Like most music fans, I didn’t go to many shows in 2020. After a few short months of life going on as normal, the world closed down for who knew how long, and with the closure of work and school came the end of live music in public spaces. Just as with every aspect of life in 2020, the world of musical performance was pushed online.
Most musicians struggled to adapt to the technological constraints of online musical performance, and some whole genres fell to the wayside— the impossibility of large ensembles meant that most performance styles were hideously impractical, if not impossible. Orchestras, choirs, and bands haphazardly cobbled together stripped-back reimaginations of their work, compatible with the stifling environment of high-latency, low-quality Zoom conference calls. But meanwhile, there was another style of musical performance that better managed the move to cyberspace, due in part to its curious relationship with digital technology itself. That genre is noise music.
First of all, what is noise music?
To those who have not heard the term before, the idea of ‘noise music’ seems self-contradictory: ‘noise’ is sound that is in some way unwanted, an inconvenience created as the consequence of another action rather than a sound created and desired for itself. Music, on the other hand, is the opposite: sound which’s creation is the action itself. A piano sonata is music; a jackhammer breaking up concrete is noise. The purpose of the piano is to create music, the noise of the jackhammer is only a sound produced incidentally in the fulfilment of another purpose: the creation of a new road, for instance.
‘Noise music,’ therefore, is any sort of musical performance that distorts or subverts this relationship. Noise music takes the sounds typically associated with incidental sound-making and examines them on their own terms. The clatter of a jackhammer, the buzz of a malfunctioning machine, the feedback of a guitar amplifier: these are the noisemaker’s instruments.
As with many of the most fringe-bound artistic mediums of the modern era, noise music first began to emerge in post-war Japan. This early noise music was responding to the inherent contradictions of Japan’s post-war miracle; the social alienation created by the country’s hyper-focus on economic and technological progress. Like so many of the artistic movements that began in Japan, the genre quickly expanded into the usual list of first-world liberal democracies known for their artistic tolerance of generally weird shit: the US, UK, (West) Germany, France, etc. Today, noise music is just about the most global music form you can imagine. While it hasn’t become a dominant or even popular genre anywhere, just about every country where you can get your hands on a computer and some broken electrical equipment is probably home to at least one individual making something they call ‘noise music’ in their garage or a public park.
One thing that makes noise music unique among musical genres – and for this reason uniquely good at attracting a genuinely international community of listeners – is that it isn’t beholden to the frameworks and limitations of a particular cultural lineage or musical tradition in the same way other genres are. Every other modern style of music is linked to a heritage of music before it that the listener needs to be familiar with if they want to understand it. Intuitively hearing a rock guitar progression as it is ‘supposed to be heard’ requires a familiarity as a listener with the use of functional harmony, a framework which rock inherits from the Western classical tradition. Jazz, on the other hand, finds its lineage in West African traditional music, which brings with it a different, more modal, conceptualisation of harmony. Every modern style of music inherits the frameworks, structures, and stylings of the musical tradition that precedes it. Every style, that is, except for noise.
Since the idea of noise is built on the rejection of tradition, it is equally alien to all preceding musical cultures. It has no system of intonation, no harmonic system of organisation, and no structure binding it to one culture over another. It is to all listeners foreign, unfamiliar, and confrontational.
“If you want to talk about something that's universal, it might be that this music is probably as close to being universally disliked as anything by most people.” – David Novak, ethnomusicologist and author of Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation
As well as having a curious relationship with other musical cultures and styles, noise has a strange relationship to technology. Noise is a modern phenomenon in no small part because it requires amplification to be performed. Many noise performers today use laptops as part of their music, while other more orthodox noisemakers rely instead on more primitive consumer electronics— contact microphones, simple circuits, ordinary machines from everyday life bent and broken to produce the most hideous sounds that can be drawn out of them. For these reasons, noise musicians and their fans skew towards being very media and technology aware, and noise fans will often congregate in and around digital spaces.
This, of course, lies seemingly at odds with the fact that quite a lot of noise music is created through the destruction of technology. The most innovative noise musicians are not simply using electronics in the way they are supposed to be used. In fact, it is somewhat of a badge of honour in noise circles to have been able to manipulate a seemingly ordinary consumer device into something capable of terrifying auditory results, and even more so when those results turn out to be physically dangerous to the performer.
As you may have guessed, performing noise music is rarely a profitable endeavour. Audiences at physical shows tend to be small and rely on word of mouth, and noise artists tend to avoid mainstream circulation of their recorded music simply by virtue of its style. However, this can lead to a dynamic of greater authenticity than in other styles of music. Since there is ‘no money in it’, as it were, the only reason anybody ever enters the noise scene is for a love of noise music. Furthermore, since noise is a genre without a ‘music industry’ in the conventional sense, most of the transmission of noise music tends to be from fan to fan, often over the internet.
“This community based on favours and friendship rather than monetary value/business/lies is the most valuable creation to ever come out of the genre.” – Dawid Kowalski, Polish noise musician (a.k.a Purgist)
For all these reasons, I think noise is the only genre that is truly suited to the performance setting of 2020 and the future— the online show. It needs no grandiose ensembles, it is already transmitted online, and it does not rely on physical ticket sales to sustain itself. On top of this, it sports a fanbase that values community over commerce, that transcends cultural boundaries, and that lives by and through the internet. In this new world in which ever-more of our interactions are mediated through alienating communications technology, noise is just about the only sort of music that makes any sense.