Tag Archives: Marcel Duchamp

Ignoring Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

As a rule, musical sounds are more clearly distinguished from non-musical sounds (the sounds of “reality”) than visual arts are distinguished from the shapes and colors of the visible world. What makes a photograph, abstract painting, or found object distinct from non-art is more difficult to pinpoint than what makes music sound like music. Satirist Ambrose Bierce addressed this in The Devil’s Dictionary, which defines painting as “The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.” The viewing venue, in other words, plays a central role in the creation and perception of visual arts. (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt,” is an extreme example.) Contrastingly, music is invisible, and thus cannot be confused with visible forms; it has no direct analog in the physical world.

Music is a culturally defined sonic phenomenon that, while impossible to define universally, is immediately recognized when heard in its cultural setting. Historically in the West, this has included a division between “pure” tones and “disordered” or “unwanted” sounds, generally called “noise.” Physics seems to support this bifurcation. While the various sound waves produced by music can be isolated into individual frequencies, with some being more dominant than others, noise contains jumbled frequencies of sound without a dominant frequency. However, ambiguity lurks beneath this observation. Despite Western music’s self-perception of “noiselessness,” such sounds do exist within the organized matrix of frequencies.

Performers, scholars, and aficionados have long understood Western music (esp. concert music) as purified of noise. This assumption surfaces in descriptions of non-European musics. As Dena J. Epstein chronicles in her book, The Folk Banjo: A Documentary History, European travelers and missionaries regularly described the timbres of African vocals and instruments as “crude,” “wild,” “peculiar,” strange,” “weird,” or “noise.” Contemporary ethnomusicologists credit “ethnic” musics for retaining noisy elements, and eschewing—or never developing—the Western affinity for “pure” tones. The African mbira, or thumb piano, is a favorite example. Bottle caps and snail shells are attached to the soundboard and resonator, creating a buzz that muddies the otherwise focused timbre of the plucked idiophone. Efforts to reintroduce “noisiness” into Western music, notably with fuzz and overdrive guitar distortion, is sometimes heard as an aspirational return to naturalistic sound, albeit through electronic means.

All of this overlooks the presence of noise in even the most cleaned-up Western musical forms. The scraping of the bow against a violin string; the clacking of the keys on a clarinet; the sliding on the fingerboard of an acoustic guitar. According to filmmaker and composer Michel Chion, author of Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, the Western listener tends to “scotomize,” or mentally delete, these sounds. Moreover, studio recordings tend to minimize or mute out such idiosyncrasies. “On the other hand,” writes Chion, “recordings of so-called traditional musics are often made by and for people who find something charming about such noises, and such documentations strive to preserve them and even to emphasize them in the recording process.”

Chion’s compositional medium, musique concrète, places all sorts of sounds into a musically organized framework. Compositions consist of multifarious field recordings, which are modified by altering pitch and intensity, extending or cutting off, adding echo effects, playing backwards, and so on. [Listen to Chion’s Requiem]. The finished piece is an artistic unity that challenges standard ideas about music. It can also train us to hear assembled noises as musical, and to listen for noise elements in conventional music.

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

Hard (Melodic) Cases Make Bad (Melodic) Law

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Hard cases make bad law.” This legal maxim cautions against seeking general principles in the extremes. A case that is hard, either because it is unusually complicated or emotionally loaded, occupies disputed territory outside of the uncontroversial center. General law is derived from average situations and common concerns; difficult cases neither fit within its parameters nor contribute to them. Similarly, aesthetic outsiders offer little to normative notions of art. Duchamp’s Fountain and Cage’s 4’33” might be fertile topics for discussion, but without a basic consensus about what constitutes art, they would simply be an out-of-place urinal and a prolonged awkward silence.

Philosophers of art often give undue attention to fringe examples and provocative excursions, as if the existence of rule breakers sends aesthetics into a whirlwind of subjectivity. Who is to say whether Piss Christ is any more or less magnificent than Venus de Milo? The absurdity of this question reiterates the importance of the artistic center and its values. There is, of course, room for divergent approaches and variegated judgments; but art is generally recognized as art. (Incidentally, the outsider pieces cited above—Fountain, Cage’s 4’33” and Piss Christ—have each been accused of not being art.)

The extent to which artistic conceptions are natural is demonstrated by melody. Certain elements are present in almost every Western tonal melody, from Baroque to mariachi to soul to grunge. These include repeating devices (e.g., melodic intervals and rhythms), a range within an octave-and-a-half, conjunct motion with occasional leaps (steps and skips), gravity (ascension, climax and dissension), and harmonic movement resolving to the root. These and other components are conventional to the point of being intuitive: any spontaneously imagined tune will likely contain most or all of them. This does not mean that adventures are forbidden in mainstream melodies. Standard components can be periodically stretched, as long as the overall integrity of the melody remains in tact.

“Hard cases” in the world of melody are those that actively disregard this musical intuition. Twelve-tone serialism is a prime example, with its lack of tonal center, tone rows (non-repetitive arrangement of the notes of the chromatic scale), and regulated obscuration of patterns. Such musical experiments are conscious departures from the norm: they take account of the conventional building blocks, and proceed to knock them over. As with peculiar litigations, they can be thought provoking and foster debate; but their influence on melodic standards and recognition is minimal at best.

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