Last Friday I was invited to participate in an on-air conversation on WNYC with John Schaefer and Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky “That Subliminal Kid”). In 40 minutes we attempted to define the differences between noise and music. We began by pondering whether or not these two realms can even be separated nowadays. It was a fascinating talk and had there not been other radio guests waiting in the wings, we might have kept talking for hours.
The three of us pretty much came to a consensus that while there really are no longer any hard and fast sonic boundaries separating noise from music, distinguishing one from the other is ultimately based on the context of the sonic content and, perhaps more importantly, on how the people listening perceive it. In other words, as I jokingly quipped at one point, it’s all in the ear of the behearer.
John Cage’s final attempt to define music simply as “sounds heard” offers a good starting point for a viable and universally acceptable definition for the 21st century in that it is predicated on the listener rather than what is being heard. But perhaps Cage does not go far enough in taking into account the subjectivity that inevitably clouds all perception of what we hear. If we can somehow “relate” to a sonic signal, we can listen to it as music. Further, if we feel we can understand that sonic signal and can associate specific meanings with it, it becomes language. But it is noise if we are trying to tune it out or feel somehow that that sonic signal is an intrusion. (Perhaps it is getting in the way of our ability to listen to something we’ve already accepted as music or language.)
One of the more fascinating syntactical oxymorons is the term “noise music”. We’ve actually previously explored the ramifications of this term on these pages with Paul Hegarty, who penned the book Noise / Music. But it’s worth repeating that I think the term is ultimately impossible to define, e.g. a fan of the Japanese composer/performer Merzbow, who specializes in creating a relentless excruciating din, is perhaps the world’s leading exponent of noise. But to his longtime fans, for whom his sonic assaults can’t possibly have shock value anymore, what he does is clearly music. Therefore, ironically, what he is doing is ultimately not noise, since we just defined noise as something people don’t want to hear. An online respondent to the WNYC program, in fact, stated that there is music she hears and loves during the day, but when that same music wakes her up in the middle of the night, it is noise.
The night before I chatted with John and Paul, I attended the Center for Contemporary Opera’s production of Neither. It was hard to believe that this hour-long 1977 opera with music by Morton Feldman and libretto by Samuel Beckett had never previously been presented staged in the United States. I’ve had the Wergo CD for years, and I’ve always loved the music, though I never quite “got it” as an opera. There’s admittedly little that can be got. It’s vintage Feldman, consisting of quiet repetitions of directionless angular melodies accompanied by atonal harmonies that are equally in a sonic limbo. And Beckett’s text consists of only a handful of characteristically erudite phrases.
But even though the staging compounds Neither‘s elusiveness, it actually completes it. From behind a screen, Kiera Duffy sang Feldman’s unforgiving melody—an almost impossible undertaking that she proved was possible—while words flashed across a screen and a silent actor, Roman Maria Mueller, appeared poised to move in a variety of directions but mostly never did. It turned out to be an extremely compelling theatrical experience, believe it or not. (And more often than not I wasn’t even bothered by the piano plus sampled keyboard realization of the score.)
However, others might question whether such a piece actually communicates anything—I was mesmerized by it although I don’t think I understood it. Therefore a piece that combines music and language in such a way ultimately contradicts the definition I just set up a few paragraphs earlier for language as distinct from music and noise. But few would probably think that Neither is noise—although surprisingly someone walked out about two-thirds of the way through, which seemed a particularly odd point to decide to spend one’s time differently; human behavior is often inexplicable. Perhaps the most rewarding aspect about any innovative work of art—whether it is music, theatre, dance, or something in the visual arts—is that it will ultimately tear down any definition you try to set up.