Making the right noises
Classical music isn’t an escape from noise – it’s simply noise, transcended
The modern world may be full of noise pollution but, as Tom Service suggests, many of these unwanted sounds are essential to musical creativity
Noise. We all know what it is, don’t we? For as long as we’ve had music – that is, sounds that we consciously want to hear – we’ve had to put up with noise: those sounds we’d ideally like to turn o!. And what goes for coughing and mobile phones in concert halls at transcendent moments of Schubertian bliss or Saariaho-induced mysticism is true in the rest of our lives too. We want to silence the noise of the tra"c, the argument next door, the aviation boom and a snoring sleep-mate.
What might be a grin-and-bear-it annoyance for most of us can become a physical and psychological torture for others: those a#icted with tinnitus, or who live under an airport flight-path. And music itself can become a noisy problem when it’s used as aggressively loud background music. It’s no surprise that as the urban world has become more saturated with noise, we have wanted silent zones, in quiet coaches and noise-cancelling headphones and in the shape of Pipedown, the ‘campaign for freedom from piped music’.
But what happens when, instead of trying to escape all this noise, you go into the noisy maelstrom, and make music there? That’s what today’s noise artists like Merzbow or Vomir do, musicians who work with extreme levels of volume and distortion, using saturated white-noise sounds like those that used to emanate from your TV and radio to create overwhelming, immersive experiences. They’re building on a tradition of composers who made noise their own: from the Futurists like Luigi Russolo, who made new instruments at the start of the 20th century to create a meaningful cacophony, to Edgard Varèse, who used sirens as part of his orchestral hymns to modernity. Or there’s the German composer Helmut Lachenmann, who has created an entire aesthetic from the under-sounds and shadow-noises that bring any note on an acoustic instrument into being: the scrapes of a bow, the breaths and gasps of a woodwind or brass player.
Yet these musicians and composers aren’t noisy extremists of musical culture. Because without its noises, classical music as a culture wouldn’t communicate as profoundly. In science, ‘noise’ is extraneous information that gets in the way of the transmission of a pure, clean ‘signal’. But if, say, you created a noise-free singing voice, you would end up with a synthesized homunculus. The sound would be electronically clean and pure, but without the grain of the voice, without the overtones and breaths that make up the halo of noises around any vocal sound, they wouldn’t be fully human.
Which is why we need noise in our musical culture. Classical music isn’t an escape from noise – it’s simply noise, transcended. As Thomas Beecham knew all too well: the British may not like music, ‘but they absolutely love the noise it makes’. So instead of cancelling it, let’s all make some noise!