Previously unpublished essay commissioned to celebrate The Wire's 300th issue
It’s all noise, of course, everything that’s ever been written about in The Wire. The territory staked out by the magazine since 1982 is one whose marginal nature means that it’s only willingly explored by we few intrepid souls. The territory contains stuff that we know to be music, but that we also know, deep down, everyone else thinks is anything but. It’s always been about Us and Them; why be coy about it? After all, how else can we make sense of the phenomenon we call Noise-with-a-capital N? If we accept its usual definition as ‘unwanted sound’, we need to have some idea of who exactly it is that doesn’t want it. Obviously, it’s not Us – here we are listening to it, reading about it, writing about it, making it. What makes it Noise is what They think. Or rather, what we think They would think if They ever listened to it. Which They don’t.
And in that endless, tortuous loop of cogitation and speculation, lies the key to what Noise is: the actual sound of conflicting ideas doing battle. It’s Toshimaru Nakamura’s notorious no-input mixing board, but with ideas rather than cables plugged back into themselves, paradox breeding paradox, feedback producing feedback. Once you do away the idea that it’s just about confrontation, Noise becomes a whole lot more confusing, and a whole lot more interesting. And that’s what’s happened, slowly but surely, since 1982; it’s gradually orientated itself towards a community of sympathetic listeners as opposed to baiting audiences as if they constituted the enemy.
In 1982 experimentation with raw noise was mostly assumed to be the preserve of the first wave of Industrial outfits, but the most visible of these (Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK) had either disbanded or embarked on an ongoing process of tempering their more extreme sonic tendencies. Noise was on the retreat elsewhere, too. Post-punk guitar noiseniks like PiL’s Keith Levene and Gang Of Four’s Andy Gill had left their slash ‘n’ burn days behind them. New York No Wave had crested and receded. Perhaps what happened was that once confrontational tactics were seen to fail – what were the Cabs thinking their noise loop dirge “Partially Submerged” would lead to, armed revolution? – there were only two options available. You could go down the ‘conform to deform’ route, purging the music of its most challenging elements or hiding them behind seductive machine rhythms; or you could carry on as before, cultivating a select audience for whom revelling in sonic extremity was a badge of membership of an enlightened elite. It was the Mensheviks against the Bolsheviks all over again, without the payoff of a 1917 to sort out who’d been right all along.
Standard-bearers for the latter tendency were Boyd Rice’s Non
and William Bennett’s Whitehouse; the foot soldiers were the
legions of home recordists worldwide (such as the UK’s The New
Blockaders, California’s The Haters, Japan’s Merzbow) who traded
cassettes and established specialist labels. The noise made by
these artists, initially shackled to their conceptual concerns,
started to shake itself free and become itself. Noise had been
primarily metaphorical, the representation in sonic form of the
shattering of sexual, social and political taboos, a soundtrack to
the themes of violence and abjection explored in live performance,
lyrics and accompanying artwork of many of the releases. When these
thematic aspects started to wear thin – not least because of their
dilution and assimilation into the burgeoning (and generally
oafish) Industrial Dance/Electronic Body Music movement and thence
even further into the mainstream – the noise took over. Freed from
context, it sounded much noisier. Japanese Noise artists like
Hijokaidan and Incapacitants changed from using noise to soundtrack
fetishism to fetishising noise itself, revelling in its density and
physicality, blurring distinctions between endurance and pleasure.
Perhaps Noise needed to retreat back into itself to muster its resources for the next big push towards mass recognition. As the 80s collapsed into the 90s, there were certainly more musics exploring the effects of extreme sonic overload. Kevin Martin’s insanely undervalued God, for example, drew on free Improv (free bassist John Edwards and ex-Henry Cow altoist Tim Hodgkinson were involved, as well as John Zorn), Metal and hiphop, and then distended and distorted them to the limits of feasibility. Aphex Twin was treating Techno in much the same way; when he wasn’t producing pieces like his electronic illustration of an asthma attack “Ventolin” he was to be found DJing with sandpaper instead of vinyl. Wire’s Bruce Gilbert, meanwhile, was dragging Ambient kicking and screaming into a tumult of high-volume fuzz via his DJ Beekeeper persona.
What has driven the rise of Noise since the mid-90s to its current status as a genre in itself – questionable though that may be – is more than anything to do with the influence of various strands of guitar rock. For every 99 indie kids who treated the meltdown section in My Bloody Valentine’s “You Made Me Realise” as a simple fuck-you gesture, one considered it a manifesto. Sonic Youth turned a mini-legion of punk scenesters into junior noise terrorists by splicing their Glenn Branca-informed ‘reinvention of the guitar’ workouts with Hardcore (and later – shudder – Grunge). The ever more pitiful attempts of corporate rock to cast itself as somehow dangerous and counter-cultural has driven the creation and rise to prominence of outfits like Wolf Eyes and Prurient.
The roots of the current Noise scene can of course be traced back a lot further, beyond even the early 20th century, when assumptions about the nature of music were being challenged in Luigi Russolo’s 1913 manifesto “The Art Of Noises”. It may not be too fanciful to link current practice back to the very beginnings of music making. The overtones produced by a blown reed, or the abrasion of horsehair across catgut, shape the ‘pure’ tone of any given note into something unique to the instrument being played. The signature properties of these instruments is provided by the unquantifiable, ineffable noise produced by playing them. In their essay “Rough Music, Futurism, and Postpunk Industrial Noise Bands” Mary Russo and Daniel Warner assert, “To a large extent, a culture’s musical conventions are a set of aural negotiations between signal and noise.” Over the 27 years that have passed since the first issue of The Wire, noisicians, not generally noted for their skills of negotiation, have continued to find new ways to ditch the signal.