Noise and meaning

In my mind sound mass music and noise music are similar. I'm not sure if that simply goes without saying or if scholars have already teased them apart in some way, but in both cases there is a kind of semiotic disruption; what we thought we knew about musical meaning (I mean we in the most general sense) is distorted to the point that it doesn't make sense as music. I'm not arguing that it isn't music, but Ligeti's Atmosphères doesn't make sense in the same way as a Schubert song. I'm also not arguing that music carries intrinsic meaning, and I accept that musical meaning is, or could be, the result of cultural conditioning. So, maybe one day someone will hear the Ligeti the way we here the Schubert. I think that will be the case, anyway.


I like music with some noise. I think I like it because the meaning is ambiguous; I have greater freedom to interpret it. I also like composing with noise partly because it removes the burden of dealing with universally understood meaning. A film score composer, for example, must be able to convey fairly specific senses or moods with music. I don't have to worry about it in a more abstract setting (i.e. the concert hall) because the listener has more freedom to interpret. I don't think that means noise music, or noise-in-music, is a cop out for the composer. Anyway, it makes sense for me given my formative musical experiences with rock music, with its distorted guitars, scream-singing, and drums. It's a legitimate musical impulse, and can be treated with skill in the same way Schubert, for example, treated melodies and harmonies.


I tend to think of sound mass music in two big styles: Penderecki's static blocks of microtonal clusters and Ligeti's (and Xenakis's) hyper-active surface counterpoint. I recognize there are more than two ways to skin a triad, but when I compose I think in terms of these two polarities. It occurred to me today, however, that I am beginning to develop my own approach. Basically, I layer semiotic music so densely that it can't be heard as semiotic. When I say semiotic I mean music that conveys some universally understood characteristic. (Is that vague enough?) For example if a person hears "I Wonder as I Wander" he or she will have some perceptual response based on previous experiences. Even if the person doesn't know the song, or lives in a non-Western musical culture, it will at least make sense as a melody. If a person hears Schubert's Der Wanderer, there will be a similar response.


In my piece The Wanderer for wind ensemble, I used both of these melodies to create a sound mass near the end of the piece. I layered "I Wonder as I Wander" five or six times in close imitation and transpositions. On top of that (and a lot of other stuff) I added motives from the Schubert. The result was music so dense that it prevented the perception of melodic and harmonic sense. This may not be noise in the strictly acoustic domain, but it is very much noise in the semiotic domain. (For me, it's really a combination of the two.) I think it's important for me to embed more comprehensible music in my noise music (or sound masses), even if they won't be heard as such, because that's what the modern world seems like to me. The metaphorical noise that we deal with on a daily basis (i.e. stress or anxiety) is not abstract or meaningless. Every fragment, every insignificant component part of the stress of modernity is a perfectly comprehensible thing. It is the sheer density of these component parts that makes it incomprehensible.


This is the backdrop against which I need to think about this dissertation. No one will describe this piece with the word "clarity." I've really been struggling as I write the piece and it becomes more and more real because I've been grasping, unsuccessfully, at clarity in the traditional semiotic sense (i.e. "Will this be perceived/easily understood as music?"). However, I don't want to let that struggle for clarity undermine the noise element.

©2017 Joshua Harris