"Let's make noise
," I said. "How hard can it be?"
I can now tell you: making noise is really hard. I heard in my mind something very low and loud--that turn your bowels and raise your hairs kind of too low and too loud. Such a sound might thunder but become soft, from the amplified scratch of fingernails on a chalkboard to an anonymous snarl. Noise is sound, yes, but it is also visceral, itchy and uncomfortable; like an enormous weight, it can smash your heart against your back ribcage. The best noise is pure paralysis, often meaningless, but, like a lover's lies, potently capable of suggesting emotion.
A few weeks ago, Roddy
and I attempted to make noise, but instead we made music. We devised a plan to improvise on our usual assortment of instruments--toy percussion, bells, bird calls, and a tin cup--but rudely, without interruption and with no intention of listening to each other. Perhaps our ears have been too schooled, but on playback, we heard our instrumental assault as music replete with phrases, cadences and motifs; it sounded like a very dense and complicated score, all multi-voice counterpoint and non-stop polyrhythms. While we could have subjected our "piece" to some computer processing, thus turning it into noise, we both felt that the element of noise should exist primarily in the original sample with only a slight addition of computer effects. Using extensive processing felt a little dishonest--like just another computer trick.
"Aha!" we thought. Let's consult the computer (SuperCollider and Max/MSP help files) for a few authoritative examples of noise: pink noise, grey noise, white noise, etc. This will inform, inspire and focus our experimental process. On listening to pure noise, however, I heard as much constancy as in the chaos of our instrumental improv. It was too much the same; it was boring
! I said, "I don't care if it is a computer definition. That
is not noise at all."
So we returned to the drawing board. As I ran my fingernail along the edge of coiled zither string, (not being at the piano, I had to settle for a zither, natch) I imagined again a simple musical sound, fairly narrow in range of pitch, dynamic, tempo and articulation and that through subtle computer processing would emerge as a droning, ugly, elusively fluctuating harmonic bed. "Grrr," went my nail along the string. "Grrr," and Roddy captured it, ran it through his incredible SuperCollider patch and, voila! We suddenly became the proud parents of "noise" that, while not yet perfect, pleased us both.
As silly as it may seem, the purpose of 2& practicing "how to make noise" is not dissimilar to a pianist practicing scales and arpeggios or to a composer solving a four-part chorale harmonization. We need this technique in our compositional and performance toolkits so that when one of us hears an appropriate moment for noise, we don't have to waste time going through the trials and errors of making it, either in private rehearsal or in a live performance. Luckily, some of our miserable attempts in the past few weeks may still serve us well. The crazy instrumental barrage might become our "outro" music, for that post-performance time when we're putting away instruments, talking with inquisitive audience members and looping up cables. You'll just have to come hear for yourself!