Sunday, July 10, 2016

We Need a Better Name For "Noise Music"


Musicians struggle endlessly with musical genres and their names.  We need them as a shorthand for describing our music and the associated scenes and subcultures.  The other side of the coin is that we endlessly chafe under their limitations.  Whenever an artist changes his or her style a little bit questions arise about whether or not last year's genre labels still fit, as do protestations that this does not, or should not, matter.

Every time I upload a track to Soundcloud I need to decide what genre label to put on it and I am never happy with my choice.  In recent years the word "noise" is almost always in there among the tags somewhere.  The eternal conversation about the definitions of "noise" and "music" are interesting, in their own way, but I'm increasingly convinced that using "noise" to define genres of music benefits nobody and confuses everybody.

I recently had an interesting conversation with a friend about whether or not what I've recently been doing with spoken word recordings is "music."  While she agreed that it was of value as art, and very much worth doing, it did not do what she expected of music.  To her, I was producing conceptual sound art, or something of the sort--not music, but also not noise.  That my music stretched my friend's definition of music is not what it is interesting here.  The interesting thing is that although she did not think it was music, she was quite certain it was not noise.

For the rest of this essay when I say "music," I define it broadly.  I accept the "organized sound" definition, but also think human intention is important to distinguish music from non-musical language and other sound.  We present music [1][2] in a different way than writing or speaking a human language like English or Hindi, even when it is not played on an instrument or performed.

Although I like the oppositional, transgressive and rebellious connotations of "noise," when applied to music, including my music, I think it often does not fit because of the literal meaning of the word, "noise," unwanted sound.  Likewise for a lot of the music I listen to that gets the label, "noise," or some other genre descriptor including the word ("noise rock," "noise pop," "power noise," "noisecore," "harsh noise," "noise metal").  The problem with describing any music with the word "noise" is that it invariably misses what might be interesting about it.

Clearly, if a sound exists as any part of a "noise music" recording or performance, someone wanted it enough to create and or present it.  Thus, the conventional, generic definition of noise does not fit.  Yet, we, and I include myself in "we," say it over and over.

When describing music, we say "noise" to make one of two points about an artist or genre.  It could be that the music significantly contains sounds not commonly thought of as musical.  It could also be that the music is extreme or experimental enough that it challenges common definitions of music.  In either case, it takes the form of both a warning and something like a political dog whistle.  To lovers of relatively conventional music it is a warning that it is not for them; something about it is inherently unmusical in mainstream terms.  To lovers of other music tarred with the epithet, "noise," it is a dog whistle.  It lets us know it may very well be for us, but only because it is probably unpalatable to others.

This is contrary and exclusive, but the larger problem is that the word "noise" does not describe what anyone might actually like about any musical work.  It isn't like a regular genre descriptor like "heavy metal" or "techno."  Although there is no shortage of debate about whether or not this or that recording fits, there is a general agreement about what heavy metal and techno are.  Noise, on the other hand, really just means "normal people don't like it."

Not very informative.

Heavy metal is loud, aggressive rock music featuring distorted guitars and powerful, steady drums.  Techno is mid-tempo (by EDM standards) dance music featuring simple arrangements of exclusively electronic sounds and effects.   Noise music is...  Ummm.... Ya.  There are definitions, but they are not very good or specific.  How about something more specific, like "power noise?"  Wikipedia helps, but aside from examples the definition boils down to "noise music with a beat."  If you look at the web site for Ant-Zen, a record label oft mentioned in the same breath as "power noise," you will find very few instances of the term.  Why?  Because it doesn't tell the reader much.  "Power noise" isn't descriptive.  It is limited by all the problems of using the word "noise" to describe and differentiate music.

I mentioned techno and heavy metal before to help make the point that I'm not just talking about the problems of describing and discussing music.  Nor am I just talking about unusual, culturally unfamiliar or obscure music.  Techno really isn't that popular.  The term gets incorrectly applied to other electronic music quite a lot, but it has a real definition.  If you correct someone, pointing out why The Prodigy isn't a techno act (too dense and busy, too many vocals, breakbeats, live rock instruments), they will get it quite quickly.  Applied to music genres, "noise" provides no such clarity, either by itself nor in conjunction with other words.

So, that's the problem.  We rely on a term that doesn't tell us, or anyone else, much about the music we are trying to discuss.  The only solution I have is to find better words for whatever specific music we are talking about.

Sorry.  As of today, that's all I have.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Two New Live Recordings from Beautiful Radiant Things


Charles "Centipede Farmer" Hoffman has posted all of the live sets from the March 20 2016 Freemont show on Soundcloud.



I have also posted a bunch of excerpts from my recent practices.  Enjoy.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Final Prep For Tonight's Gig at The Freemont

I'm playing a noise/experimental event at The Freemont in Des Moines tonight.  I've spent a lot of time practising this week and tweaked my setup and how I am approaching the set.


The problems of making electronic music performances sufficiently live are well known.  My set tonight won't be perfect, but it will be live, improvisational, unique and in the spirit of Beautiful Radiant Things' recordings.

Here is what has changed in the last couple of weeks.  If you are not an electronic musician you still might find this interesting as I think it says something about how people relate to technology.

Setup 1: Computer playing spoken word recordings parallel to effects fed by Korg Korg Monotron DELAY

That looked like this.  I blogged about it a few weeks ago.



I thought this would work out well with our without a drummer.  When having a drummer join me fell through I became very worried that this was not going to be dynamic or "live" enough.  In my desire to compensate and make the whole thing much more rock-n-roll I decided to add guitar.  

