The world we live in is full of noise. It is difficult to perceive it because it is so pervasive-there are few silences that are not given shape by the hum of the computer or the faraway roar of traffic or the steady whisper of the lighting. Silence, like many other aspects of preindustrial human experience, is now among the privileges reserved for the very wealthy. They and a few others have the necessary frame of reference to understand how pervasive, and how definitive, noise is to the world we have created. The sound of the contemporary world is absolutely unprecedented in human history.
Noise is a constant, consistent fact of daily experience. Noise, or texture, or timbre, is then naturally the fundament of the music of the contemporary world, of the long 20th century.
Culture and neurology conspire; they compel us humans to assign significance to things that we can recognize as the product of human endeavor, things that we can recognize a reflection of ourselves in. This recognition animates the material world-it describes the difference in our perceptions of a well-kept, sturdy household and a cave, and a cave from a decrepit and abandoned house. It describes the difference between a broken branch and a spear, the difference between birdsong and the human voice, between the sun setting and the flicker of firelight.
To our ears there is a difference, then, between the sounds of the world without us and the sounds that can only happen as the product of a human presence. This may have constituted the traditional definition of what can be called “music”. What we know of preindustrial music consisted in a sense of people imitating the sounds of other people, starting with rhythm, the primeval rhythm being located within our own chests. Advances in technology-stringed instruments, woodwinds, brass-essentially allowed for expressions within the framework of the human voice. Preindustrial people did not endeavor to build instruments that mimicked birdsong, nor did they compose music after its irregular patterns. The fundaments of what we think of as music-melody, harmony, rhythm-belong to humanity.
After an interminable prehistory of stability and an early history of steady but manageable technological development, automation and mass production exploded the boundaries of sonic experience. Suddenly the number and type of sounds recognizable as being of human origin increased by an uncountable degree; just as suddenly the distribution of those sounds increased to near-ubiquity. The process by which both of these changes came to the world of human experience continued steadily across the world, as it continues today. Human beings came to experience the world in a way unprecedented in history in that they were now immersed, inescapably, irreversibly, in sound of their own creation, of signifying sound. Just as the preindustrial world of a direct physical, tactile relationship to nature, the great external signifier, came to an end, so did the total context of noise remove us into a sonic world entirely of our creation.
A world full of noise is not a world full of music. The sounds we are surrounded by lack a cohesive, organizational logic. Their individual timbres, rhythms and tones make to a traditional sensibility a great, pervasive disharmony. They do, however, each possess a quality-they each, in their uncountable and ever-increasing number, have a tone and timbre, a sonic quality. Many of these unique timbres and textures were impossible before automation. In the absence of a greater musical logic, the recognizable quality of noise-timbre-is that much more significant to the human ear.
The human ear, besieged by human noise, works to recuperate that noise into the language of music by recognizing timbres and textures. Timbre and texture have formed the basis of much of the music of the 20th century. At the turn of the century Dadaists and futurists explicitly emulated the sounds of machines, vocally in sound-poems and with devices built for the purpose, as with Luigi Russollo’s devices. Jazz’s imperative to improvise and emphasis on expression led to extremes where instruments and their operators were less interested in melody than they were the expressive limits of their instruments. Instrumental electrification, advancements in studio technology and studio special effects, in concert with mass distribution of sounds through radio and phonographs, led to a dramatic expansion of what was possible to hear. Psychedelic rock deliberately dissolved traditional musical forms into sonic textures. The commercial availability of synthesizers, and music software not long after, made it possible to develop sounds from root frequencies. Techniques derived from reggae, with its emphasis on sonic space, became popular across genres. Electronic composition, ambient music and “industrial” noise music all took radically different approaches toward the same quest for textures and moods. Sampling technology allowed musicians to craft entire songs from non-musical sounds. Modernist composers from Stravinsky to Steve Reich used antimony and repetition to deconstruct melody into texture. IDM DJs accelerate rhythms into new kinds of texture. Black Metal musicians abstract the heavy metal formula into a kind of dark ambience.
Noise is a total context. Noise belongs at the center of music because it stands unrecognized at the center of contemporary experience. It is the sound of the 20th century and it is the sound of today, the timeless extension of the 20th century, the no-time in which we wait for something to change, for the future to begin.
We won’t be able to know what the music of the future is until we hear it-it will only be truly new music when it emerges from real-life changes to our real-life everyday experience. All art is of its time. We will have the music we have, the music of the eternal present, the Age Of Change, until the world itself changes.
Meanwhile, the music of the 20th century, of noise, of machines, labors under the misconception that by its nature it is inhuman music. On the contrary, it is as human as modernism’s strivings toward the utopian, as postmodernism’s stubborn insistence on the subjective. If there need be a way forward in music, let it be toward the expression of the human, through the voice of the age, the voice of machines.