Monday, November 18, 2013

Noise noise and more noise

I didn't want 2013 to pass us by without commenting on Luigi Russolo's futurist manifesto, "The Art of Noise." It turned 100 years old this year, and, since it adorns the listening archive page of Pianonoise: the website, I thought it deserved comment. (I should mention that there is a quotation from somebody at the top of each of pianonoise's near 100 pages. It's definitely a group effort.)

I first made the acquaintance of Russolo's manifesto back in grad school. Some excerpts of his essay, including the quote I used, come from a college textbook which I still possess. Although the website predates my use of the quote (and probably my knowledge of it), it still seems like a fun quote to have lurking around one of the site's nerve centers. Pianonoise is a resonant title, which, like my several resonant titles, means it is so called for several reasons, some of which I may not have thought of yet.

For instance, the term noise may be a bit of self-deprecation, as in, "I am just making a little noise on the piano." A number of people I have met "on the street" do not see it this way, and like to assure me that they do not think my site is noise at all. The term noise here is still thought of as a term of abuse. ("Turn off that noise!")

On the other hand, noise might be a more inclusive term, and an expanded way of looking at things. If I happen to write something that expresses an opinion on a political or social issue, particularly if it is in the minority, it may function as a kind of noise for people who do not care for it. It is possible (remotely) that later on those more prone to the exercise sometimes known as thinking about things will, if they haven't changed their minds, at least think about the issue at hand a little differently. In which case, does noise become more harmonious?

But for Mr. Russolo, and many a musical "futurist" in the early part of the 20th century, noise was more than that. It was liberating. It was a chance to escape from the predictable patterns and pat musical cliches of harmony that we had been playing around with for centuries, and explode the overtone system so that it included all of what sounded around us, not the natural world, but the one humanity had constructed in modern urban environments. It was a soundscape that was unashamedly artificial.

"Let us wander" he writes," through a great modern city with our ears more attentive than our eyes, and distinguish the sounds of water, air, or gas in metal pipes, the purring of motors (which vibrate and pulsate with an indubitable animalism), the throbbing of valves, the pounding of pistons, the screeching of gears, the clatter of streetcars on their rails, the cracking of whips, the flapping of awnings and flags. We shall amuse ourselves by orchestrating in our minds the noise of metal shutters of store windows, the slamming of doors, the bustle and shuffle of crowds, the multitudinous uproar of railroad stations, forges, mills, printing presses, power stations, and underground railways.  Nor should the new noises of modern warfare be forgotten."

I think we could probably do without the modern warfare section of the orchestra. Nonetheless, Russolo does have classifications in mind: he wants to divide his sound orchestra into six groups:

  1. Roars, Thunderings, Explosions, Hissing roars, Bangs, Booms
  2. Whistling, Hissing, Puffing
  3. Whispers, Murmurs, Mumbling, Muttering, Gurgling
  4. Screeching, Creaking, Rustling, Buzzing, Crackling, Scraping
  5. Noises obtained by beating on metals, woods, skins, stones, pottery, etc.
  6. Voices of animals and people, Shouts, Screams, Shrieks, Wails, Hoots, Howls, Death rattles, Sobs

These are the families of his orchestra and all sounds are combinations of these "primary" sounds. 

Like most ideas that are new, or unconventional, most people will probably find this bizarre in the extreme. One person who did not was John Cage, who, at mid-century was using his ears to listen to the sounds around him and composing music that often did not require the will of a composer at all, but could be achieved completely randomly. It is an entirely different way of looking at the question of music, and because it raises a rather fundamental question about the validity of centuries of tradition, few people have been all that interested in doing more than heap scorn on it.

Back in grad school we weren't all that keen on it either, although we had to learn about it in our class on the history of American music. We spent a class or two on the futurists. I remember the works of Edgar Varese, whose orchestra included sirens and car horns and so on. We didn't think all that much of him.

I had a classmate, however, who must have found it liberating. He went on to write, as I recall, a piece of music scored for (no kidding) rocks and white noise. One of his more conventional instrumentations, a piece for voice and piano, nonetheless included a lot of unusual ways of making that pairing function. I recall that the singer spoke quite a bit, and the pianist sang a little, and spoke, and that at one point the singer pushed the pianist off the bench and began to play. I remember all this because I  and a singer performed the piece once on a concert.

I rather liked the piece, actually. And I've always found the idea of pushing old boundaries interesting, even though I don't always like the musical results. At least it gives us something to think about. And sometimes it does a bit more than that. Sometimes it is quite a bit of fun and perhaps even profound. In other words, it does what music is supposed to do. It shines some light on our humanity.

But I realize you can't dance to it, or have it on in the background while you are doing the dishes. Which, ironically, seems to be what makes it noise.

What an odd world, no?

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