One day, I flicked on my sink’s garbage disposal to drain some dishwater, and a spoon was in the drain. The spoon rattled and jumped, sounding roughly like that onomatopoeic mess of letters. Panicking, I switched off the drain and yanked the spoon out of the sink. The spoon looked like something else — something oddly interesting.
Countless odd things have been recorded throughout musical history. The Haters, a Californian multimedia art collective, recorded themselves stapling vinyl records for their 1996 album, Mind the Gap. French conceptual artist Matthieu Saladin lit a microphone on fire and recorded its slow, glitchy death for his 2011 EP, Burning Microphone. The rap group Cypress Hill sampled a horse cry on the hook of their certified-gold 1993 hit, Insane in the Brain.
Yes, believe it or not, that screechy, guitar-sounding noise on “Insane in the Brain” is a sample of a horse, taken from Mel and Tim’s 1989 single, Good Guys Only Win in the Movies. I once heard “Insane in the Brain” booming out of a club on High St. while walking home on a snowy February night, and I had to stop myself because I knew for a fact that there was a horse hidden in the song’s beat. The screechy noise melded with boom-bap drums, leaking out from the club and filling the air with shockingly cohesive rhythms.
People in the club were dancing to a horse, and they loved every second of it.
Noise music — and all of the experimental subgenres under its umbrella —is all about asking interesting questions, even if the answers aren’t clear. These musicians make art out of the “garbage” of ideas that surround them. Noises from their environment and culture are manipulated, sampled, and deconstructed, creating endless possibilities for listening.
Musique concrète, a compositional movement involving manipulated analog instruments, reveals the emergence of noise music as a genre that encourages playful experimentation with sound.
While art movements such as Dada and Surrealism reacted to the cruel atrocities of postwar Europe, emerging technology allowed European musicians to rethink traditional composition methods in a more playful manner. A multitrack recorder, for example, allowed sounds to be chopped up or slowed down to the composer’s liking.
One of the earliest avant-garde musique concrète facilities, the French Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM), pioneered the use of tape recorders as instruments. Pierre Henry, a notable GRM member, sampled a door and a voice sighing for his 1963 composition, Variations for a Door and a Sigh. Henry assembled Variations long before the earliest digital editing software; rudimentary digital samplers such as the Fairlight CMI wouldn’t become commercially available for another twenty years.
An image that comes to mind is that of an inquisitive, sleep-deprived Henry, hunched with a razor blade, splicing door creeks with breaths, and stretching sine waves in fascinated awe. What you hear on “Variations” isn’t so much a door and a voice, but an enveloping sweep, or a drifting whoosh of the door, or a gust of wind, shifting feverishly between the left and right stereo channels.
Henry and the rest of the GRM’s musique concrète superstars have been archived through the Recollection GRM Bandcamp series, allowing future musical evil scientists to learn from the techniques of the past.
Curiosity for sound has existed throughout the ages, and today’s experimentation continues a decades-old search for the next weird thing. Noise has evolved beyond musiqué concrete’s exploration of natural sound, but subgenres such as plunderphonics have reinvigorated noise, sampling contemporary culture with a view of sound as an artistic object.
On his 1993 album Plexure, Canadian composer John Oswald attempted to compact a decade’s worth of music into 20 minutes. Plexure, meaning “the act or process of weaving together,” lives up to its title. The album feels like a jolt of intricate energy; samples from Nirvana, Weird Al Yankovic, U2, Madonna and Prince fly by at a mile per millisecond.
Some odd questions come to mind when processing Plexure: What songs do you recognize once they’ve flashed before you? Does Oswald actually like Nirvana, Weird Al and Prince, or was he just randomly twisting the dial on his car radio to create a survey of the popular music landscape?
Plexure was an exercise in a genre that Oswald called “plunderphonics,” a term coined in his essay, “Plunderphonics, or Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative.” He likens stealing or “plundering” audio to blowing on a piece of grass:
“The composer who plucks a blade of grass and with cupped hands to pursed lips creates a vibrating soniferous membrane and resonator, although susceptible to comments on the order of ‘it's been done before,’ is in the potential position of bypassing previous technological achievement and communing directly with nature.”
Plucking a song from a media swamp is no different than communicating with nature; Oswald isn’t exactly advocating for musicians to rip and steal recordings willy-nilly, though. Rather, as heard on Plexure, Oswald encourages musicians to listen closely, hear songs for their timbre, and contort and manipulate these songs to extract their essence. Modern noise subgenres such as plunderphonics twist and mangle media, creating sounds that exist beyond our cultural understandings of language.
Today, in the spirit of both Pierre Henry and John Oswald, any musical wizards can pick and choose whichever noise intrigues them. Vaporwave fans can trace their roots to Negativland’s hilarious 1997 album, Dispepsi, which painted a plastic picture of corporate America long before the aesthetic uprising of the 2010s. Punk rockers will thrash to the bone-rattling 2007 John Wiese album Soft Punk, in which Wiese deconstructs live performances from the Los Angeles grindcore band, Sissy Spacek. Radio nihilists who despise our current algorithm-generated vibe generation will adore Carl Stone’s 2020 album Stolen Car, in which the composer uses a computer program called Max MSP to randomly sample pop songs like a detached brain trying (and failing) to process the mush in their Spotify feed.
There’s a whole world of incredible ideas that noise music reveals, and it all begins with whichever idea you’re interested in.
Whether it’s a blade of grass, a million songs, a door, a sigh, or a horse, noise musicians explore aspects of sound by destroying and deconstructing the “garbage” around them. That’s not to suggest, however, that experiential music is “too artsy” and meant to shun outsiders — quite the opposite, even.
Whenever I show others noise music, I’m genuinely eager to hear their reaction: whether or not they enjoy what they are hearing. That excitement of sharing something with someone who has never heard of your favorite band, who, despite the fear of the unknown, offers a willing ear — THAT, to me, is the thrill of sharing noise music.
After I pulled the spoon out of my sink, I saw that it made an awkward 90-degree bend at the handle. I threw it away. However, I still wonder what other nifty sculpture this piece of garbage could’ve become had I played with its new shape in a different context.