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.

1 comment:

Charles Hoffman said...

I like "noise music" because for most people noise and music are opposites, making the phrase a contradiction/oxymoron - the hearer of the phrase is left unable to form expectations about the work.