What is Noise Music Anyway?

The question I am most frequently asked about my commissions is, ‘What is noise music?’ An excellent question!
Noise music is incredibly diverse, from the lush drones of Éliane Radigue, to the aggressive edge of Elizabeth Veldon, to the quiet whispers of Maggi Payne, to the subversive raucous of Cosey Fanni Tutti to the glitchy digitalism of Shelly Knotts. There is also, of course, a specific context and history of the genre, starting with Russolo’s Futurist manifesto, The Art of Noise, up through early industrial and bands like Throbbing Gristle and then Japanese noise from people like Merzbow. But even though this is important, let’s talk about what sonically unifies these many different sounds of noise music, rather than the cultural bit.

Different kinds of music have different elements that are their primary focus. For example, Bach chorales are largely about harmony. Christmas carols are about melody. And a lot of current pop music is primarily about rhythm. Noise music is about timbre. That means the quality, or texture, of the sound. There can, of course, be all of these other elements in noise music, but a noise composer is very often trying to create a collage of sounds that are interesting based on texture.

Unlike other musical elements, there isn’t really a specialist vocabulary for timbre. Sounds might be described as ‘rough’ or ‘smooth’ or ‘glitchy’. Practitioners talk about this roughly the same way as listeners do. While noise music isn’t exactly new – the Art of Noises was published in 1913 – it’s still very much an area being explored, not fully codified in the way that other musics might be.

In fact, you can make noise music yourself! Although noise has not historically been given much consideration, any new parent can tell you that babies love noise. Humans are attracted to this kind of music from their youngest moments. We all are born with an attraction to these kinds of sounds. So you can experiment yourself at noise making and try recording some sounds that you think are nice. Your might use the microphone on your phone, your camera or your laptop (or a regular mic if you have one). Try dragging your mic along different surfaces, to record the sound of the physical texture. How does your sofa sound vs a wall? How do different kinds of bricks sound? Or try putting your mic next to something that makes interesting quiet sounds.
Pause for a moment and listen to the place you are at. What do you hear? Maybe your laptop fan? A refrigerator? A kettle? A copy machine? Passing cars? If you put the mic very close to the source of these sounds, sometimes the recordings can reveal hidden depth. Maybe your office copy machine has a quiet rhythmic clicking as it copies.
Now that you have all these recordings, you can try to arrange them. Audacity is a free program that might be useful for this. Or maybe you want to listen to them as they are. Play your collages or recordings for a friend. Now you’re a noise composer!
If you have a bunch of recordings you like and want to commission me, I can use them as source material. Commissioned music makes a great gift for babies or for Valentines Day! Order yours today!

Published by

Charles Céleste Hutchins

Supercolliding since 2003

2 thoughts on “What is Noise Music Anyway?”

  1. Well then, Happy Birthday from MA… I think about you every time I pass the Wellsley Exit on 128…at a damn crawl…though I can't see it any more there is too much snow…

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