Setup 2: Computer playing spoken word recordings parallel to 
              effects fed by guitar parallel to
              guitar  (played through separate amp--signal split to feed "noise" effects going into DJ mixer)

This had a lot of advantages.  I own a great sounding closed-back guitar amp and I am a competent rock guitarist.  It would have added a significant live and visually interesting (compared to watching me stroke my chin and tweak knobs) element to the performance.  

It also gave me a lot more to worry about.  If you think of the effects and computer as two different instruments the addition of the guitar brings me up to three.  I don't like the one-person-band thing.  It divides my attention way too much.  Three instruments, three effects chains--it doesn't sound like a lot, but a jazz musician improvizes on one instrument while everyone else in the band is taking care of everything else...one instrument per person.  I think that's the optimal musical arrangement.

Playing conventional electric guitar also gets away from my electronic MO of manipulating sounds (often pre-existing sounds) until they turn into something new and musically interesting.  Although I fully accept that the way I produce Beautiful Radiant Things recordings can't, unaltered, become live performance, live electric guitar was a BIG conceptual and spiritual departure.  That's OK.  I'm not saying it's a bad idea to combine them or that I won't do it in the future.  But was it what I wanted and worth the extra complexity?

As I spent more and more time getting comfortable with manipulating my effects in real time I started to wonder if I could create the dynamics and movement I wanted with a single sound source--no guitar, no monosynth--just the spoken words.  I plugged my computer directly into my effects and found that I could.  I don't even need to split the output of my laptop to be able to play an understandable version of the recordings to the audience.  The blend controls on the effects make this easy.

Setup 3: Computer playing spoken word recordings in-line with effects 



There are more physical pieces here than in the first picture but the experience of playing it is actually easier.  In addition to my increased familiarity with the effects this is a function of reduced parallelism[1].  The UC33 MIDI controller runs the software mixer in MIXXX (DJ software) on my laptop, where the spoken word recordings live.  The two outputs from the Digitech DL-8 delay pedal go into the right channel of one input and the left channel of the other input of the DJ mixer.  

In the picture my laptop is sitting on a Sony Minidisk recorder (MDS-JE510) connected to the tape output on the DJ mixer.  Maybe I can reuse some of these sounds later.

I think the best thing about the learning experience of developing this set has been realizing that I can take my love of turning one sound into another into the live performance realm.  I love playing guitar but I don't love the idea of adding guitar to my electronic music to compensate for some deficiency.  Tonight I am going to turn recordings of a 911 call from Madison Wisconsin into beats[2] in front of a live audience.

[1] I'm somewhat to reluctant to say that as I am actually a fan of parallel processing.  I would like to try doing something like this with a mixing board with lots of busses.  The granularity in how I could manipulate and mix the effects would approximate making a recording and potentially be really fun.
[2] Another thing I would like to try is tempo-syncing a similar collection of effects.  If I could add some sort of step sequencer, master clock and/or tempo-synced gates to a set-up like this I might be able to go farther with the rhythmic possibilities.  Currently I do some tempo-syncing of the delays and tremolo by ear, but if two or more effects were automatically synced it would free me up to listen for other things and make rhythmic changes quicker and cleaner.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Good and Bad Things for 2-21-2016


  • Bad
    • Base metal
    • Watch cases > 42mm
    • The violence inherent in the system
    • The Electoral College
    • The permanent, cumulative and irreversible nature of noise-induced hearing loss
    • Slush
    • Half of my fellow Americans
    • Gender-specific marketing
    • Law enforcement demanding to make everyone more vulnerable in the name of safety and security


  • Good
    • Direct democracy
    • Bass metal
    • Watch cases between 30mm and 40mm
    • Stainless steel
    • Tire width > 3 inches
    • Half of my fellow Americans
    • Local businesses
    • Dogs
    • Eggs
    • Watches that look awesome on men and women
    • Evil corporations occasionally doing the right thing
    • Pandas


Apple vs FBI: I Never Thought I Would Defend Apple Again

Apple Inc. is a despicable company that is absolutely in the right in its current battle with the FBI.  The short version of the story is that the FBI wants Apple to bypass and weaken encryption on its iOS devices to make it easier for law enforcement to access data stored on them.  Apple is refusing.  Apple is right.  




I'm going to keep this brief because the reasons Apple is right are very simple and the details of the current FBI case don't matter[1].  Encryption is good for everyone.  Privacy is good for everyone.  The only things better than encryption and privacy are better encryption and privacy.  When it becomes easier[2] for the FBI to get past Apple's encryption it becomes easier for everyone to get past everyone's encryption.  That makes all of us more vulnerable, not just to embarrassing revelations about our personal lives but to crime.  




Although I certainly believe someone within the FBI would eventually abuse[3] the ability to crack an iPhone that speculative argument it not needed for Apple to be right and the FBI to be wrong[4].  We are not, in the long run, safer if law enforcement and governments gain the ability to more easily access our personal information.  Doing it in the name of solving a recent, horrible crime does not change that.



[1]  This is not to say the crime in question was trivial.  It was not.  People died.  
[2]  I also believe the FBI can, eventually, get what they want without Apple's help.  There is no such thing as unbreakable encryption.  Circumstances often make it extremely difficult or impractical to break, but that is exactly what we want.  Let the FBI do it themselves, if they must.  Apple will be complicit in all the damage that follows if they cooperate.
[3]  For any authority a coercive or legitimate power not worth abusing is not worth having.  
[4]  It is worth noting that while Apple does not have a perfect record on privacy they have gotten a lot better.  Observe the difference in their 2013 and 2015 Who Has Your Back scores from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.