instance, employ subtle electronic tones and sine waves, creating music he calls “noise as brutal reduction.” A chapter devoted to Japanese bondage connoisseur and animal rights activist Masami Akita (aka Merzbow) presents the laptop-wielding musician as the “quintessential” noise artist. For Hegarty, Akita’s take on excess alone—his assaults with volume and spatiality and even his output (he has released more than two hundred recordings)—earns him the title Mr. Noise.

To probe this slippery music’s definition further, Hegarty applies the lenses of cultural philosophy and aesthetics. German progressive rock of the ’70s, he argues, is the ultimate realization of Deleuzian repetition; Bataillean transgression and excess saturate the music of provocateurs Throbbing Gristle; industrial music—the first “all-engulfing noise” genre—epitomizes Foucauldian power. Though these theories may be edifying for the philosophy-minded intellectual (and perhaps the music academic), it remains to be seen whether the young, DIYoriented crop of noise-music fans today will find Hegarty’s postulations illuminating. The book’s selected discography, however, should satisfy both the curious and the “extreme” enthusiast.

In his concluding chapter, Hegarty meditates on composer Pauline Oliveros’s “deep listening” philosophy, a commitment to exploring sound through focused attention. In light of the self-consciously repellent, primordial depths into which noise music sometimes descends, it is a positive note—utopian, even—on which to close, for it’s a reminder that there’s “no sound, no noise, no silence,” without our active participation.

Advertisement