Monday, February 18, 2008

The Subjectivity Of Noise & Drone Music

I went to a panel at the CMJ Marathon a year or two ago whose topic was noise music. I was really excited about it because they were supposed to talk about whether or not you could put a stamp of quality on noise and if there were standards of good and bad noise. Sadly, it turned into one guy babbling on about Merzbow for an hour with little talk about the aesthetics and (non)subjectivity of noise. After I left that panel, I realized this was something that needed serious contemplating and clearly those were not the guys to do it.

One of the philosophy classes I took at college was Aesthetics. Sadly, the professor was not in the right state of mind to be teaching and no one in the class ended up learning very much. I took the class wanting to debate if beauty in art was completely subjective or if there were some objective standards that made it "good." Is "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" the only thing that really matters? Logically, I want to say, "Yes! Everyone has opinions and there is no right and wrong." But my heart didn't really agree with that. There must be something quantifiable in art or music that makes it good or bad.

Generally speaking, I really enjoy drone and noise, everything from ear-piercing to sleep-inducing. And I recently went to a show of just such music at the Middle East, curated by Howard Stelzer. There was a lot of fantastic music being played but there was one band that made me realize there is definitely noise that I don't like. This band came on, and I thought to myself that they might be ok. As they continued their set, however, my interest waned and I found myself really hating them. So clearly this means noise can't just be noise and still be good. There needs to be something more involved.

I didn't like them for a few reasons, but the primary one is that everything was just too static (as in unchanging/opposite of dynamic). It was a relentless wall of electronic crunching buzz and a singer whose echoing voice just ended up blending in with the electronics. But I'm sure that all of these characteristics which make me hate them were deliberate and planned. But there are many who would disagree with me. I bet their fans like them for the exact reason I don't.

So does it just come down to it being a matter of opinion. Do you like your noise shaken or stirred? But opinion can only go so far. Like I said, there must be something more. I think a large part of it is intention and context. Are you doing things deliberately with the intention of creating music? A good example would be if your two year old is banging on some pots and pans. He could just be making an awful racket. But maybe you enjoy the clang of metal on metal and think your son's drumming would make a great random beat for the new song you're working on. This is a completely valid way of making music. The end result may not be enjoyable, but it's still valid. And this is why just because I didn't like them doesn't mean they're objectively bad.

Drone music differs slightly, I think, in it's standards. In the liner notes of Brian Eno's Neroli, he says "I wanted to make a kind of music that existed on the cusp between melody and texture, and whose musical logic was elusive enough to reward attention, but not so strict as to demand it." He hits the nail right on the head. I don't know anyone who wants to listen to a single note played for an hour straight with zero variation. Don't get me wrong, I love even the minimalist of minimal drones. But there needs to be something more, something to "reward attention." I congratulate and thank Eno for wording it so perfectly.

That being said, I hope to make plenty of posts about awesome things like music, movies, video games, and bunnies.

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