Tag Archives: The Devil’s Dictionary

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.

No Definition

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) made a name for himself concocting sardonic epigrams. Many of them took the form of witty definitions originally published in the Wasp, a satirical San Francisco magazine, and were later compiled as The Devil’s Dictionary (1911). The name he earned for himself was “Bitter.” Each entry divulges the darkness of his humor. For instance, he defined birth as “The first and direst of all disasters,” and faith as “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” Another term Bierce skewered was art, of which he dryly wrote, “This word has no definition.”

A more conventional definition would describe art as the application of skill and creativity to produce works intended to evoke emotional and/or aesthetic responses. The vagueness in this definition and the total avoidance in Bierce’s highlight the difficulty of identifying what constitutes art, as well as the subjectivity of assessment once something has been labeled art. There is a sense that any strict parameter would be unfair, as it would deny options for imaginative excursions and inspired divergences. This is especially true in the wake of the twentieth century, with its envelope pushes, aesthetic challenges, deconstructions, reconstructions, abstractions and distractions. Most of us approach art intuitively: we know it when we see it (or hear it in the case of music). Because this process is personal, there is no guarantee that one person’s recognition of something as art will be shared by all. Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) is an obvious example.

Subjectiveness even extends to things universally accepted as art. Nowhere is this more clear than in the construction of artistic pantheons. Our concept of what constitutes greatness in art is, by and large, determined for us by historians and aficionados. True, the works tend to have some general appeal and strike the obligatory chords of beauty and emotion. But our relationship with art is such that there can be no universal agreement. Art is not just beyond definition. There is also wisdom in the old cliché that there’s no accounting for taste.

Take these evaluations of widely admired musical works. Celebrated American violinist Ruggiero Ricci remarked, “A violinist can hide in the Brahms Concerto, where bad taste and musical inadequacies won’t show up as easily as they do in Mozart.” Nineteenth-century composer Gioachino Rossini quipped, “One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.” The always-opinionated Igor Stravinsky asked, “Why is it that every time I hear a piece of bad music, it’s by Villa-Lobos?” These biting words call to mind Bierce’s definition of painting: “The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.”

The nature of art is the root cause of this diversity of opinion. Both its indefiniteness and its way of triggering emotions expose it to strong and idiosyncratic responses. Tastes vary in every conceivable direction: person to person, group to group, region to region, culture to culture, period to period, life stage to life stage, etc. Behind every like and dislike are innumerable conscious and unconscious reasons. But rather than a weakness, the fact that art invites such individual feelings is perhaps its greatest strength. The freedom of reaction that art affords helps explain our attraction to it, whatever it is.

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