Tag Archives: Physics

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.

Object and Motion

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The physical universe can be thought of either in terms of objects (substance) or motion (process). When substance is the focus, the universe appears as bundles of photons. When process is emphasized, the universe appears as waves. From the point of view of physics, both perspectives are true. Objects and motion are both made of light: photons are packets of light; waves are undulations of light. It is beyond my purpose (and my ability) to elucidate the finer points of this scientific principle. I wish instead to draw a rough analogy between substance and process as understood in physics, and the general way in which they are used in musical criticism.

Object in music is the final product: the sound recording, the lyric sheet, the notated score (composition or transcription). Process is the performance: the music making, the listening, the audible manifestation. The former is a starting place for (or record of) the latter; the latter is the content of the former. Unlike physicists, music critics tend to perceive object and process as utterly distinct, ignoring the “light” uniting the two. More often than not, one mode of understanding takes over, or is unduly elevated above the other.

For example, John Brownell notes a trend in jazz studies of applying analytical models to improvisation. He takes specific aim at Thomas Owens, who dissected a large number of Charlie Parker’s improvisations, cataloging sixty-four melodic devices ranked according to frequency of occurrence. For Brownell, this systematic method is antithetical to the spontaneous purpose and process of improvisation. Brownell is similarly critical of Gunter Schuller’s study of Sonny Rollins, which elucidates the saxophonist’s “thematic” improvisational approach. Schuller identified hallmarks of a well-crafted composition in Rollins’s solos—themes, coherence, deliberation, form—and on that basis claimed that his playing was aesthetically superior. From Brownell’s viewpoint, such analytic models have no place in jazz, which is, in essence, a performance practice outside the range of mechanistic tools. He dismisses these attempts as  “notism,” or the “fixation on the object of analysis rather than on the process from which it springs.”

While it is true that aesthetic expectations from one artistic form do not translate appropriately to other forms, the notion that experience and analysis are mutually exclusive is not entirely so. Notation, whether of a written piece or an improvisation notated later, is always and necessarily a shorthand for the real (audible) thing. It is a useful language for understanding music, but it is no substitute for the thing itself. At the same time, a purely experiential appreciation of music, without facility in the written language, is to a certain extent incomplete. It is through listening and analytics that music is grasped in its full dimensions.

It is unfortunate that music is often apprehended from an either/or vantage point. Either it is received in the moment of perception, or it is shoved under the microscope. Exclusivity arises in the extremes of experientialism and notism. What is needed is a balanced view, which values both the product and the performance. They are, after all, aspects of the same thing. Returning to the physics analogy, performance (process) is a manipulation of sound, while score (object) is a map of sound.

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