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.

Counterpoint and The Void

"...[A] void exists between musical acoustics and music properly speaking, that it is necessary to fill this void with a science describing sounds, joined to an art of hearing them, and that this hybrid discipline clearly grounds our musical efforts." 
-Pierre Schaeffer

Phenomenology seeks to be this hybrid discipline to fill the void between objectivity (musical acoustics, for example) and subjectivity (music properly speaking). A good musical example of this notion is the difference between frequency and pitch. Frequency is the number of sound waves in a given time; pitch is the way we perceive the frequency. 440 hertz is a frequency; A is the the pitch. Schaeffer's void is the almost ungraspable space between the objective known and the perceived.

It's the space-between that reminds me of counterpoint. Maybe counterpoint is a reflection of the Void, or negative space more generally, and it's the ungraspability of counterpoint that makes it so interesting. Some would argue that it's completely graspable. Indeed, it can be described in great detail. Schenkarian graphs are one example of this description. Species counterpoint captures the essence of a style in order to teach students to emulate that style. But, those examples are akin to the "musical acoustics" of Schaeffer's quotation above. What is less clear is the listener's perception of counterpoint. It's nebulous.


The phenomenology of provocation

Recently I read the following on Shepard Fairey's website:

The OBEY sticker campaign can be explained as an experiment in Phenomenology. Heidegger describes Phenomenology as “the process of letting things manifest themselves.” Phenomenology attempts to enable people to see clearly something that is right before their eyes but obscured; things that are so taken for granted that they are muted by abstract observation.
The FIRST AIM OF PHENOMENOLOGY is to reawaken a sense of wonder about one’s environment. The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings. Because people are not used to seeing advertisements or propaganda for which the product or motive is not obvious, frequent and novel encounters with the sticker provoke thought and possible frustration, nevertheless revitalizing the viewer’s perception and attention to detail. The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.

The first thing that struck me was the Heidegger reference. Because Heidegger said a lot about phenomenology (you can read a tiny bit about it here), and to reduce it down to "the process of letting things manifest themselves" seems incomplete at best and maybe downright misleading. So, I initially let my elitism get the better of me (I just took a graduate seminar in phenomenology after all), but then I remembered that I kind of like Fairey's work. So what if Fairey appropriated Heidegger for his own purposes? That's  what he does after all.

It just so happened that I read and thought all this on September 5th, which happens to be John Cage's birthday. And though Cage wasn't known for appropriating other artists, he was quite the provocateur, "reawaken[ing] a sense of wonder about one’s [sonic] environment" through works like 4'33". So I started thinking about phenomenology as a basis for provocation in art.

Personally, I've always considered phenomenology as something like the philosophy of perception, not concerned with anything specific like reawakening of a sense of wonder. It is something that seeks to explain how we perceive time and space, and by extension music and art. Frankly, I've often considered how I might wield my understanding of phenomenology to manage the listener's experience with my music, but Fairey seems to be using it to confuse the viewer (if he is actually engaging with phenomenology as he claims. How about we just bracket that question...), seeking to establish an unfamiliar situation that forces the viewer to confront Fairey's art and deal with it, not having the option of ignoring it.

It's all fine and good for an artist to provoke, but Fairey's manifesto and its invocation of phenomenology still didn't sit well with me, and I wasn't sure why until I decided to "let things manifest themselves." Let's say we're looking at a house with its visible front and hidden back, etc. (a common example in phenomenology). We can move around it in space, but we can never see more than one or two sides at a time. As we move around it we compile these isolated, moment by moment, perspective-based experiences into an idea of what the entire house is. We're letting the house manifest itself. I think that when Fairey puts a sticker somewhere on the house he is inserting himself into that manifestation. (Kind of like inception?) Sure, if we see an OBEY sticker on a sign we pass by every morning we might consider (or direct our intentionality at) the sign in a new way, but it's because there's a sticker there this morning. We see the sticker, and by extension, we see Fairey.

The main thrust to Cage's aesthetic, on the other hand, was to get himself out of the listener's experience with sound. Of course he composed 4'33", he put it on a concert, he had it performed, and so it will always be associated with him, but it is possible to hear 4'33" without thinking of Cage directly. It's hard to see an OBEY sticker without thinking of Fairey (even if the viewer doesn't know his name).

So maybe there are different kinds of artistic provocation--sometimes it's direct: the artist inserts himself, like Fairey, and sometimes it's indirect: the artist tries to get out of the way, like Cage. I think the phenomenological response of the viewer or listener, however, is ultimately always outside the control of the creative artist. It's kind of like the observer effect seen in quantum mechanics where the very act of observation will change the phenomenon being observed. In looking too directly at phenomenology, Fairey seems to alter the phenomenological process by which things manifest themselves.

©2017 Joshua Harris