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Seeking Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise.” Aldous Huxley included this statement in The Perennial Philosophy, a comparative study of world mysticisms, published in 1944. Huxley’s complaints centered on organized noise: “indiscriminate talk” and the radio, which he described as “nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes.” The “assault against silence” has continued unabated as the twentieth century has rolled into the twenty-first. The ubiquity of televisions, personal computers, and mobile phones has only exacerbated the problem. Such technologies present conscious and unconscious barriers to the spiritual ideal of inner calm and clear-minded contemplation.

Arguably more damaging than the intentional sound sources Huxley bemoaned are the byproduct noises of human activities. Especially intrusive are noises fitting naturalist Bernie Krause’s definition: “an acoustic event that clashes with expectation.” The tranquil lake is spoiled by buzzing jet skis and motorboats. The pristine forest is tarnished by chainsaws and overhead airplanes. According to composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” to describe the ever-present array of noises in our sonic environment, human beings make such noises, in part, to remind ourselves and others that we are not alone. The absence of overt human-generated sounds is for many a painful signal of solitude. Think of the person who keeps the radio or television on for companionship.

An extreme of this view equates excessive noise with human dominance and modern progress. According to Schafer, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior James G. Watt declared that the more noise Americans make, the more powerful the country will appear. This perception has deep roots: cannon blasts and booming fireworks have long been associated with muscular patriotism. Schafer even remarked to Krause that if the ear-pounding decibels of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels were muted, attendance at their air shows would drop by ninety percent.

Nothing could be further from the quietude desired by mystics, who not only strive to muzzle external sounds, but also to cultivate silence of mind. This is hardly the default mode of modernity. As Huxley put it: “Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire—we hold history’s record for them all.” Instead of seeking silence, most people seek its opposite.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Gesture Toward the Infinite

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The gradual decrease in volume toward silence, known as the fade-out, was once a ubiquitous part of popular music. One of the earliest fade-outs took place during a 1918 concert of Gustav Holst’s The Planets. The women’s choir sang in a room offstage for the concluding “Neptune” movement. As the piece neared its end, a door to the room was slowly closed. The contrivance was effective: the celestial chorus drifted into silence, conjuring the expansiveness of the cosmos and the remoteness of the gas giant—then thought to be the furthest planet from the Sun (an honor Neptune reclaimed in 2006 when Pluto was demoted to a “dwarf planet”).

A similarly “organic” fade-out is heard on an 1894 recording of the “Spirit of ’76,” during which a fife and drum band seem to get closer and then march away. The effect was achieved by carrying the phonograph toward and away from the sound’s source. With the advent of electrical recordings in the 1920s, engineers were able to decrease amplification, a process made easier with magnetic tape recordings beginning in the 1940s. The first pop hit to end with a fade was the R&B crossover song “Open the Door, Richard!” (1946), by saxophonist Jack McVea. The technique became commonplace between the 1950s and 80s. Each of Billboard’s top ten songs from 1985 ended with a fade-out.

The fade-out initially served a practical aim. In the 1940s and 50s, engineers often used the device to shorten songs that exceeded radio’s “three-minute rule,” or to fit them on one side of a vinyl single. The 1960s saw the fade-out as a creative avenue, especially in psychedelic and electronic music. The ending of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” (1968) fades over four minutes of repeated choruses. Other artists, like Stevie Wonder, used fade-outs to cut loose with ad-lib lyrics and extended jam sessions.

David Huron, an expert in music cognition, appreciates the fade-out as something beyond a practical solution or creative outlet. Commenting on Holst’s “Neptune” in his book, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, Huron notes: “With a fade-out, music manages to delay closure indefinitely. The ‘end’ is predictable, even though the music doesn’t ‘stop.’ The ‘stop’ gesture is replaced by a gesture toward the ‘infinite.’”

