“We like to give you the maximum, from which you can subtract.” Aaron Einbond’s closing words before the first concert at the Noise In And As Music conference, organised by Einbond & Aaron Cassidy, which took place at Huddersfield University’s Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM) last weekend. Einbond’s amusing reference to volume (& the audience’s option for ear-plugs) crystallised the essence of the conference’s focus & the host of assumptions one tends to make about it. What, after all, is noise? Does it—should it—connote material that is extremely loud? extremely dense? extremely extreme? The conference’s three days of papers, discussions, installations & concerts went no small way to addressing these fundamental questions.
The range of opinions, methodologies & implementations of what may or may not be ‘noise’ was almost bewilderingly broad & multi-faceted. In keeping with each & every conceit of genre, noise too has its share of charlatans, wannabes & hangers-on, & the weekend occasionally dipped its toe into examples of thought & sound that seemed either to miss the point or just sap all the interest out of it. But such moments were happily rare; not only were the majority of contributions fascinating & very thought-provoking, the best were stunning examples of what noise can be & can do, examples that changed, expanded & even redefined one’s understanding not only of what we were hearing, but of hearing itself; repeatedly & equally, both sound & sensation found themselves under the microscope.
Among the brightest of the highlights was Peter Ablinger, who turned a keynote lecture into a triptych of challenging sonic encounters that effortlessly intermingled music, noise, field recordings, speech & performance art as only he can. Witnessing Ablinger speak while a shifting assortment of bandwidths (all derived from the qualities of Ablinger’s own voice) obscured different elements of his voice was surprisingly hypnotic, one’s focus constantly pulled back & forth between straining for meaning & simply enjoying the curious effects brought about by the collision. It was one of many manifestations throughout the weekend of projective listening—the brain/ear imposing on noise what it thinks it’s hearing but isn’t.
An even stronger example of this, & the work by which i was most deeply impressed during the weekend, was Marko Ciciliani‘s epic Pop Wall Alphabet. Ciciliani is interested in what constitutes ‘the sound’ within the commercial context of popular music idioms. This is explored via a series of 26 studies, each focussing on an album by a pop artist (in alphabetical order, the letter corresponding to the name of the artist); each study falls into two parts, the first of which superimposes all the tracks from that album on top of each other, so that they are heard simultaneously. At first extremely dense, the accumulation of sound gradually becomes more transparent as the structural variety of each track progresses &, more noticeably, as they each come to an end, thinning out the texture. When just one track remains, the second part of the study begins, comprising a sequence of what Ciciliani calls ‘spectral freezes’, each individual track reduced to its essence—in terms of frequencies & amplitude changes—in a wonderfully paradoxical slab of static, seemingly full of activity yet motionless. These ‘freezes’ follow in succession, moving around the space, at which point the study ends &, after a short pause & a succinct announcement from Ciciliani—”Letter J: Michael Jackson, 1982″—the next study begins. It takes four-&-a-half hours for the work to move through its 26 studies; i was able to stay for about a third of that, but wish i could have stayed longer. It’s an intoxicating work, each study captivating in its unique trajectory through music deliberately chosen for its network of emotional connections & history. In this respect, it’s true to say that it’s not just the performance space that resonates as Pop Wall Alphabet plays out; hearing albums such as Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity & Queen’s A Night at the Opera scrutinised & exposed in this way causes one’s long-standing personal associations & memories to vibrate forcefully against the sheer walls, shuddering bass & intricate strands of filigree. & if that suggests that the experience of listening to Pop Wall Alphabet is extremely complex, it is, but quite apart from that, it’s also often remarkably (& perhaps surprisingly) beautiful. As yet, the cycle isn’t available (Ciciliani told me a book/audio release is forthcoming), but letter G (Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster) can be heard below & letter M (Madonna, Ray of Light) on SoundCloud.
Beyond the twin dazzlements of Ablinger & Ciciliani, it would take too long to recount the best of the rest—including Phil Julian‘s opening night improvisation, Ryoko Akama‘s vibrating water piece RADIAT GC, Mark Summers‘ ferocious Laminate for viola da gamba & electronics & Yota Morimoto‘s audiovisual transnd.xy (perfect for raster-noton nuts)—but i can’t fail to mention the conference’s final speaker, James Whitehead, a minor hero of mine. A self-styled “noise theoritician”, Whitehead’s exploration of noise goes way beyond mere sonics into the realm of conceptual ideas & metaphysical realities. Under the nom de guerre JLIAT, Whitehead has been exploring the possibilities of noise & non-music for nearly 20 years, through works that are beautiful, frivolous, confounding, impossible, ridiculous, but never pointless—in fact they almost always pack a hefty sting in their tail. Whitehead’s 30-minute talk could have done with being three times as long; in a way, the title of his paper managed both to encapsulate & undermine everything we had heard & discussed through the previous three days: ‘Un-sounding music; noise is not sound’.
Noise has needed—in fact, constantly needs—a fresh reappraisal, & Huddersfield deserves major kudos for committing so much time & energy to opening up the discussion in this way. The conference’s considerations have been complemented & extended in a marvellous accompanying book, including essays by (among others) Peter Ablinger, Aaron Cassidy, Marko Ciciliani, Aaron Einbond, Phil Julian, Joan Arnau Pàmies, and James Whitehead, plus an assortment of mini-interviews. The contents of the book can be seen here, the book itself can be downloaded in PDF format here, or you can buy it here.