Noise versus music – Becky Thumpston answers the age-old question of what is music and what is simply noise
As I write, I am developing a blinding headache. I blame this on my choice of listening matter: Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. The question which inevitably arises in relation to this controversial album – is this music or noise? – is answered fairly definitively for me when I am forced to turn off my speakers and end the cacophony of sound that invades my inner being. I sit now in my blissfully silent bedroom, thankful for the end of a listening experience akin to a team of pneumatic drills.
The boundary between noise and music is the subject of much controversy. ‘What constitutes music?’ is a question to which entire books are devoted. As such, I dare not attempt to answer such a huge question in the space of one article. Rather, I intend to ponder this debate afresh, and using Metal Machine Music as a starting point, begin to explore where this boundary lies.
As a contemporary genre, ‘Noise Music’ typically features distortion, randomly produced electronic signals, manipulated sound recordings, static and hiss and hum. Metal Machine Music is a classic example. It was released in 1975 as a double LP consisting of guitar feedback played at different speeds, with the guitars tuned unusually and played with different reverberation levels. The result is four sides (each lasting 16:01 minutes) of seemingly unorganised sound, with the only structure being generated by arguably arbitrary and ironic timings.
Contemporary criticism of Metal Machine Music was very mixed, but one thing fast became clear: like Marmite, people either loved it or hated it. Music critic Billy Altman described it as ‘a two-disc set consisting of nothing more than ear-wrecking electronic sludge, guaranteed to clear any room of humans in record time’, while Victor Bockris hailed it as ‘the ultimate conceptual punk album’. It was assumed by many that the album was either a joke or an attack on Reed’s record label, RCA Records. These ideas led to rock critic Lester Bangs appraisal of the album:
as classical music it adds nothing to a genre that may well be depleted. As rock ‘n’ roll it’s interesting garage electronic rock ‘n’ roll. As a statement it’s great, as a giant FUCK YOU it shows integrity – a sick, twisted, dunced-out, malevolent, perverted, psychopathic integrity, but integrity nevertheless.
I would argue that two things distinguish this album from noise. On persistent listening, some interesting textures begin to emerge and an appreciation of quirky and unusual guitar techniques is hinted at. But, more importantly, it has ‘musical intent’.
Generating a ‘fantasy’ interview for the Seattle based journal The Stranger with the notoriously interview-avoiding Reed, Hannah Levin asks a fictitious Reed to ‘please explain to all the dorks out there that Metal Machine Music was just a cruel joke’. Drawing upon actual interviews with Reed, Levin imagines the following response:
“You’re wrong. I was very serious. John Cale made me more aware of electronic music and he had worked with [avant-garde musician] La Monte Young. He had introduced me to the idea of drone. And I was involved with the idea of feedback and guitars and playing around with tape recorders, so I decided to make a piece of music that didn’t have lyrics and didn’t have a steady beat and concentrated on feedback and guitar not being in any particular key – playing with the speeds. I was serious about it. I was also really, really stoned.”
But what was the musical precedent for Metal Machine Music? Lou Reed initially set up The Velvet Underground with John Cale. Cale was talent-spotted by Aaron Copland, and subsequently awarded a scholarship to study in the USA. Here he became involved in the contemporary avant-garde music scene, working with John Cage and La Monte Young. Cale’s influence on Reed makes a progression of this sort entirely understandable.
Pondering the meanings of the phrase ‘musical intent’, I realise that my ‘silent’ bedroom is not quite so silent after all. I can hear the sound of workers resurfacing a road nearby, the electronic hum of my computer and the kettle whistling in the kitchen, its whine becoming increasingly urgent. A rhythmic click ends its song. Listening to the ‘silence’ I am aware of a multitude of sounds: the soundtrack to everyday life. But are these sounds music or noise? My instinct would be to say that they are noise, but glancing back upon what I have written, I am forced to acknowledge that I have attributed musical qualities to the kettle, and indeed, as I type, a rhythmic pattern emerges.
This is the premise for John Cage’s infamous piece of silence, 4’33”. The performers, us ing any instrument or combination of instruments, sit in silence in a concert hall for the prescribed duration. The ‘music’ becomes the other sounds of the concert hall: coughing, the whirr of central heating, or a car alarm outside. In this way, each performance is unique. An extremely clever piece of music, 4’33” relies on the musical intent of the performers to generate a ‘piece of music’. If I were to stand at the bus stop for around four and a half minutes in silence, I would not have performed 4’33”, because I would not have done so with musical intent.
So where is the boundary between music and noise? Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music may be music to some: it was generated with musical intent, and I would be contradicting myself if I said it was not music. The same goes for similar artistic endeavours including Merzbow (a noise music project formed in Tokyo in 1979 by the musician Msami Akita) and Glenn Branca and his Guitar Orchestra. However, Metal Machine Music remains for me a painful and confusing listening experience.