The fade-out, with its impression of unresolved infiniteness, fell out of favor during the 1990s. (The only recent hit featuring the device is Robin Thicke’s retro homage “Blurred Lines,” 2013.) Popular music historian William Weir connects the decline to the development of the Need for Closure Scale (1993) and psychology’s wider embrace of the concept of closure—a goal better achieved when a song concludes with a “cold ending.” Weir concedes that this explanation may be a stretch, pointing to the rise of iPods and DJs, which have created a “skip culture” (using songwriter/producer Itaal Shur’s term), where we are accustomed to skipping from song to song before they end. Why bother with the last few seconds if nobody ever hears them? Yet, even then, we experience a kind of infinity: the never-ending medley.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Autonomous Art

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A rallying cry was heard in nineteenth-century France: “l’art pour l’art”—“art for art’s sake.” Against a backdrop of scholasticism, scientific thinking, and hostility toward “useless” art, French writers argued that the greatest value of art was not some external aim, but self-sufficiency. Art’s highest goal was to exist in its own formal perfection; its highest purpose was to be contemplated as an end in itself.

This was the basis of aestheticism, or the aesthetic movement—an approach with ideological ties to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (1790), which presents the “pure” aesthetic experience as the “disinterested” contemplation of an object that “pleases for its own sake,” without making reference to reality or claims to utility or morality. More directly, French aestheticism was rooted in Théophile Gautier’s witty defense of his assertion that art is useless (in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1835).

Aestheticism was developed by poet Charles Baudelaire, who was greatly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe’s claim, made in “The Poetic Principle” (1850), that the supreme work is a “poem per se.” This governing ideal was taken up by many other writers, and spread into Victorian England through Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde, Lionel Johnson, and others. Instrumental music, because of its absence of words, was sometimes held up as the apex of this artistic aspiration. Pater famously remarked, “all art constantly aspires toward the condition of music.”

Meanwhile, German romanticists of the nineteenth century promoted self-sufficiency as a musical ideal. In contrast to programmatic music, which has a specific purpose, story, theme, or sung text, so-called “absolute music” was music for its own sake. Poets such as E. T. A. Hoffman and Ludwig Tieck conceived of instrumental music as the language of a higher realm, and celebrated music’s potential for non-representation non-conceptualization—qualities that led Kant to dismiss music as “more entertainment than culture” in his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment.

“Absolute music” actually began as a pejorative term, coined by Richard Wagner to expose the limitations of instrumental music and support his own view of opera’s superiority. For Wagner, music without signification was not only ludicrous, but had no right to exist. Proponents of “music per se” held the opposite view: music can (and should) express nothing other than music itself.

In practice, a pure listening experience is unobtainable. Exposure to musical sounds, whether or not they carry explicit meanings, invariably comes with a host of influencing factors, including social conditioning, cultural context, momentary disposition, and mental/emotional associations. Our responses to music, in turn, transcend strictly musical considerations.

That being said, we might choose to hear pieces as (more or less) autonomous works, or read into them extra-musical connotations, either stemming from our own backgrounds or the composers’. However, rarely—if ever—are these avenues of perception clearly bifurcated; we may favor hearing music as absolute or programmatic, but conceptual colorations are impossible to avoid. As Mark Evan Bonds writes in his recent book, Absolute Music: The History of an Idea, “[W]e are most likely to hear [musical pieces] as some combination of the two. But that is a choice we make, and not a quality inherent in the works themselves. Neither mode of listening is superior to the other, and the notion that we can hear them in exclusively one way or the other is in any case deeply suspect.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Bug Music (Book Review)

Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm and Noise, by David Rothenberg. New York: Picador, 2014. 278 pp.

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D. 

Bug Music is the third installment in David Rothenberg’s animal music trilogy. The first two books explored the more obviously musical songbirds and humpback whales (Why Birds Sing and Thousand Mile Song). His foray into the comparatively alien world of insects and bugs asks that we open our ears to the “more humble parts of [nature’s] grand resonance” (82).

“Noise” in the book’s subtitle is not unwanted clamor, but the purposeful buzzing, whirring, chirping, and sawing that make insects musically significant. The mix of pure tone and buzz in crickets inspired the African mbira (thumb piano), which is affixed with bottle caps to give straight tones a buzzing embellishment. The songs of Bayaka pygmies in Central Africa imitate the shrieks and calls of birds, as well as “the rhythmic pulse and thrum of thousands of insects and frogs, the defining ground of the soundscape” (155).

