Thuistezien 235 — 14.04.2021

Melle Kromhout & Gabriel Paiuk
Musical Material

Our conceptions of art and music are in constant flux. Some of us have had an ‘aha’ moment when we listened to a piece of music for the first time and thought ‘I didn’t know music could be this way, but I love what I’m hearing!’. And we’ve all probably had moments we’re we’ve gone ‘I can’t believe people like this! It sounds like noise, garbage etc etc to me…’. If we take a wider perspective, we can also notice how these different opinions about what is and isn’t music or art also change not only across generations, but also can change very drastically across different cultures and eras of cultural creation.

In the event ‘Musical Material #5’, part of the ongoing event series organised in collaboration between Rewire and West, Peter Bruyn investigates the question of when something is music or noise in the conversation that he moderates between Melle Kromhout and Gabriel Paiuk. Each of the two speakers has a foot in music creation and music academia, their interests lying in the ambiguity created at the intersection between ‘music’ and ‘noise’. And as part of their respective work, they both share an interest in the question of how electronic sound reproduction has influenced these questions.

In some ways it should be an easy question to answer to some extent. When a music reproduction device malfunctions we usually consider it to be failing, and that the sounds it produces as a result of these failures are undesired ‘noise’. But yet, some creators relish some of these glitches and unintended by-products of audio reproduction, and often they have consciously chosen to utilize them in their work. Musical works that have appropriated such sounds have become successful and loved pieces of music. Some of them changed the face and direction of music in trailblazing ways. There’s almost definitely music that you listen to and enjoy, which in some form or other uses ‘noise’ in a pleasing way.

An interesting example of a desirable noise that we enjoy without knowing it is that of ‘dithering’, which Melle Kromhout refers to in the conversation. Dithering is a process of adding low volume noise into a digital recording when converting it from a higher bit-resolution (used when recording and editing music), into a lower bit-resolution (which most playback devices can accommodate). Counter-intuitively, this added noise helps remove unwanted noisy side-effects that would otherwise emerge from this quantization process. So if you’ve ever listened to a CD-quality audio recording, you’ve probably unwittingly at least appreciated the clarity that the dithering noise offered the audio. In a somewhat similar way, ‘comfort noise’ is used in some telecommunication systems: Instead of allowing complete silence between pauses in a conversation or between words broadcast over a telecommunication, a gentle noise is often added into the pauses by the system, partly to show the people in the communication that the line hasn’t cut out.

Or another strange example is that of musical distortion, as utilised most obviously by electric guitar players. Early amplification systems relied on tubes, which when pushed to their limits, inevitably distorted the sound they were meant to only amplify. This meant that the sound of the amplified electric guitar often was at the precipice of distorting. Soon, Western popular music culture found this to be an appealing sound. The Rolling Stones’ 1965 hit ‘Satisfaction’ is based around the iconic opening distorted electric guitar riff. The sound was created with the aid of the now legendary Maestro Fuzztone guitar pedal, an electronic device whose only purpose is to distort the sound of an electric guitar. Link Wray’s 1958 track ‘Rumble’ is an earlier example of a distorted amplified electric guitar, and it had such a shocking effect on some listeners that it became the only instrumental single ever banned from radio in the United States. As the story goes, guitarist Link Wray achieved his raucous distorted sound on the single by ripping holes into the speakers of the amplifier he was using. For many listeners, including Bob Dylan and Iggy Pop, the intense distorted guitar sound proved a pivotal musical stimulus that informed much of their careers.

So when is it noise and when is it music? Peter Bruyn puts this question to his two speakers: two individuals who based on their backgrounds should be perfect candidates for offering us some clarity in the issue. Yet drawing the lines between music and noise, or at least desirable and undesirable noise, is something the two of them seemed quite unwilling to do, as we see them shirking the responsibility of clarifying the issue. Afterall, their work sits in the crux of these areas, and is excited by these areas. Delineating clear lines in these questions will probably take away from much of the magic of their work. They also acknowledge that any clear answer they may give will probably prove unsatisfying to themselves, and will understandably prove highly contentious. Who knows, if they gave an answer as to what they consider noise, maybe subsequent musicians might happen to make that ‘noise’ into a meaningful force of their future music and prove them wrong.

Yet, Kromhout and Paiuk’s conversation makes for a fascinating journey through many of the subtle and complex ways we can look at the ideas of music, noise, art or not. They share with us many of the observations that they have discovered from their respective work, showing us how much our conception of music is coloured by sound reproduction technology, and how to a large extent we probably all feel a mix of desire for and also aversion toward the idea of ‘noise’.

Text: James Alexandropoulos - McEwan