One day recently, I suddenly started hearing a loud hum coming from my speakers, even when there wasn’t any music playing. After a lot of testing and swapping of cables and components, I narrowed the source of the hum down to my amplifier. I conferred with a couple of experts, who agreed that it must be a ground hum — someone, somewhere on my street, had plugged an appliance into the power supply that had a different grounding to my amplifier, producing the electrical noise I could hear through my speakers. Inserting a small ground isolator into the signal chain just before the amplifier significantly reduced the problem, but didn’t completely resolve it.
The funny thing is that in a different context I might’ve quite enjoyed listening to that hum. It’s been well established for some time now that noise — by which I mean untuned, often abrasive or monotonous sounds, akin to those produced by household appliances or various types of machinery — can be a useful medium for the production of music. Sometimes composers might go and record the sounds of washing machines, air conditioning units, jet engines, industrial machinery, and so on, and then tweak and arrange them to make music. In other cases, experimenting directly with electronic circuits and mechanical systems generates entirely unique forms of noise. The results of these approaches can be very engaging and enjoyable. So what makes some kinds of noise desirable, and others (such as the ground hum) unwanted?
Sometimes the acoustic space in which a noise is recorded can make a difference. In Bang the Bore’s “Twelve Tapes” (Every Contact Leaves A Trace, 2017), there’s a continuous resonant hum (I think it might be the sound of an industrial air conditioning unit) that is heard throughout the half-hour length of the piece. The hum seems to have been recorded in a large multi-storey car park — cars are heard arriving, reversing, starting up, and driving off, along with occasional footsteps and voices. But it’s the heavy reverb around the sounds that gives the location away, and turns the hum into quite an attractive sound, fluctuating randomly while remaining constant. This specific, continuous noise becomes a sort of substantiation of attention and presence, a signal that what is being heard is not incidental but is being presented intentionally.
Christian Mirande’s “Trying to Remember A House” (Glistening Examples, 2016) takes a different approach, either repurposing existing circuits and gadgets for musical use, or manipulating them to get the desired noise. For example, there are lots of whirring and rhythmic clattering sounds across the album’s nine tracks, suggesting the use of a range of motor circuits alongside hisses of tape, quiet hums, scrunching, fuzzing, and scraping, bass drones, and occasional gleaming or glimmering tones. Some pieces present traffic sounds alongside noises with a drier ambiance, creating the impression of standing in a doorway or by an open window, playing with the distinction between inside and outside. Though Mirande uses and arranges his noise-making objects and systems as musical instruments, the noises they produce seem to bear some distant relation to common domestic sounds such as those of central heating systems, household appliances, street noises, and so on, opening up the music to the space of memory.
We might say, then, that what separates musical noise from the annoying, unwanted sort is intentionality — the awareness of a conscious decision to present or hear a given noise as music. Even those who claim to welcome all sounds as equal would be dismayed if their audio system was stricken by the sort of electrical dirt brought on by ground conflicts, because the noise is not being presented to them intentionally, nor did they choose to hear it as such. But what about situations where those making or presenting the noises try to make them sound as close to incidental, unscripted sounds as possible? What about hiding, illusion, and masquerade?
My feeling is that these kinds of phenomena occur a lot in current experimental music, more than is commonly acknowledged. But let’s just take one example: Luke Martin’s “so softly that it came, a wild dim chatter, meaningless” (Edition Wandelweiser, 2016). This piece was recorded at Mentryville Park in southern California, beginning just before sunrise. The four performers, on laptop, voice, double bass, and percussion, each try to bend their own sounds towards those they hear around them: Amy Golden’s voice frequently imitates birdsong; Davy Sumner’s circular rubbing of a drum skin recalls the sound of passing aircraft; Ben Levinson once or twice plucks a single staccato bass note, like the snapping of a twig; a whistling, perhaps from Ryan Gaston’s laptop though harder to place, meanders like wind.
Are the instrumental sounds noises that intrude into the pristine natural wilderness of the park? Or do they stand together with the birdsong against the noise pollution of passing planes? What does it mean when intentional sounds are presented as if they might be contingent, accidental? How does that change the way we hear sounds that we assume really are contingent? When does a sound become noise, and noise music? These are all questions provoked by Martin’s piece. If I perceived the ground hum as part of a score, would I be able to tolerate it, perhaps even enjoy it? Maybe so, for as long as the illusion could be maintained. One person’s unappealing din becomes another’s agreeable music, depending on the frame through which it is perceived and understood. Perhaps the awareness of another person wanting me to hear this is what ultimately makes the difference.
Image: ‘A subterranean parking lot of a Brazilian shopping mall, in 2016’ by Rachmaninoff, Creative Commons licence