Rothenberg references a theory that music of indigenous peoples tends to be rough, scratchy, and irregular, while Western art music prefers refinement, pure tones, and order. This generalization, supposedly proffered by pioneer ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, suggests that human populations connected with natural surroundings readily find musical inspiration in animal sounds. If so, then the modern appeal of low-fi hums, fuzzy guitar distortions, and other sonic imperfections can be viewed as an attempt to return to nature, albeit through technological means.

The book also posits that the human sense of rhythm was derived in part from insect sounds, which offer “scads of regular beats, sometimes exactly in sync, sometimes slightly off—irregular, overlapping, forming complex polyrhythms, sometimes by accident, at other times by evolved design” (173). In a typical flight of gleeful speculation, Rothenberg goes so far as to call insects “our original teachers of rhythm” (173, italics in original). This proposal departs from other evolutionary hypotheses, notably that of neurobiologist Mark Changizi (Harnessed, 2011), who connects human rhythmical sense to our own heart beats, sexual gyrations, breathing, walking gait, and vocalizations such as sobbing and laughing. While the two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive—rhythm can have multiple sources, both internal and external—the lack of attention paid to bugs in this regard is symptomatic of a wider preconception that sounds made by non-human animals are rote and preprogrammed, and that only humans can transcend mechanical biology to engage in aesthetics. Bug Music joins a growing body of literature that questions this tired old assumption.

It should be noted that Rothenberg is not a scientist. He is a philosopher and jazz musician. His main interest is making “interspecies music” by adding his woodwind improvisations to a canvas of animal sounds. He intuits that doing so creates an intentional collaboration between him and the animals (cicadas in the case of this book). At one point he wonders if insects understand “all swishes around them” as music, and whether people can do the same (88). Later he describes driving through Illinois with a jar of cicadas, noticing how they respond differently to different types of music: “They seem to get into the Rolling Stones. They don’t really like Keith Jarrett. They have a particular penchant for Ethiopian and Zimbabwean dance beats” (226). Such anecdotal impressions seem clouded by a desire to see insects as musical beings, and probably wouldn’t survive the rigors of scientific investigation. However, recent laboratory studies have detected musical preferences in other animals, and naturalist Bernie Krause (The Great Animal Orchestra, 2012) has presented similar data.

The question of whether or not insects hear their own sounds as music is almost irrelevant. The book asks us to consider insect sounds as music, loosely defined as “the arrangement of tones and rests into patterns that must be repeated endlessly to get the point across” (4). The author is averse to depictions of natural phenomena that relegate beauty to a secondary role, dismiss it as a human projection, or believe it to be an illusion. Insects may be “little machines,” but that does not ipso facto exclude the possibility of an aesthetic sense. Even if we stop at the biological recognition that an individual insect uses its sound-making abilities to lure a mate, as many presumably do, this is the same motivation that Charles Darwin (The Descent of Man, 1871) claimed as the evolutionary basis of human music.

What is most intriguing for this reviewer is Rothenberg’s apparent willingness to embrace the much-maligned label of “anthropomorphizer.” He understands the pitfalls of using music to describe non-human phenomena, but enthusiastically does so nevertheless. “Maybe I’m hunting for meaning where I wish there would be some,” he writes. “But how else do we move forward to the next pattern, in science or in art?” (34). Elsewhere he acknowledges: “Take any sound and we are able to translate it into meaning something else” (64). If we listen closely enough and with the right frame of mind, we too can hear bug music. It all depends on our ears.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Between Past and Present

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In his little book on modern art, Art and the Question of Meaning, Catholic theologian Hans Küng draws parallels between certain theological and aesthetic positions. Ideological historicism is a theology/artistic preference centered on a specific past, as if God or art had found its one and only true form in some bygone era. This position elevates the old as “a model, something to be imitated, not merely evoked,” and sees subsequent developments as evidence of decline. Ideological futurism, on the other hand, seeks a vision of God/art freed from the shackles of the past. It embraces the latest theological/artistic expressions as the very best, as if every new insight or technique is, by virtue of its newness, a positive advancement. The golden age is perpetually in the future: “every revolt [is] itself a great renewal” and “a new beginning [has] to be made again and again at zero.”

Although Küng focuses on the intersection of theology and visual arts (specifically painting), his comments apply equally to music. There are longstanding ideological debates between musical preservationists and innovationists. We might place the collector who touts the eternal supremacy of ragtime records on the historicism end, and the indie rock connoisseur who constantly looks for undiscovered bands on the futurism end.

Küng finds flaws in both positions. Ideological historicism—whether in theology, visual arts, music, or anything else—betrays not only “creative weakness,” “intellectual impotence,” and “anemic scholasticism,” but also a paralyzing belief in humanity’s downward spiral. Ideological futurism maintains the false notion that a break from the past always results in something better, no matter how ephemeral it proves to be.

Küng locates the solution to both extremes in a realistic grounding in the present. We are, in his words, “finite, defective beings and yet beings of infinite expectation and yearning.” Expectation here is an awareness of what has come before: the theological/artistic conditions set by ages of evolving thought and creative endeavors. Yearning refers to what is yet to be: new creations that are consciously or unconsciously indebted to the past and present. For the theologian, artist, or musician occupying this humble balance, “the momentary impression will be important for his art, but will not become an ideology, will not become impressionism.”

Küng does not use “impressionism” in the sense of the French movement or other “in-the-moment” artistic methods. Rather, it is a belief in an unhistorical “eternal” present that denies any linkage with past or future. The remedy for such faulty ideological impressionism—as well as for ideological historicism and ideological futurism—is finding comfort in a nowness that thoughtfully balances a recognition of heritage with an openness to new possibilities.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Ancient Echoes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In her book, Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places, music therapist Susan Elizabeth Hale attempts a sonic link between our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors and modern spiritual aesthetics: “Canyons, caves, and rock amphitheaters were sought out and sanctified for the purpose of amplifying prayers. Later, sacred architecture was created to house our song-prayers so that Spirit could hear us and reverberate us into stillness—into a living silence where we could listen more closely to the pulse of life.” An acoustic leap from Paleolithic caves to acoustically vibrant cathedrals might seem a speculative stretch. However, according to University of Paris archaeoacoustician Iegor Reznikoff, pictographs occur in reverberant parts of a cave, and red dots were often used to mark off resonant spots too difficult to paint. This suggests that ritual chant played a role in cave paintings.

Reznikoff’s acoustic discoveries add potential clarity to ongoing debates about the purpose of Paleolithic pictographs. The images—made by hand prints, daubed fur, or sprayed pigment from the mouth or a bone tube—typically portray game animals. This holds true wherever the paintings are found (Europe, Africa, Mexico, Australia, and Southeast Asia), implying a universality of impulse and function. Some see them as inventories of animals killed, or records of animal migrations. Others contend they were used as hunting magic, perhaps to “catch” an animal’s spirit in order to make the hunt easier, or to increase the abundance of animals encountered. David Lewis-Williams, founder and past director of the Rock Art Research Institute, imagines shamans retreating into the darkness of the caves, entering a trance state, and painting their visions.

Each of these theories addresses the uniqueness of art-adorned caves, which have no signs of ongoing habitation, and are often too remote to access for everyday usage. They were special places set aside for a special purpose. Their acoustic richness best complies with a shamanistic ritual involving painting and chant. Dance might also be added to the mix, as a few images include stylized females or animalesque “sorcerers” engaged in transformational dance. Reznikoff explains in a 2012 paper, “On the Sound Related to Painted Caves and Rocks”: “When the cave has been vocally explored and the best resonant places discovered, then, in such resonant locations, provided there is a panel or panels that are suitable for painting or that can be prepared for painting by scraping, it would be natural, indeed, to paint pictures of animals. A ritual dedicated to the animal is best performed in such a place, since a ritual is always done with chant, sounds, and possibly dances, if the space is large enough. This is why the paintings are mostly located in resonant places.”

These findings support a twofold ethnomusicological observation: all known cultures have vocal music, and all cultures associate singing and chanting with the supernatural. Human beings not only possess reasoning capacity (Homo Sapiens), but also an instinct for music (Homo Musicus) and a yearning for transcendence (Homo Religiosus). Since the dawn of humanity, people have sought contact with energies greater than themselves through music-infused rituals. More often than not, these rituals have taken place in especially resonant settings, where voices are amplified and echo back—a mysterious reverberation analogous to the voice of the cosmos.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Electronic Music and the Separation from Nature

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the 1960s, German-American composer Gershon Kingsley shifted his energies to electronic music. He was among the first to experiment with the Moog synthesizer (invented by Bob Moog in 1963), recording two albums with fellow electro-musician Jean-Jacques Perrey (The In Sound from Way Out! 1966 and Kaleidoscopic Variations, 1967) and a solo album, Music to Moog By (1969), featuring the synthpop classic “Popcorn.” Kingsley was drawn to electronic music for two reasons: it promised seemingly infinite sound options, and it gave composers complete creative control. He told Harry Reasoner in a 1970 CBS interview: “Instead of going through the process of first conceiving the idea, then orchestrating it, then having it played on an instrument, now a musical work can be created entirely in the studio environment….[A] composer can now function the same way as a painter or a sculptor.”

Electronic music in those early days was gruelingly hands-on. The Moog comprised a keyboard and a set of speakers connected to a refrigerator-size consul cluttered with dials, knobs, meters, and patch cords. A pressed key sent an electronic signal to the console, which “synthesized” a particular sound. The instrument was monophonic—only one note could be played at a time—meaning that chords, counterpoint, and harmony were achieved through overlaying multiple tracks. It was a tedious, highly skilled, and labor-intensive undertaking.

As technologies advanced, electronic music became further and further removed from the manual interaction of player and instrument. Music was now programmable, automated, and easily rearranged. The performance was unhindered by the limits of human breath, endurance, or dexterity. The sonic palette was endless and undefined, and tonal possibilities—note bending, durations, microtones, pitch range—far exceeded the capacity of organic instruments (those classified in the original Hornbostel–Sachs system as idiophones, membranophones, chordophones, and aerophones). These properties combined to disassociate electronic music from the natural world.

The aesthetic appeal of music divorced from a naturalistic backdrop has parallel in the “imaginative geography” of cities, where clear borders separate ordered human civilization from the untamed wild. Cities exert human dominion: the permission of certain forms of nature to exist in certain places within a human-centered environment. As Colin Jerolmack, author of the paper “How Pigeons Became Rats: The Cultural-Spatial Logic of Problem Animals,” says: “We cut out little squares in the concrete, and that’s where the trees belong. We don’t like it when grass and weeds begin to grow through cracks in the sidewalks, because that’s nature breaking out of those boundaries that we want to keep it in.”

Implicitly or explicitly, a principle of “perfecting” motivates bifurcated cityscapes and nature-eschewing electronic sounds. In the conventional scheme of human progress, there is a movement away from uncontrolled habitats to manicured environs. At first, sounds emanating from animals and the atmosphere were a major source of musical inspiration. Human beings mimicked the noises of insects, the pattering of rain, the calls of birds, and other non-human sounds. Over time, human music developed its own logic, techniques, conventions, and instruments, and became a self-imitative art form. The resulting styles and sonorities increase our distance from music’s evolutionary origins.

An early critic of this separation was French Benedictine monk Antoine Augustin Calmet. In a 1723 treatise, Dissertations sur la poésie et la musique des Anciens en général et des Hébreux en particulier, he called out the “false notion that the world develops toward greater and greater perfection and that our century is much more enlightened and cultured than previous centuries.” As if predicting developments that would lead to electronic music, Camet wrote: “Many believe that the simplicity of ancient music was an imperfection. I think, on the contrary, that it contributed to its perfection. The more one approaches nature, the more one approaches the beautiful and the perfect.”

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.